Aug 212013

Licenced board games tend to follow a similar pattern to licenced video games: most of them are a bit rubbish, but a few are great and really make the most of their source material. Here are two of those.

Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery

The Spartacus board game is based on the TV series and sees up to four players take the roles of the heads of battling Roman houses and engaging in plots, backstabbing, market auctions and, of course, epic gladiator battles. I’ve not actually watched any of the TV series, but it’s one of the most thematic games I’ve played and I quickly fell into the role of a great Dominus fighting for supremacy.

First in each turn is the Intrigue phase, where you draw and play cards which represent the plots and schemes of you house. For example, slaves can be set to work to bring in money, opposing gladiators can be poisoned and guards can be posted to keep your own assets safe.

Then it’s on to the Market phase where there are blind auctions to buy more gladiators and slaves, or maybe some armour and weapons – everyone hides their gold, then holds however much they want to bid in their hand, before everyone reveals at once. The winner pays all the gold they bid, so how much do you want that shield? Bid low and hope for a bargain, or bid high to ensure you win and risk  massively overpaying? Finally everyone bids once more for the right to host the gladiator fight.

Collecting slaves seems to be the way to go. My treasury is overflowing from all the cash they bring in!

The Arena phase is the action-packed finale of each turn. The host of the games chooses two players to send gladiators into the arena, to battle for the glory of their house. Once combatants are declared, everyone gets involved again by placing bets on who’s going to win and whether the loser gets seriously injured or even decapitated. Then it’s on to the fight itself.

The combat mechanics are clever. Each gladiator starts with a number of attack, defence and speed dice. When attacking, both players roll their attack and defence dice respectively, and dice are compared highest to lowest (similar to Risk). For every undefended hit, the defender has to lose one of their dice for the rest of the combat, as they get injured and become weaker. Do lose your speed and attack, and go for the long game while you wear down your opponent? Or throw caution to the wind and sacrifice your defence to maintain a hopefully lethal flurry of attacks (if you’re me: yes)?

When an attack leaves you with only two dice your poor gladiator has been beaten into submission. Be left with just one and it’ll be a while before he’ll recover from those wounds. And if you lose your last one he loses his head with it. Bad news for you, but payday for anyone who saw it coming. And if your losing gladiator survives – well, lets hope you haven’t annoyed the host recently as he has to give the famous thumbs up or thumbs down.

So what are the best bits that make me recommend this game?

  1. Fairly simple rules. A few cards to play, easy market system and streamlined arena combat make it easy to teach new players.
  2. Auctions. These are great in any game, and makes it self-balancing. Does everyone think Crixus is overpowered? Then expect to pay a lot for him in your next game. Javelins are useless? Expect to pick up a bargain. And they give plenty of moments of tension and theatricality.
  3. Player interaction. Everyone is involved at all stages of the game, with joint plots in the Intrigue phase and simultaneous bidding on the market. Even in the Arena, cheering on the gladiator you’ve backed to win keeps it interesting for those not fighting.
  4. Controllable game length. By changing how many points you need to win you can start a game that’ll done in an hour or an epic that goes on for three.
  5. Power-tripping as you decide whether a defeated gladiator was worthy enough to fight another day.

Also intriguing is the fact that it’s a ‘Mature’-rated game. Not that being ‘mature’ makes it good (if I play GTA it’s in spite of the (im)mature swearing and violence, not because of it), but because I never really considered that board games could have age ratings…

Rob with the best card in any board game ever

It’s not a perfect game, and my main complaint is that because it’s a race to get to 12 Influence points it all goes a bit Munchkin at the end. If you’ve not played Munchkin, what happens when someone is about to win is that everyone brings out the cards they’ve been hoarding all game that knock points off them or otherwise screw with their plans. Similarly with Spartacus, it’s probably the third person who tries to win who’ll actually succeed, once all the plan-foiling cards have been drawn out.

But apart from that it’s still great fun, especially if everyone gets into character a bit and plays along with the theme.


