GroupProjects

The Group Projects Contest

You can read the relevant information for the sixth of the Piecepack Game Design Competitions below. This information is mostly taken verbatim from email to the piecepack mailing list.

ANNOUNCING THE 6th PIECEPACK GAME DESIGN COMPETITION

JUDGE: ClarkRodeffer

DESIGN THEME: "GROUP PROJECTS" Entries are to be designed in groups of not less than two Co-Authors.

GENEROUSLY SPONSORED BY:

PRIZES

There are several parts to the prize, which is a good thing, because all of the winning Co-Authors will eventually need to decide how to share them!

SPONSORED PRIZES:

The winners also receive custody of the piecepack TrophyCloth, a card-table-sized tablecloth with a color piecepack suit emblem embroidered on each side of the table. The piecepack TrophyCloth passes from the winner(s) of one contest to the winner(s) of the next, with each of the winners of this and previous contests signing and dating the cloth before passing it on following the close of the next competition.

The winners also receive the opportunity to define and judge the next piecepack game design competition and arrange for the prize(s) if they wish. However, agreement to this is not a requirement for entry, and if one or more of the winners do not wish to judge the next competition, he or she can suggest another Judge, or we can improvise.

CONTEST RULES

DEADLINE: 22 May 2004, 12:00 Noon PST.

Entries must be submitted before 22 May 2004, 12:00 Noon PST (5:00 p.m. EST, 8:00 p.m. UTC).

Judging will be blind; the Judge will not find out the Authors' identities until after the winning entry has been selected. (See Where to Submit Entries #9 below.)

REQUIREMENTS

1. Submitted games must be designed by a group of not less than two Co-Authors.

2. Submitted games must have, as an appendix, an itemized list specifying which Authors contributed to which parts of the game design.

3. Each submission MUST be freely redistributable or they cannot be included on www.piecepack.org and therefore will be DISQUALIFIED.

4. All submissions MUST include the following header information as the first few lines of the rules:

<Title>
A game for the piecepack by <Authors' Names>
Version <Number>, <Date>
Copyright (c) 2004, <Authors' Names>
<Number of> Players, <Number of> Minutes
Equipment: <Equipment Needed>

5. Each entry MUST be proofread prior to submission.

6. Games may make use of additional bits (such as money or tokens for example), or of other non-obscure game systems in addition to the piecepack. However, additional components should not overshadow the use of the piecepack in the game. If gameplay requires it, entries may be submitted that require the use of more than one piecepack.

7. While Authors are encouraged to submit their games early, there will be no penalty or stigma for sending in changes or updates to your game rulesets up to the deadline, and entrants are encouraged to submit updates based upon their own continued play testing.

WHERE TO SUBMIT ENTRIES

8. Please note that the contest Mediator will not be judging content, only removing identifiable text and checking that all Authors have complied with these contest rules.

9. Entries should be sent to the contest Mediator [Karol] at: submissions@piecepack.org following these guides:

If the submission meets the contest requirements, the contest Mediator will strip all identifying names/e-mail off of the entry and send the entry to the Judge, then send confirmation of receipt and pass along back to at least the Main Contact. If the submission does not meet requirements at least the Main Contact will be notified.

JUDGING

10. Judging will be subjective and based largely on how enjoyable and interesting the game is. Factors such as the balance of skill (strategy, tactics) and luck (randomness), clarity and completeness of rules, time to play, and replay value are also important considerations. Overall, it will be the completely subjective opinion of the Judge that ultimately decides the winning entry.

11. The winning submission will be announced as soon as a winning entry has been selected.

WRAP UP

12. In tandem with the announcement of the winning submission the Judge will send feed back on all entries to the Mediator who will send a copy of this feedback to each of the Authors.

13. Following the close of the competition, after each group of Authors either gives permission to post their rule set "as submitted" or sends in an updated version of their rule sets (see above), submitted games will be added to the Games Page of the www.piecepack.org site by the Mediator within 24 hours for inclusion in various commercially produced CD-ROM collections and the components thereof.

QUESTIONS

Questions and comments are always welcome. If you're worried that your question will give your game away, please send it to the contest Mediator (see #9) who will forward it on to the Judge. Likewise, if necessary, the Judge may send questions to the ruleset Authors via the contest Mediator.

All entrants are encouraged to join the piecepack Yahoo! group if they have not yet done so. Go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/piecepack and join today.

Good luck and much encouragement to all participants!

FINAL REPORT -- 6th Piecepack Design Contest: Group Projects

Group Projects Judging Report ----------------------------- Whew! I'm finally finished judging the many fine entries. It wasn't easy, let me tell you! The design groups should all be lauded for their efforts, especially in this age of long distance digital communication that is somehow rife with physical isolation. But anyway, I want to share a bit about how the judging was conducted, as well as give feedback on all of the contest entries. If you're not interested in all that, just skip to the bottom for the final tally.

First, I gathered an intrepid group of players (two of my usual gaming groups, all of whom were vaguely familiar with the piecepack, but none of whom were contestants) and each time we got together (usually once or twice per week), I handed out the rulesets for the contest entries we were going to play that session, along with the evaluation questions listed in the file included below. After we played each game (a minimum of two games for every contest entry), each player then graded that game on a scale of 1 to 10 in each of the five categories outlined below. Averages were computed, notes were noted, and this report is the result.

----- Begin Included File ----- After playing each game, grade it on a scale of one (low) to ten (high) in each of these five categories. Here are some sample questions to ask yourself when rating each category. Note that these are not exhaustive, but are just suggestions and starting points.

Rules ----- Are the rules easy to read and understand? Are they complete and coherent? Are any diagrams clear and easy to understand? Are there any places that could use more explanation or diagrams? Could you get an idea of how the game played by simply reading the rules? Would this game be easy to teach to someone else, even without a written copy of the rules? Is the writing grammatically correct and stylistically appropriate? Are there any points of confusion or contradiction? Is the use of graphics, page layout and fonts helpful?

Appendix -------- If a game designer can't follow the rules for a design contest, then how do they expect others to follow the game rules they write? One of the rules for this contest was to include an appendix detailing the contributions of each co-designer. Is the appendix present? Does it adequately show who did what? How balanced does the design process seem? Does this really appear to be a group effort, or does the documentation seem forced?

Mechanics --------- Is it a game at all? Is the game mechanically sound? Is the game comfortable to play, ergonomically speaking? Are there any additional play aids you would have liked to have had included? Does it seem fiddly to play? Are the players given meaningful choices? Is there a lot of down time, or are most players constantly involved? Does the game play equally well over the full range of suggested players? Are the game time estimates (if given) meaningful? Is there at least some strategic depth? Does the play feel excessively random or out-of-control? Is there an appropriate amount of player interaction? Is it possible to force a draw? Is there a king maker problem? Does the game lend itself to analysis paralysis? Is the game certain to finish? Are the mechanics innovative or just a rehashing of something that's been done many times before? Do the mechanics allow for adequate tactical variation if the game were to be played many times?