A Game of Thrones

I’ll be honest. A Game of Thrones is not a game you’ll want to play every day. Or every week. Or even every month. We play it once per year, at New Year’s. It’s long, challenging, exhausting and possibly friendship-ending. It’s also fantastic.

The concept is simple enough – take control of House Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy or Tyrell (and Martell with the expansion) and muster and send forth your armies to conquer Westeros. Hold enough cities at any time and you win.

On my way to a Stark victory

The bulk of the game involves placing order tokens on your territories, commanding your units to march, defend, raid, support and consolidate power. You have a limited number of each type of order, so it’s often a tough call to decide where to attack or where you expect your enemies to push.

So I mentioned friendship-ending? That would mainly be the fault of the Support order. When an army marches into an enemy, the total force strength on each side is compared. Support allows you to add your army’s strength to a fight in a neighbouring territory, even one between other players. Cue much negotiating and deal-brokering as everyone looks for help in return for promises of future favours. The only problem is that order tokens are placed secretly, and I’ve seen genuine horror when it’s been revealed that a once-trusted ally has decided not, in fact, to support you, but to come to the aid of the enemy. Or in fact ignore both of you and march into your now-undefended homelands.

This is another game with auctions, and remember, Auctions Are Good. Every few turns (at random) it’s all change in the royal court, and everyone uses their power tokens to bid for their place on three tracks – the Iron Throne track determines turn order, the Valyrian Sword track gives combat advantages and the Messenger Raven track allows better orders to be used. Any of these can be of critical importance at different points in the game, usually leading to cries of joy and despair as bids are revealed.

This is another game where it’s hard to avoid falling into character, especially if you’re familiar with the story. I once tainted a Stark victory while playing as Greyjoy by landing a force into undefended Winterfell right at the end of the game. I didn’t know the story at this point so I wasn’t aware of why this was bad, but despite her winning the game, a certain friend continued a vendetta against me in the rematch a whole year later. Tip of the day: don’t play A Game of Thrones with people who hold grudges…

This current edition has a nicer looking board

If you’ve got the right group of people, this is definitely a game worth playing. It’s long (our first game took six hours), it’s pretty complicated (the rule book is 30-odd pages), and it heavily encourages betrayals. But it does justice to the source material, there’s a real sense of achievement with every minor victory and it’ll leave you with stories of epic battles, unstable alliances and backstabbing that’ll be heard for years.

(Yes I remember Winterfell, let it go already!)

Aug 022013

[This is a bit more opinionated and political than I would normally post, but I think it’s important. I don’t care which party runs the country as long as it’s run fairly and honestly, according to logic, reason and evidence. Unfortunately that sounds hopelessly naïve. This contents of this post are hardly controversial, but it’s just a part of my small attempt at giving people a greater understanding of the world and enabling them to spot when others aren’t acting according to honesty, reason and evidence.]

I really don’t understand the logic of the Government’s Help to Buy scheme.

In the first part of the scheme, buyers of new homes only need a 5% deposit and can borrow a further 20% of the value of the house from the Government. This portion of the loan is interest-free for five years, after which fees are applied. The homebuyer then only needs to find a 75% mortgage. This can only do damage in the long run. Let’s look at an example:

The normal situation

Alice has a good job. With her deposit and mortgage she has £160,000 to spend on a house. Bob has a reasonable job, and he can spend £140,000 on a house. Chris can only afford to buy a house for £120,000. Two identical new houses have been built – what happens?

In a scarce market where there isn’t enough supply to go around, the price is set at the margin of availability. Bob is going to get a house, and Chris isn’t. Therefore the houses will be sold to Alice and Bob for somewhere between £120,000-140,000. (With a larger example there would be more people willing to pay £121k, £122k etc, so the price would be more finely defined.)

The end result is that two of the three people own a home, and paid not more than £140,000. The Government sees this and thinks it can do better, because Chris still doesn’t have a home. Seeing that Chris was only just priced out of the market (the houses go for slightly more than he can borrow), they decide to offer an extra loan to Chris so he can now afford the £140,000. Let’s see what happens:

With help to buy

Chris gets the additional loan of £30,000 so he can now afford to pay £150,000. Alice can still afford a house. Bob, however, is now set to miss out, so he also takes an extra loan of just over £10,000. Both houses sell to Alice and Bob for just over £150,000.

Then end result is that Alice and Bob still own houses and Chris still doesn’t, but houses now cost at least £150,000. This is obvious from the beginning – if you have two houses and three buyers, only two people can successfully buy, no matter how the money is distributed.

Maybe the problem is actually that there aren’t enough houses? It’s a bold claim, I know. Let’s see what happens:

Building more houses

Assume that these houses cost £120,000 to build. By building one more house, Chris could pay £120,000 and the house builder would still make £20,000 profit. The end result is that Alice, Bob and Chris all have houses, and they paid at most £120,000 for them.

An aside: where does the money go?

House prices are much higher compared to wages than they used to be 10+ years ago. So what is the money paying for? House building is a competitive business and there is no shortage of labourers looking for work, so it’s unlikely that house building are making large profits. And indeed, the construction sector has been struggling recently.

The bottleneck in the housing supply is land for development, due to our strict planning laws. While building a house doesn’t cost a huge amount more than it used to, buying the land does. The increase in cheap mortgage lending by banks enabled this boom in land prices last decade, because people with more money are able to spend more to outbid others for scarce resources (i.e. land for housing).

When you sell a house you realise the increase in the value of your land, but you spend it again on your new house so you’re no better off. Follow this through and it’s apparent that any increase in the money supply to buy new houses goes straight into the pockets of the landowners who sold the land. None of it stays with homeowners or builders.

Part two of the scheme

The potential damage from part one of the Help to Buy scheme is limited by the fact that it only applies to new builds. The price can’t be pushed up too far because you can always buy a cheaper old house instead, for which the money supply hasn’t increased. However, this is set to change.

In January 2014 the mortgage guarantee part of the scheme will launch. In this scheme, buyers will only need a 5% deposit to get a mortgage. Banks like large deposits because in the event of a default, repossession and auction, the sale will bring in more than the outstanding debt. With a small deposit there is a danger that the bank may lose out, so with this scheme the Government guarantees 15% of the mortgage, thus enabling banks to offer ‘safe’ (from their point of view) loans to people with tiny deposits.

What this will do is increase the money supply available to buy all houses, not just new builds. There are still the same number of houses, and there will be even more buyers competing for them than currently. An exercise for the reader: repeat my first example in this case and work out what will happen.

If you said that prices are likely to increase across the board, and no more people will get a house than would have done before (except that they’ll pay more for them), well done.

The wider point

Most of the population have (understandably) very little knowledge or care about economic principles. That shouldn’t be a problem because we should be able to trust that the people making economic policy do understand. Unfortunately it seems that governments exploit this lack of knowledge to pass policy that is actively damaging to the economy but serves political ends. If you can’t afford a home and suddenly you’re offered a cheap extra loan, you’re likely to be pleased and support the policy, even though it’s nonsensical to all economists.

In another example, austerity was heavily sold as being vital for maintaining the UK’s AAA credit rating. We were told that reducing the deficit makes lenders less likely to think that we’ll default, therefore maintaining the AAA rating, therefore keeping interest rates on UK bonds low. This is deliberate misinformation – nobody cares what the credit agencies think (after all they gave AAA ratings to all the subprime mortgage packages that caused the crisis in the first place), and a low risk of default isn’t the primary reason why bonds are cheap. It’s a small part, but the main reason is that our economy has been doing so badly, with such a slow recovery, that even getting a measly 2% for ten years is more attractive than investing the money elsewhere in the economy.

My hope is that we eventually get a critical mass of people, both in the general public and the media, who have a reasonable understanding of economic principles and statistics. Governments will no longer be able to get away with easily-refutable claims, dodgy statistical usage and illogical policies. Only then will we get governance based on what is best for the people of the country, and not damaging policies purely designed to  win votes.