Theme ----- A theme was not required for this contest, but if one is present, it will be judged and factored in appropriately. If, in your opinion, there was no theme, score this category as N/A. Does the theme make you want to play the game? Is the theme ever inappropriate (for certain groups)? Is the theme appropriate for the perceived target audience? When playing, do you feel immersed in the setting or theme? Are the "in-character" thematic choices for your actions also reasonably good from a tactical standpoint? Does the theme mesh well with the mechanics? Is the theme appropriately represented in the graphics, fonts, layout, play aids, pieces, etc?

Fun --- Most importantly, is the game fun to play? Is it challenging? Would you willingly play it again? Would you suggest it as something you'd like to play when other choices are available? Would you recommend it to others? If you didn't already own or have easy access to a piecepack, would playing this game make you want to buy one? Relative to the other games in this contest that you've played, is this one more or less fun? ----- End Included File -----

So, on with the feedback!

ArmyBrats ---------- by DonKirkby & AlanPrice?

What could be more fun than going to military school and getting to study cool subjects like Weaponry and Desert Survival? I guess it wouldn't be much fun after all. The premise of Army brats is that your parents sent you to military school, which you hate. So now you're trying to get expelled by getting caught collecting useful sets of absentee passes. By useful, the authors mean two or more passes on a single day (so you can play hooky) or two or more passes in the same subject on consecutive days (so you can hold off doing your homework for a while). So ArmyBrats is essentially a light set-collecting game in the same vein as Mah Jongg or Rummy. As such, ArmyBrats seems to fit well with its likely target audience, which seems to be teens or adults who feel not quite satisfied in their current situations, and who would like to burn off some steam by vicarious rebellion.

The rules text is one of the best written among the contest submissions, and there were no questions of interpretation in our group. However, clarity could have been further improved with a few diagrams (perhaps one showing the initial board set-up and another showing a sample move after being caught with useful passes) and a table showing the demerit values for the various sets of passes. Nevertheless, the rules are easy to read and understand, and the game makes good use of almost all of the piecepack elements. The required appendix is adequate, and the design appears to be a true group effort, which is good. Where the game lacks is in the fun department. Some players said they would have liked more interaction and more choices. In the group with whom I played (who are used to counting cards) it seemed fairly easy to keep track of who had what passes, which made the optimum trade choices, and therefore the direction of travel to go to class, fairly obvious. But ArmyBrats is intentionally positioned as a light game, and it would be a wonderful gateway game for introducing the piecepack to people who are used to playing card games like Hearts or Euchre. In fact, with a few renamed classes, Army Brats might best be played using a piecepack that has playing card suits. Overall, I think ArmyBrats meets its own design goals.

Mechanically, as I may have hinted before, ArmyBrats is fairly shallow. It offers players up to three levels of choice on each turn -- whether to go to class and get a free pass or trade; if trading, with whom to trade; and after trading, whether to get caught with a useful set of passes or to risk waiting for a better set on a subsequent turn. But most turns, these choices are fairly obvious, even among casual players. The result was a hidden information game that felt a wee bit too predictable. On the one hand, we really liked the scoring mechanism of using the dice to count around the outside of the school (tile array). It harks back to a common score keeping mechanism found in many modern German games, such as Torres, King Me! and Medici. On the other hand, maybe it's just our group, but we didn't feel like Army Brats was as fun as the theme suggested that it should be.

Speaking of theme, it is a pretty good one. But unfortunately, the theme sometimes clashes with the mechanics. For example, why would a student (pawn) already in a given class (tile) block access to that class by other students? And why wouldn't both students involved in a trade already know what passes (coins) they're getting in return? And why would students be limited to trading only one pass at a time, and only the type of pass for the current class, at that? And how can a student immediately go from a Tuesday Poetry class to Military History on Monday? So basically, the multi-player mechanics make for a fine game, but they don't really fit this theme. Likewise, the theme is fine, but these mechanics don't give it justice.

The Canadian Army variant is a nice touch that revitalizes the mechanics when played with only two-players. Under the default rules, the shortcomings of the multi-player game (predictability and obvious choices) are amplified when ArmyBrats is played by only two. Therefore, the Canadian Army variant (which requires sets of at least four passes instead of the default two) is strongly recommended when playing with only two players. The difference in play is analogous to the difference between Gin and 500 Rummy for two players.

Conclusion: ArmyBrats is a light set collecting game that would be excellent for introducing card players to the piecepack, or for use as a filler. But it's not likely to maintain long-term interest, especially with frequent plays. Score: 20.52

Bid


by JebHavens? & IanSchreiber?

Take Modern Art, strip off the theme, port it to the piecepack, and Bid is pretty much what you get. Well, almost, anyway. The mechanics are really quite simple. Everyone starts with a suit of tiles, two coins and a pawn. The player who won the last auction (or the piecepack owner for the first auction) rolls all four piecepack dice to determine how many points are up for auction and if any special rules will apply. Once during the game, each player may take a Mulligan and force all of the auction dice to be rerolled by spending his or her pawn. After the auction rules have been determined, every player places a secret face-down bid (usually a single tile, but depending upon the auction rules sometimes two tiles are used, and sometimes coins are needed to break ties). The highest bid scores points (and sometimes coins) based upon what was rolled on the four dice. After each auction, the winning tile passes to the second-place bidder, the second-place tile passes to the third-place bidder and so on, with the last-place tile passing to the auction winner. This way, everyone will always have exactly six tiles, although their values may change dramatically over the course of the game. The first player to accumulate 100 points wins.

The Bid rules are fairly well-written, and the game is straightforward enough to play. I would have liked a cleaner summary table for the effects of rolling aces, and possibly a score track upon which the pawns could move. As it is, we used markers to keep track of the scores instead of pencil and paper, but a Cribbage board would have also served in a pinch. The required appendix is somewhat better than average among the contest submissions, and indicates a good mix of effort. Mechanically, once we memorized the aces rules table, the game went rather smoothly, except that some rules left us wondering why they were included. For example, no one ever used the pawn sacrifice option to force a reroll of the auction dice in our games. Except possibly as a final turn last resort to prevent a leading player from passing the 100 points mark, the pawn Mulligan just didn't ever seem worth doing to us. Thus, we thought the pawns could be better used simply to keep track of the scores.

But the biggest problem we experienced was a runaway leader in a three player game. This wasn't especially fun, even for the leader, who had somehow managed to acquire a majority of the five tiles. The reason Bid is much better for four (or possibly more) players than for three players is that the losers' bids tie far too often in a three-player game, meaning they keep the same low-value tiles they had and the winner keeps the advantage. A reasonable but untested fix could be for the tying losers to determine a hierarchy among themselves using coins (just as tying winners already do). This would guarantee a tile passing order and break the runaway leader cycle. Also, if piecepacks with more than the standard four suits are available, there's no reason Bid couldn't be extended to play with more than four people. In fact, like many other auction games, Bid might have a sweet spot when played with five or six players, and additional types of auctions could be devised if any additional dice are added to the mix. More than four dice in a given auction might break the game, but keeping only four dice might make the coin economy too tight. Also, allowing the roller to choose which four dice to roll might be both a fun addition and a way to reinvigorate the Mulligan option. These are all topics for future play testing that I hope the designers will consider.

Conclusion: As submitted, Bid doesn't work well with three players, but it works fine with four (and possibly more) players. The authors would do well to tweak the tie breaking rules so that auction winners don't keep the advantage when the losers all tie, which is really only a problem in the three-player version of the game. They may also want to rethink the pawn Mulligan and add a couple of player aids such as a scoring track and a clean auction reference table. Score: 23.26

Blockade -------- by DavidBoyle?, James Kyle & ChrisYoung?

Anyone who's known me for very long knows I'm a sucker for a good abstract, so after I read the Blockade ruleset, I was really looking forward to playing. Blockade is an abstract traversal game of unequal forces for two players. Our games typically lasted about 40 minutes. One player (the runner) tries to get any one of the four pawns from one end of the board to the other, while the second player (the blocker) tries to immobilize the pawns by surrounding them or trapping them against the board edge using coins from other suits. Coins move like chess kings, only onto empty spaces, but the blocker may move up to four of them (one of each suit) on a turn. Pawns move like chess queens over or onto empty spaces and/or like-suited coins or over other pawns, but the runner may (and must) only move one pawn on each turn.

The rules are clearly written, one of the best text-only rulesets I've seen. Likewise, the appendix is brief but fully-functional. With 24 coins in play, Blockade is a real brain burner for the blocker. In fact, the blocker never won in any of our seven games. Yet, it was relatively easy to see the runner's best moves. There were some times when it felt like the blocker was just about to hem in the last pawn, but somehow the pawn always managed to escape. I'm not sure whether or not the authors had this experience during play testing, but it indicates that there might be some balance issues with the game, which is not uncommon in unequal forces games. One possible fix would be for players to bid for the right to play the runner by declaring how many moves they think it will take to get a pawn to the opposite edge of the board. If that many moves pass without getting a pawn home, the runner loses. Or maybe require the runner to get two runners home to win? Or limit the distance a runner can move to perhaps four spaces?

Conclusion: Blockade is a game that I really want to like, and I did enjoy playing, but it doesn't seem to be adequately balanced. Score: 23.12

CityCouncil ------------ by Phillip Lerche, Michael_Schoessow? & Stephen Schoessow

CityCouncil is easily the most complex entry for this contest. Imagine Puerto Rico Rails or Sim City: The Multi-Player Board Game, and you'll get a pretty good idea of CityCouncil's scope. The rules are fairly long and dense, and it definitely helps to have the necessary materials available to play with while learning the rules. However, with the exception of what exactly to do with the investor and speculator, the rules are fairly easy to keep in mind, once learned. To some players in my group, this wordiness indicated that the rules could have been written much more succinctly, and that more diagrams would have helped in the explanation of the examples. One of the key bits of equipment for CityCouncil is a Player Aid Sheet for each player. This player aid sheet is the only place to find the important victory points table detailing how many points a city zone is worth, as well as bonuses and penalties associated with its placement adjacent to other city zones. Unfortunately, the Player Aid Sheet somehow got detached from the originally submitted ruleset, but a question to the authors got them to send another copy. Whew! I'm glad they did, because despite its complexity, CityCouncil has quite a bit going for it.

Basically, the game progresses in a series of rounds. On each round, each player (beginning with the player who went first in the previous round) bids one coin for priority in his or her course of action for the current round. Once the priority sequence is determined, the highest bidder gets to either choose to lobby for the favor of a certain city council member or choose a place in the turn sequence. Then the second highest bidder does the same, and so on. This is repeated once through again in the same order, but this time if the highest bidder has already selected a city council member to lobby, he or she must select a place in the turn sequence (or vice-versa), and so on down the line until everyone has both a place in the turn sequence and the favor of one of the city council members. Then the players take their turns in the order of the determined turn sequence, each with the favor of one city council member, which grants that player certain perks. Turns consist of paying to zone one area (tile) of the city (large custom play mat), then optionally placing an investor and/or speculator (they gain some immediate victory points, and may also gain further victory points for later city developments) and then optionally laying rail (pennies or other similar markers) for the city's mass-transit system. There are a few restrictions in the placement of zones and rail that usually don't make things too difficult until near the end of the game. This escalates the importance of tactical play as the game progresses, especially in the three player version. This is a good thing!

So, how does CityCouncil rate? As I mentioned, the rules are very dense, and could use some diagrams to illustrate the examples. But other than that they're fairly well written. Likewise, the appendix is slightly better than average among the contest entries. The political city building theme is engaging, but the complexity of the mechanics sometimes gets in the way. In particular, the scoring is very math-intensive with lots of variables to keep track of at once. It reminded one player of when he was learning to play cribbage, where part of the game is actually seeing all of the points you have. Placing this zone here gets this number of basic points, but since it's adjacent to this zone, there's this penalty, but then since it's adjacent to these two other zones, there's this other bonus. And since I built a rail stop that connects to these other four zones, that's another bonus, plus the points I get from laying the rail are doubled because I have the favor of the transit director. Oh! And here your investor matches this tile's suit, so you also get points here... You get the idea. The complexity of the scoring, all by itself, complicates the rest of the game because knowing what to do to maximize your score relative to the other players becomes a brain burner. Perhaps CityCouncil would be better positioned as a computer game?

Other minor niggles? The number of rail segments is limited to 50 for the entire game, and that struck some players as arbitrary rather than a number arrived at through play testing. Particularly in the three player game, the rail is usually exhausted well before the end of the game, which made lobbying the transit director useless thereafter. If 50 rail segments is indeed a play-tested limit, then limiting the number of rail segments that can be laid per round (perhaps seven in a three player game and nine in a four player game) would even things out a bit, and possibly give more importance to going early in the turn order if you're also lobbying the transit director. Due to its complexity, gamers (particularly train gamers) are the intended target audience for CityCouncil. For that reason, a bit more attention to balancing the various winning path strategies could elevate CityCouncil from a good game to a great game. Ergonomically, it also would have been a nice touch to have had an easy mechanism for keeping track of who went first on the last turn, so they have priority in the bidding on the next turn. We passed a pencil. I had fun playing CityCouncil, at least when the mechanics didn't get in the way of the theme. From the feedback I got from the other players, they had similar experiences.

Conclusion: If you're a train gamer waiting patiently for a route-building and investment game for the piecepack, you're in luck; CityCouncil has arrived. If you like German style games with bidding and various role-based privileges, but want something heavier to soak your brain, you're also in luck; CityCouncil has arrived. But if you're a casual or family gamer just looking for a way to spend some social time with others, you're much better off looking elsewhere. Score: 23.61

DelegateDash ------------- by ChrystalOverby? & GlennOverby?

In an election year (in the USA), what could be more appropriate than a game about an election? In DelegateDash, four primary candidates (pawns) scurry around the countryside campaigning for delegate votes (coins), with a simple majority needed to win the Piecepack Party nomination. As a nice touch, rules are provided for robot candidates, so while the game is touted as being playable by two to four, it's also well-suited for solitaire play. The primary season progresses week-by-week in various regions (tiles) based upon the tile values, with nulls and threes all together during "Super Tuesday." Candidates' movement allowance is dictated by die rolls. If there isn't a clear winner by the end of the five-week primary season, the nominee will be chosen at a convention in which the candidates with the lowest number of votes are successively eliminated and the remaining candidates inherit their delegate votes by means of successive dice rolls.

I have to hand it to the designers, one of whom is brand new to game design. The theme is great. Likewise, they did a great job keeping track of individual contributions, and their appendix was one of the best of the bunch. I can't imagine many children wanting to play a game about primary party politics. But unfortunately, if the target audience is game-playing adults, the game play itself left a lot to be desired. Namely, meaningful choices. Even if it's much maligned among contemporary game snobs, the roll-and-move mechanism is tried and true. So, while I didn't want to penalize the authors for plugging in a well-worn mechanism, the fact is that the random dice roll mechanism really doesn't fit this theme. The ability to sacrifice a delegate coin (a good use for null coins) in order to roll and move again does help a bit, but it doesn't go quite far enough. Some sort of action point, economic or political momentum system may have worked better for travel allowances than roll-and-move. Some sort of debate, bidding, diplomacy or even bribery system might have provided a richer convention experience than highest roll+regional delegates to divvy up the spoils of a losing candidate. As it is, the "choices" the robot candidates make are almost always the best ones possible, so while the theme is great, I felt somewhat unnecessary as a player, especially after spending 30 minutes to play a game that ended in a roll-off to decide a 304 to 304 split.

Conclusion: The authors should take this wonderful theme and work on the mechanics to make DelegateDash into as good a game as it deserves to be. With some attention and refinement, DelegateDash could be great. Score: 16.60

ElephantRun ------------ by JimAdams & AmyEnge

ElephantRun is a humorous reworking of traditional chase games such as Foxes and Geese, with a few new territorial elements thrown in. One player controls an elephant (pawn) that travels around a four by six grid of rice paddies (tiles), eating them as it goes. The second player controls six rice farmers (coins), and tries to prevent the elephant from eating rice paddies and stampeding farmers. The elephant can capture by stampeding (jumping over) a farmer, provided the space beyond the farmer is an uneaten rice paddy without a farmer in it. But an elephant cannot re-enter a rice paddy that has already been eaten. Farmers, however, can jump without capture as above or may run freely across ravaged rice paddies to quickly get into position to block the elephant from eating more of their livelihood. The elephant's player wins by scoring ten or more points (any combination of eating tiles and/or stampeding farmers), otherwise the farmers win.

We found ElephantRun to be interesting for the first few plays, but upon further analysis it seemed like a full solution to the game was just around the corner. So the replay value might not be very high for those who want a deep intellectual challenge. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for a game where the target audience appears to be children or parents playing with their children. None of our games took longer than ten minutes to play, which is also good for kids with short attention spans. There's even a built-in method of compensating for stronger or weaker players -- simply change the number of points required for the elephant to win. For these especially child-friendly features, Elephant Run comes recommended, although adults are likely to lose interest.

With the exception of a few minor flubs, the ruleset was fairly well written, albeit not very easy to refer back to when rules questions came up during the first few plays. The ruleset could be improved by dividing the text into subsections, or at least by using shorter paragraphs. The use of graphics was good, overall, but in the release version I would like to see one more graphic clarifying when a farmer may or may not jump or use its special running movement. For example, when the space beyond another farmer is empty, a farmer may not both jump and run to the next available rice paddy. For players of roughly equal skill, ten points did, in fact, seem to be about right for a closely balanced game. The appendix was just adequate, but the flavor text and additional graphics were nice touches.

Conclusion: ElephantRun is a quick, fun little game, but it certainly won't appeal to everyone, and is probably solvable. But those very qualities earn it the consolation prize of Best Children's Game. Score: 21.93

GoldRush --------- by SethJaffee? & JasonSmulevitch?

GoldRush is an economic building, trading and resource management game set in the late 19th century, and might most conveniently be described as Settlers of the Klondike, or perhaps Yukon Goa. Three or four players set off to explore and exploit the uncharted northern wilds in an attempt to find their fortunes. The piecepack tiles are land claims that can be worked to produce food, energy, ore and gold (tracked by poker chips or other convenient tokens), while the piecepack coins are special features of each land claim that can independently produce additional, often different resources. Players start with very meager means, only a bit of food and energy. But little by little, everyone stakes more claims (using gaming stones), and uses their limited resources to both improve their existing claims and to produce more of the resources they need. Simply surviving is fairly straightforward, but getting ahead requires optimizing the land and features for resource production, savvy trading with other players, and building and enhancing structures (kept track of individually using cards) to both enhance your own land exploitation and protect your assets. And getting ahead in victory points requires not wasting time doing things that aren't worthwhile. The goal of the game is to have the most points at the end of the game, which lasts nine rounds. Each of those nine rounds is made up of several phases, in which each player gets to act in turn. If you have played any of the popular phase-driven building games that have come out of Germany in the past few years, GoldRush will be easy to pick up, and finished inside ninety minutes.

There's something to be said for a game author who takes great care to make sure the rules are presented in a clean, easy-to-understand way. Unfortunately, that something cannot be said for GoldRush. The ruleset, as I received it, was a nearly unreadable mess. I thought it very odd that a PDF would come through so jumbled, and that prompted me to ask some questions. I mean, a paragraph would start out fine, then the next line would consist of only one or two words, followed by blank lines before the sentence continued. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was a real chore reading through a ruleset that had been corrupted like this. As it turns out, this wasn't the fault of the designers, who originally submitted their ruleset in the text of an e-mail message. The forensic evidence suggests that the file mangling came about accidentally when the e-mail message containing the original ruleset was copied into a text editor (such as the notorious Notepad that comes with Microsoft Windows), the identifying information removed, and converted to a PDF using a printer driver style distiller. It was a malfunction of a buggy program that almost cost the Gold Rush designers extra points. But my difficulty wading through the Gold Rush ruleset was ultimately my own fault, mostly for not asking questions sooner. There's a lesson to learn here, folks: If you submit your rules as a text file or as part of an e-mail message, please double check any sort of formatted output before it goes to a cranky contest judge or gets posted on a web site. Better yet, format the document, and include a few diagrams and play aids to make the ruleset more inviting for the reader.

OK, now that THAT is out of the way, there are still some shortcomings with the ruleset itself. While the game structure can be described fairly simply (setup followed by nine rounds of production, free trade, claim staking, development and passing the dice taken in turns, and ending with a final scoring phase), this isn't clearly stated in the rules. Fortunately my gaming group was already familiar with numerous games having this structure, so figuring it out wasn't hard. Also, since the game was originally submitted in the text of an e-mail message, there are no diagrams to help guide new players through the play process. Even a simple diagram of the initial setup would have been helpful. Again, the collective gaming experience of my playing group was a saving factor, and we muddled through just fine. This game also cries out for a few play aids to make life easier. A four-up sheet of reference cards listing the order of the phases, the production costs of the different buildings, and a victory points table would have been ideal. Lesson number two: It's polishing touches like these that elevate an already decent game from "I've never played it because I can't get through the rules," to "Ooh! Cool! Let's play THIS."

And honestly, GoldRush really is a decent game. Several mechanics are recognizable from other games, but their re-assembly into GoldRush breaks some new ground that is, on the whole, at least as much as the sum of its parts. One mechanical niggle we had was that a warehouse magnate strategy appears to be the one best way to maximize victory points. To make it work, build farms, windmills and ore mines, and get one warehouse as early as possible to hedge against loss. Hoard food, energy and ore until the last round, then replace as many buildings as you can with warehouses. Why warehouses? Because they are the cheapest and most useful non-production building, and they are worth eight victory points each. This is clearly the surest way to maximize victory points. Consequently the costs for and/or the number of victory points awarded for the various buildings needs to be adjusted to make the game more interesting. Perhaps varying numbers of victory points could be awarded for production buildings as well as non-production buildings? Or maybe limit the availability of non-production buildings? If there were only one warehouse available in the game, other players might be given the option of donating the energy required to prevent spoiled food. The possibilities are great.

The authors may also want make gold more useful within the game, possibly by allowing a one-for-one purchase of any other resource using gold as a means to get past food and energy shortages. Otherwise, purchasing a gold mine after, say, turn seven, is of only marginal value. These two flaws, the unrealistic warehouse magnate strategy and the unrealistic idea that gold mines aren't very valuable if purchased late in the game, detract from the theme quite a bit. We also found that there was relatively little interaction during the free trade phase, which was somewhat disappointing. This was especially true during the early rounds of the game when resources are scarce, no one wants to trade anything.

The mechanical predictability isn't necessarily a bad thing, as many games have standardized paths to victory. But I think they usually take longer to discover. On the other hand, the fact that the optimum victory path is fairly obvious also fits well with the theme. The Klondike is an excellent setting, but there were a few things that everyone had to do before digging for gold, including finding sources of food and warmth. So the thematic and mechanical integration is unusually good for Gold Rush, and the theme receives high marks. As far as the fun factor, GoldRush is slightly better than average, despite its mechanical problems. There's a lot going on in a relatively simple system. Unfortunately, unless some tweaks are made, its predictability may hurt Gold Rush's long term replay value.

Conclusion: The GoldRush rules are in need of revision to get the victory points within a more realistic range if multiple victory paths is the design goal. The ruleset is also in desperate need of editing. The writing needs to be cleaned up and formatted, and a few diagrams and play aids wouldn't hurt. But the game itself has tons of potential to become a solid family game in the contemporary German style. Score: 17.84

K'Dak's Tower of Confusion and Camel Carwash ----------------------------------------- by JimAdams & AmyEnge

K'Dak's Tower is a simple dungeon crawl memory game wherein two friends (pawns) gather gold (collected according to hidden tile values as tiles are landed upon and exposed) that was left as trap bait in a six-level tower (each level is two tiles by two tiles square) that begins crumbling as soon as someone reaches its highest level. Ostensibly, the gold will be pooled to pay for a camel wash, but the competition is strictly for bragging rights. The friends enter on the lowest level of the tower and may move orthogonally in any direction, exposing tiles and collecting points according to their values. (Moving onto a previously exposed tile is worth nothing.) The only other movement restrictions are that to move up a level requires at least two tiles on the current level already be exposed, and to exit the tower requires that someone has reached the top level. Once someone reaches the top, all the tiles flip face-down again, and a die is thrown on every turn to see what level of the tower starts crumbling, with higher levels falling down to fill the void. Whoever escapes with the most gold wins.

K'Dak's Tower is really easy to learn and play, and the graphics and story are quite humorous. A fairly handy scoring track is included with coin-sized spaces. The ruleset is clearly written, if somewhat wordy at times. But long paragraphs make it difficult to refer back to the rules when a question arises. The appendix is adequate, as well. Unfortunately, there's not really very much interesting here, in terms of game play, other than the memory element of trying to get the most points on the way down out of the crumbling tower. Amazingly, the crumbling tower is not dangerous at all, and the players are assured of escaping with at least some gold. This crashed my suspension of disbelief for the game, somewhat. Why hadn't the gold been retrieved earlier?

K'Dak's Tower is clearly positioned as a children's game, and the games we played were all under 20 minutes, which fits that target audience well. However, one play tester commented that the tower crumbling mechanism is somewhat fiddly, and might not hold the attention of children playing. Since the points you get while climbing the tower are completely random, there might be quite a large inequity of points by the time the trap is triggered. As a result, the game turned out not to have many meaningful choices, even with the Talisman variant. One suggestion for improvement is to increase the importance of the memory aspect by increasing (perhaps doubling) the value of gold found on the way out of the tower. Or maybe increasing the value of gold found on higher levels? Another minor niggle is that a fully-enumerated and serpentine scoring track would be more ergonomic for use in play than the contest version.

Conclusion: Our group didn't much care for K'Dak's Tower. As is, the crumbling tower mechanism is fiddly and the game play itself is fairly shallow. But there's room for improvement, and we encourage the authors to give it some more work. Score: 19.69

Magistratvm ----------- by Brad_Johnson? & Phillip Lerche

The first time I read the rules for Magistratvm, I had no idea what was going on. Honestly, I couldn't even finish them in one sitting, but that may also have been because I was tired. But I did know that Magistratvm was a massive game. The second time I read the Magistratvm ruleset, I still didn't have much of an idea of what was going on. But I knew that it was an economics game set in the political background of old Rome, and that it was even bigger than I thought during the first reading. The third time I read the rules, I first gathered all the required bits, found myself a quiet table, and hunkered down to see just what's going on here. What I found was a very complex game that had clearly been through the ringer to balance things. I was ready to teach it to the group. Then during the first group game, I found out that I didn't really know the game at all, so we all kept referring back to the rules. The constant hunt for interpretations made the game drag on for about five hours, which is well beyond the estimated time. However, once we all finally "got it," things went much more smoothly. So there is something here. A huge something. But the learning curve is extremely steep, and conquering it felt like finally coming to the end of a long political campaign. Oddly enough, that form fits the theme perfectly!

I won't go into the details of how Magistratvm is played. You can curl up with this ruleset beside a cozy fire and delve into that yourself. But briefly, the players are patriarchs of influential Roman families vying for political control of the Roman offices (the Magistratvm) and newly acquired provinces. Players win victory points by campaigning for control of the provinces and bribing their way to the top of the political pyramid. Rounds happen in phases, and phases happen in turns, usually beginning with the player who bribed his way into the Prefecture for that round. The various political offices provide different powers, such as gaining more income, increasing, shifting or decreasing provincial influence, kicking lower-ranking magistrates or governors out of office, fixing elections, and so on, and so forth. The player with the most victory points after all of the provincial elections have been decided wins.

Despite my initial troubles with actually reading through the ruleset, I believe that the reward (playing a really good game) was well worth the effort. The rules are rather well written (if dense), and had several examples throughout. We did have several questions, which is probably to be expected in a game of this magnitude and complexity. But an e-mail to the authors quickly helped us sort things out. One complaint about this game is that it's nearly impossible to hold all these rules in mind at once, and during the game, it's very hard to refer back to them without disrupting the mood. That's a pity, because the theme is excellent and well-integrated with the mechanics, which are also very good. I would imagine that this game will only get better with practice and repeated play. A summary sheet was provided as a reminder for what to do and when to do it, and we were thankful to have it. But the summary sheet lacked sufficient detail to carry us through, and was really only referred to when we needed to remember the various powers of the officers. This is one ruleset that could really use more diagrams to show how the examples work. The brief appendix was adequate. After playing, we all felt exhausted, but a good time was had by all, nonetheless.

One thing you should be aware of before trying Magistratvm is that it plays somewhat differently with three players than it does with four. With four, there are significantly fewer rounds of play because the provincial elections are won more quickly and spread out among more players. This tends to make players want to invest more in provincial influence than in the offices, and makes income harder to come by if everyone is trying to get the same provinces. Lower income means fewer high-ranking magistrates. In fact, in one of our four player games, the Dictator and Censor offices remained vacant the entire game. With three players, there are fewer contested provinces in play at once, and therefore more rounds of play. This increases income somewhat, and the offices become more important. I actually prefer the three player version, because with fewer players the rounds move more quickly, and this increases tension.

Conclusion: Magistratvm is a great big game with an excellent theme, lots of flavor and a bit of role-playing thrown in for good measure. Magistratvm reminded me somewhat of Quo Vadis, so if you like that game, or other similar political games, you'll probably like Magistratvm. But it will take dedication and commitment to learn and play. Magistratvm also gets the Best Use of Theme consolation prize. Score: 23.14

ShamanIsland ------------- by RandyCox? & JasonTrotten?

ShamanIsland is an area control game in which warriors (coins) and shamans (pawns) of different tribes compete for control of a land mass that gets magically transformed over the course of the game. A shaman can move over land like a chess queen (unimpeded by friendly pieces), magically sink or move sections of land around (with some restrictions), or in a special two-turn process, exchange places with a distant warrior tribe member via spirit movement. Warriors move over land like a chess rook (again, unimpeded by friendly pieces). Both warriors and shamans may also hitch a ride to travel with another shaman's spirit movement. The game begins with building the island, then placing shamans and warriors. The game then proceeds with a series of turns in which players jockey for position and control of land areas, and then ends when there is one more island than there are players in the game. At the end of the game, the locations of shamans and the (until this point, hidden) warrior values are used to determine control of the islands.

Our group found the rules to be generally well-written, with especially nice-looking diagrams showing many different examples of how sections of land may be moved. There were a couple of land movements that came up during our games that weren't covered in the rules, but it would be nearly impossible to explain and diagram every possible scenario. A quick question to the authors resolved our questions. The key mis-interpretation is that, if a land mass is moving, it has to be in contact with at least half of one face at the beginning, middle and end of its movement. If at any of these three points during the movement, the land is only in contact by a corner, the move is either not allowed or that half-move is not yet complete. It would have been nice also to have had a diagram showing shaman spirit movement and hitching a ride, but these were easy enough to figure out.

This is quite a good game, both mechanically and thematically, but it's more interesting with four players than with three players. The smaller number of islands in the three-player game can dramatically shorten the game and make it feel more random, especially if one player tries to hurry the game along by making one long peninsula during the setup phase and then sinking tiles quickly. More turns and more land and piece movement in the four-player game gives everyone more time to form opinions about the hidden warrior values. This adds a layer of richness to the game. Our three player games clocked in around 15 to 20 minutes, but four players extended that to 30 to 40 minutes. Incredibly (and unfortunately), ShamanIsland was submitted without the required appendix! The judges didn't want to immediately disqualify the game, after all it was pretty good. So after a follow-up e-mail to the authors, this requirement was fulfilled, but we still had to mark points off for not including it in the original submission.

Conclusion: Certainly give ShamanIsland a try when you have a foursome, especially if your gaming group is fond of games in the style of Leo Colovini, such as Clans or the Bridges of Shangri-La. The ShamanIsland mechanics (once fully understood) are elegant, the theme is engaging, and the game is light, yet satisfying. ShamanIsland also works OK as a three-player filler, but isn't quite as interesting. Score: 21.97

Ship It -------- by Michael_Schoessow? & Stephen Schoessow

The Group Projects piecepack game design contest seemed to attract a larger than normal number of big games among its entries, and Ship It falls in that group. Set in the late industrial revolution, Ship It is a pickup and deliver game with route building and blocking aspects. As such, it's related to many railroad games covering the same time period, especially those set in a relatively small, densely populated geographic area. Cities are randomly laid out at the beginning of the game, built from sets of tiles separated by gaps. Freight (non-null coins) are then distributed throughout the region. A set of double six dominos are transportation links that players can purchase, randomly draw from a face-down pool and then build to connect the cities. Piecepack dice are corrupt commerce officials that help their favorite teamsters while blocking shipments by other groups via an area control mechanism. Null coins and pawn saucers (or other suitable tokens) are used to monitor scoring on a simple score track included with the ruleset. The goal of the game is to ship your freight to distribution centers (tiles marked with pawns) in such a manner as to maximize your profits when freight from that center is distributed.

The Ship It rules are generally well written, with only a few minor reservations. For example, there are several game-play examples and rules clarifications written right in the rules text (much like this self-referential example), which increases the paragraph lengths in some places, which in turn makes it difficult to refer back to the rules when a question comes up during play. The scoring track is also somewhat clunky in that it requires two suit-matched pieces in a ones digit plus tens digit system. But the included diagrams are clear and useful for explaining the examples. The use of bold and italics to emphasize certain points was also helpful, even though I sometimes found myself underlining additional passages for my own reference. The brief appendix is adequate, barely, but it is certainly not outstanding.

Mechanically, Ship It is quite interesting. The economics of buying and building transportation links and moving commerce officials and freight is abstracted to an action point system in lieu of a money and income system. For Ship It which is complicated enough as it is, this was a good design decision. Scoring can be tricky with all the potential bonuses. Occasionally, situations arise where there is a chain reaction of distributions and scoring, and these are usually a huge boon for the player who triggered the scoring. We thought the wild swings in points might break the game, but fortunately, since distribution centers are moved to the next higher tile after each shipment, scoring values increase over the course of the game, which builds tension and somewhat mitigates the chance of a runaway leader. These are unusually tight mechanics, and the authors should be commended on their play test efforts. The industrial revolution era teamsters theme has been used many times before, but there's a reason why it's so popular: it's a good theme. Ship It felt a lot like Age of Steam set several decades later, which is a fairly high compliment regarding its fun factor. It certainly didn't feel like a two hour game.

One more thing I should highlight about Ship It is that the three-player and four-player games are a lot different. In the three player game, anyone can move the freight from the extra suit, using it to trigger distribution at inopportune times or to cover high-valued half dominos to make shipping less expensive in certain areas. In the four-player game, the freight coins from each suit are exclusively controlled by only one player, and there is an additional commerce official in play. As a result, the three-player game is usually shorter and more vindictive, while the four-player game is more strategic and competitive. I prefer the four-player game. Seemingly as an afterthought, the authors tried to stretch Ship It! into a two-player game by having each player control two sets of pieces. This version is a bit of a hack, and Ship It should really only be played with three or four players.

Conclusion: For a semi-abstract delivery game, Ship It should appeal to serious rail gamers looking for something a bit lighter with which to pass a couple of hours. Ship It! should also appeal to German style gamers wanting to explore transport games without a huge time or money investment. Score: 25.28

TheFallacyOfRank ------------------- by KeithLacey?, WillSchneeberger? & JoshuaTempkin?

Stratego was one of my favorite games when I was young, but the problem I eventually ran into was that game play became predictable. Soon thereafter, I lost interest. Still, I've often wished that the basic Stratego mechanic could be improved upon. Well, now it has! TheFallacyOfRank is, at heart, Stratego reworked for the piecepack, and souped-up with action tiles that are used to cause special effects. In that respect, it's not too unlike Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation or some of the "block" war games such as Hammer of the Scots. A whopping three piecepacks are required to play, but they were readily available and this fact did not affect the judging.

Two to four players command armies (18 coins and two pawns, all of one suit) trying to destroy one another on a big field of tiles. As in Stratego, soldiers (coins) are deployed with their values hidden, but here the locations of the commanders (pawns) are always known to all players. Initially, both commanders and only 14 soldiers are deployed, with the remaining four soldiers kept in-hand as reserve units. Each turn, players may either move one deployed piece one space orthogonally or take a tile action. If a piece moves onto a space occupied by an enemy piece, both pieces are revealed. Then, both players simultaneously reveal die values to declare any "boosting" which is enabled by discarding non-null coins or tiles from the hand. A brief lookup table is consulted to determine the results. Tile actions are invoked by discarding a tile. The last player with a commander still standing wins.

The rules are concise, well diagramed and fairly well-written, although there were a few minor points of confusion. These were all easily resolved with questions to the authors. TheFallacyOfRank theme is a classic battle with elements of surprise and the fog of war. Excellent, if somewhat hackneyed. Mechanically, the game is also quite good, and the time estimate was right on. Others in my gaming group especially liked the option to discard coins or tiles to boost the values of coins already engaged in battle. Remember the Alamo! The only real complaint we had was that there is a relatively minor king maker problem in the multi-player versions. If two or more players decide to arbitrarily gang up on someone else, it's not fun to be that one player under the gun. But the hidden information does moderate that a bit. Some players didn't like having to look at their coins repeatedly, and others found memorizing what coins and tiles had been discarded a bit of a chore, but those are really just matters of taste. Setup and tear-down also takes a bit longer than most piecepack games, but with three times as many pieces, that's understandable and acceptable. Play did not seem fiddly at all, and I was able to get into character thematically, which was fun.

Unfortunately, the original appendix that came with TheFallacyOfRank was far from adequate. It listed several different aspects of the design followed by "all three authors" on every point. That seemed a bit forced to the judges, and I asked for clarification. What I got back was a rough estimate of contributions for the same categories, which did fulfill the requirement to keep the game in the contest. But we still had to take off points for the original version's inadequate appendix.

Conclusion: If you like Stratego but find it lacking depth, you'll probably like TheFallacyOfRank as the next step up. Alternatively, if you like traditional war games, but want something that plays in less than an hour, TheFallacyOfRank will fit the bill nicely. Score: 22.66

TheInCrowd -------------- by JebHavens? & IanSchreiber?

How does one get ahead in life? Obviously, at the expense of other, less important people. The "In" Crowd is a ruthless popularity contest where social promotion occurs when alpha personalities emerge from cliques of three or five people (coins). Once an elite clique is formed, the player who managed to somehow promote the highest number and/or the least popular people into that highest-tier social group wins. Here's how it works:

Two players take turns placing posse members (face down coins in their two suits) on the lowest rank of a pyramid structure formed out of 14 tiles. Every so often, instead of placing a new posse member, one player will call for a popularity vote among a small group. The values of all the posse members are revealed, and the highest-valued coin among those controlled by the player whose posse members have the highest total advances to the next step on the social pyramid. All the other posse members, now leaderless, slink back to the players' hands. This continues until four posse members reach the top of the pyramid. Then the game ends and the players score based on the values of those inner circle members. More points are awarded for getting lower-valued coins (less popular posse members) to the top.

The rules, aside from one question about what to do in tie votes (everyone slinks away), are otherwise well-written, concise and well-diagramed. Just reading through them gave a good sense of how this game might play out, and that clarity speaks well of the ruleset as a whole. Setup and play was a breeze. Our games typically finished a bit short of the estimated time, but the players in my group are generally faster than most, so this was to be expected. We played such that looking at already placed posse members was not allowed, because we felt that could slow down the game. The authors did address this in the rules. Kudos! The appendix was nicely written, and indicated that the authors, while working together on many aspects of the design, also did a good job of keeping track of their individual contributions.

Essentially, The "In" Crowd is a trick-taking card game played on a board having a built-in scoring mechanism. Mechanically, the method of calling for votes costing the opportunity to place another posse member is ingenious and obviously well play-tested. Our only niggle on the mechanics was that the default resolution of tie votes could lead to repetition, which could then stall the game. This seemed not-quite satisfying. We would recommend the authors do further play-testing with an alternative mechanic: if the totals of the posse member values involved in a coolness vote are tied, the player who controlled the least number of posse members wins the vote. Or, if a wilder, more radical game is your taste, try it the opposite way: if the totals of the posse member values involved in a coolness vote are tied, the player who controlled the highest number of posse members wins the vote. We played a few times using this latter mechanism, and it made for some very interesting games with lower-valued pieces advancing by virtue of having more supporters.

Another thing we noted about The "In" Crowd was that it's very well suited for expansion as a four player partnership game with opposite players each controlling one suit of coins. Of course, table talk should not be allowed in such a game. For optimum ergonomics, we recommend either using one of the alternative two-color piecepacks or two suits of coins from two identical piecepacks. One of the playing card piecepacks with only two colors is ideal for both the two-player and four-player partnership versions.

Thematically, The "In" Crowd is somewhat dry, but remembering the social climate of youthful school days was fun enough to keep us interested. To use a cliche, the theme seems painted on. Fortunately, the "In" Crowd could easily be rethemed. For example, if it were about a hierarchy of Mayan priests vying for supremacy, that would have been an interesting tie-in to the pyramidal board structure. Now there's a game that could sell!

Conclusion: The "In" Crowd clearly stands out as the best game in the Group Projects contest. It's very well-written, suitable for play by two or four players having a wide range of gaming experiences and preferences, and it's well-suited for either two players as individuals or for four players as partners. Whether you like games with bidding, trick taking, some memory elements, dramatic psychology, or simultaneous tests of both tactical and strategic skill, The "In" Crowd has it all, and is highly recommended. Score: 29.97

Triactor:_A_Day_at_the_Piecepack_Downs? -------------------------------------- by JonathanDietrich, KenMacKeigan? & JulieTaylor?

Triactor is essentially Turf Horse Racing (republished as Royal Turf) ported to the piecepack and tweaked for somewhat more strategic play. It's a betting game in which the players have some limited control over the outcome of the horse races that everyone is betting upon. Each race has three phases. First, players place bets on the various horses. Second comes the race itself, which takes most of the play time. Third, any winning bets pay off. A game is a series of races, which may easily be spread out across days or weeks by keeping a running tally of winnings. Each race takes roughly 30 minutes to complete, or sometimes longer if there are many distractions or if some players are prone to excessive analysis. We highly recommend using a timer to limit thinking time on each turn to, say, 15 seconds. This is a race, after all, and if a race moves too slowly, it isn't much fun. More on that later....

In the betting phase, everyone has three betting credits to use. In addition to placing bets on various horses to win, place, show or finish in a given order, players may spend betting credits to gather inside information about certain horses. All along the race track are coins that affect the movement of the horses matching their suits, for better or for worse. These coins, which are intended to simulate sudden bursts of speed, tripping, and the like, can have a huge impact upon the results of a race. Once bets are placed, all of the players participate in the movement of the horses (pawns) around the track, which is made up of face-down tiles in the straights and face-up tiles in the corners. Most "steps" along the track have room for up to two horses, with the exception of the corners, which have room for four. Horses advance via a shared dice pool mechanic in which the active player rolls all of the active dice, then chooses one horse to move according to the roll on the matching suit die. Null equals zero (no movement) and ace equals one, but on any movement other than an ace, the chosen die then becomes inactive until all of the rest of the dice have been used, at which point all are recycled. If a horse can't move as far forward as the die would allow (due to the target step already being full of other horses), it moves as far as it can. This dice pool mechanic is an enhancement of a related card-based mechanic used in games such as Yucata and Sunken City, or predetermined dice pool mechanics such as Domino Backgammon. In practice, the Triactor dice pool mechanic generally works well at keeping the race fair while giving each player a limited selection of options to influence the relative positions of the individual horses. After three horses cross the finish line, bets pay out according to a reference table, with odds determined by how many players bet on a given horse.

Let me begin by saying that the Triactor ruleset is very well-written. The layout was clear, and the graphics were outstanding. There were only a couple of very minor points of confusion regarding the payout of bets, but I trust those will be cleaned-up in the released version. Triactor requires a piecepack with eight suits to play, preferably with different colors for each suit or clear icons on each pawn. Included with the rules is an illustrated play mat for the race track infield. This was a very nice touch, but we felt it would better fit the rest of the layout if it were either two pages long or formatted for legal size paper. The play mat, while it's great so far, could be further improved by adding a winner's circle to keep track of the pawns as they cross the finish line and a short cost / payout table along with the already present betting reference. These are really only minor niggles, and the Triactor ruleset is among the very best I've seen anywhere. Other piecepack authors could learn a lot from the Triactor authors' example. The appendix, while brief, served its purpose adequately.

Mechanically, I've already noted that the dice pool mechanic generally works well. In this case, both the dice pool and the event coins are particularly well-matched to the horse racing theme, which in itself is a classic. However, and this is a big reservation, over analysis can really slow down the game to the point where the race feels like torture. The game is much more fun when played with a per-move time limit. This is especially true if the game is attempted by more than just a few players, which can lead to agonizing waits between turns. A variant that the authors suggested for "advanced play" (not revealing the horses each player bet upon) may actually alleviate some of the analysis paralysis during the race by simply taking away that information. However, this reduces the ability of players to use spoiler strategies, which are sometimes key to winning. The races can also drag on at times, and one player suggested removing either one or two tiles from each of the long straights to shorten the race, possibly using them to build a winner's platform in the infield. But this proposed shorter track is untested, and may lead to a more chaotic game.

Conclusion: Triactor: A Day at the Piecepack Downs is a solid and well-developed game. It also has very well-written rules and superb graphics, for which it gets the Best Eye Candy consolation prize. While the authors claim it supports up to ten players, we recommend it for five or six players, at most. More players than that drastically reduces the enjoyment due to long waits between turns and the relative lack of control each player has on the outcome. And please, play quickly. This is a race! Score: 22.48

Venice ------ by Soren_Busch-Knudsen? & JesperSommer?

Almost all of us have experienced it at one point or another -- an imported game that loses something in the translation. I won't mention the name, but one particular American company has gained a dubious reputation for some horribly translated English rules. While this is hardly excusable for an established publishing company, I feel that I should give a little slack (but just a little) for time-constrained contest participants who are not native English speakers. With that, I'll just say that the Venice ruleset is riddled with so many spelling and grammar errors that it takes quite a bit of interpretation to figure out what's going on. Fortunately, the authors made great use of diagrams to explain their points, and the game mechanics are fairly simple. The story line is also rather interesting.

Three or four players are powerful family leaders guiding civil architects to make new land spaces, so Venice can expand beyond its four over-crowded islands. The family leaders love to be close to the center of old Venice, so they also try to improve their status by gaining control of the most valuable new districts. Players take turns extending existing islands (made up of tiles) or building new islands and connecting them back using bridges (coins). Scoring extended islands is based on the total value of the tiles in an island (which are arbitrarily limited to one tile of each suit) minus the number of bridges between the new island and the nearest of the original four. Scoring for new islands is the sum of the values on both sides of the bridge (or bridges), minus one for each bridge back to the nearest original island. Instead of placing a tile, a player may instead take control of an island by claiming it with the family head (pawn). This is one of those agonizing decisions that eventually has to be made before the end of the game, but which has the potential of being either very profitable or a complete bust if made either too early or too late. Claimed islands score at the end of the game as if the island had just been extended with a tile. Once all the tiles and family heads have been played, the game ends, even if players have bridges left over.

Mechanically, Venice borrows from other tile laying games with multiple ways to score, such as Carcassonne (credited in the appendix), the Antoni Guadi Tile Game and even computer games like Sim City. Tile laying is a fairly well-established genre from which Venice does not depart far from the norm, so the mechanics work almost flawlessly with four players. With three, the game is over a bit too quickly, and we felt there was little time for long-term planning. The mechanics also fit rather well with the urban sprawl theme, even if the idea of raising new islands from the depths stretches the imagination a bit. I guess you can't have it both ways. Had the game been set in another quartered city such as New Orleans or Jerusalem, the bridge building wouldn't have made much sense, even if clearing and preparing land for annexation would have been more believable. A canal city like Amsterdam may have been a better setting, but I digress. The appendix was good, even presenting a chronology in addition to the required division of labor. Ergonomically, a serpentine score track (as used in Carcassonne) would have helped us remain immersed in the theme.

Conclusion: Venice is a nice familiar-feeling tile-laying filler that's better with four players than it is with three. It's readily accessible to new players being introduced to the game by someone who already knows how to play, but the play is not very remarkable. The game is solid, but the ruleset itself definitely needs lots of editorial work before Venice is ready for a wider audience. Score: 24.37

Final Tally ----------- Overall Winner: TheInCrowd by JebHavens? & IanSchreiber?

Runners Up ---------- Best Children's Game: ElephantRun by JimAdams & AmyEnge

Best Eye Candy: Triactor:_A_Day_at_the_Piecepack_Downs? by JonathanDietrich, KenMacKeigan? & JulieTaylor?

Best Use of Theme: Magistratvm by Brad_Johnson? & Phillip Lerche

So, that concludes the GroupProjects Piecepack Design Contest. Congratulations to one and all for what was, on the whole, a very good batch of new piecepack games! All of the design groups are encouraged to get cleaned-up versions of their rulesets to Karol as soon as possible for inclusion on www.piecepack.org.

ClarkRodeffer, GroupProjects Judge