Monday, 18 February 2008

learning Die Macher

On Sat 16 Feb 2008 I played Die Macher for the first time. I bought this game half a year ago, and only now had the chance to play it. We played a four-player game - Han, Chee Seng, Ricky and I. Die Macher is an old game, first published in 1986, and is a very well respected Eurogame. It is long and complex, unlike most Euro fare. And definitely it's theme of politics and elections in Germany is very unique. This game was out-of-print for some time, and when Valley Games reprinted it, I took the opportunity to buy it.

Learning the game by reading the rules is a challenge. I read the rules a few times, and also set up the game at least twice, just to see how it works. However I still made a number of mistakes when teaching the game to Han, Chee Seng and Ricky. When examined individually, the steps in a round are not difficult to understand. However, there are quite a number of steps, and the interrelationship between these steps, and how everything ties together, is not easy to grasp. Also because there are so many steps, it is easy to forget some of the smaller details, especially when playing for the first time.

I set up the game before my guests arrived. Michelle already balked at the look of the game after setup. Indeed the other players were intimidated even before they sat down to learn the game. Thankfully after our game they felt the game wasn't as difficult as it looked. The game setup can take a bit of time too, so thankfully I set it up before our game session. That saved some time.

Die Macher all set up before the guests arrived.

Teaching the game took quite some time. Alicia, who is a non-gamer and didn't join us to play, thought we looked funny - four grown-ups sitting at a table frowning at a game like struggling pupils (and a struggling teacher too). She even took a photo of us and teased us, "You still haven't started playing?"

Here's what the game is like. The game consists of 7 elections. Each player plays a political party, and over 6 rounds, you do all sorts of actions to try to win seats, win elections, and also improve your standing on the national stage (you don't execute any actions for the 7th election, and only do scoring, i.e. count votes). The final victory is determined by a number of factors: the number of seats won at the 7 elections, media control at the national level, party members, and party platform alignment with national opinion. The seats are won during each election throughout the game, and the other sources of victory points are all counted only at game end. So there is a nice balance of short term tactics and long term strategy.

You have a number of resources at your disposal to help your party achieve victory, and I find all of them very thematic. First, money. No money no talk. You need money to influence the media. You need money to organise party meetings. You need money for lots of stuff. You have access to shadow cabinet members, who can help you (at a price) to do various things, some helping yourself, some sabotaging an opponent. You have access to external contributors, who can give political donations to your party. Your party members also contribute money.

How you win votes in an election is also quite thematic, and is the core of the game. It is determined by three things - how many party meetings you hold in that state, how well your party platform (i.e. party policy / political view) aligns with the public opinion in that state, and how your party is generally perceived in that state. Your party has 5 party platforms, representing your party's stand on 5 political issues. Each state has 4 issues which are most important to the voters, and the majority of the voters are either pro or against each issue. So, you try to make sure your party platform matches the public opinion in the states as much as possible. (Is this game trying to portray politicians as spineless crowd pleasers?)

There are other elements in the game which fit the theme well. Parties can form coalitions for a state election, allowing their votes to be added up in determining the winner of the state election. Seats won are still kept separate though. There are opinion polls that you can buy. You don't know the outcome of the poll before you buy it. After buying it, you can decide to publish it (which may improve the public's opinion towards you, or worsen the public's opinion towards your opponents) or not. You can increase your party membership if you decide not to publish it. That's a consolation intended by the game designer, I guess. I can't think of a way to explain how in real life not publishing an opinion poll can increase your party membership. Media control is another very thematic element. If you have media control in a state, you can use your influence to change public opinion in that state (usually to align with your party's political view). You are also protected from negative opinion polls.

One thing that you can do in the game is to win votes ahead of the state elections. One of your possible actions is gaining votes in a state, even before the actual state election. This is an important thing to do because you have a limited number of party meeting cubes. You need to convert those to votes so that you can take those cubes back into your available pool. Also, converting to votes early can be good when you have a good standing at that point in time. You might as well do it now and not wait longer, because later there may be changes that worsen your standing. So, it is a lot about timing and planning.

Close-up of the central / main board. Each quadrant is one state election. The tile at the tip in the middle shows the state and the maximum number of seats that can be won by a party. Next, the five coloured tracks are the popularity level of the parties. Next, numbers (up to 50) are the number of votes. The four cards are the public opinion cards of that state. The 5 microphones are spaces for media control cubes.

My area. The telephone marker is the coalition marker. Only parties with this marker placed in a state can partipate in coalitions. Small cubes are party meetings, big cubes are media control. The 5 cards are my party platform. I want lower wages, I say no to genetic engineering, I want to lower spending on anti-terrorism measures, I want more nuclear plants, and I want to reduce social security.

The organisation board is on the left. It is mean for "organisting things", and does not mean "an organisation". It's just a convenient area for dumping all sorts of common / shared game components. The national board is on the right. It tracks your membership number and your influence at the national stage.

I think we started teaching the game at about 3:30pm, and finished the game around 5pm. Of course, we didn't play the full game (7 elections, i.e. 6 rounds). We had planned to play the shorter game (5 elections, i.e. 4 rounds). We ended up only playing 2 rounds. We didn't have much idea what was right to do and what was wrong, how much to bid for opinion polls (is EUR12K too high?), when it is most appropriate to use which shadow cabinet cards and external contribution cards, etc. We just went through the motions and tried to learn along the way. Things only started to click (a little) for me around end of Round 2. I started being able to piece things together, and to have a "big picture" view, instead of feeling swamped by the many small steps and the detailed rules. It'll probably take some more time to know the rules well, so that they become second nature, and I can go beyond them to explore strategies. Chee Seng and Han both liked the game. Ricky didn't say, but I think he liked it too. I like it so far, but really need to play one complete game to be sure. At the moment I'd say it is very intriguing.

One funny incident during the game was when we had to simultaneously decide and reveal whether we wanted to accept external monetary contributions. Everyone was supposed to pick one of the external contribution cards, and then have it face-up (and hide it in your hand) if you decide to accept contributions, and face-down if otherwise. Once everyone was ready, we revealed the cards together. The surprise was Ricky revealed a shadow cabinet card, which was supposed to be used in a totally different step. We all immediately chided him for not paying attention when the teacher was teaching (Cantonese: 你有无听书架?).

To make the game closer to heart we used some localised and "Chinesified" terms. Shadow cabinet members are 幕后黑手, roughly meaning "evil hand pulling the strings behind the scene". External contributions become 收黑钱, roughly meaning "accepting bribes / illegal contributions".

Die Macher is quite an appropriate game to play at this time, now that the general elections in Malaysia is coming. It will be on 8 March 2008. I'd be very happy if we can play Die Macher again before I cast my real vote, or maybe on the same day!

Ricky, me, Han, Chee Seng in the middle of the game. We were not smiling when I was teaching the game.

This was where the game ended. Only 2 elections held. I was going to do well in the next one (bottom left quadrant). I already have 45 votes and I have media control too.

On Sat 16 Feb 2008 we also played two other fillers before starting Die Macher. Chee Seng, Alicia, Han and I played Risk Express. My strategy was to not attack anyone else's territories and just focus on attacking the neutral pool, which was easier. Unfortunately it didn't quite work out for me. Han and Chee Seng both managed to conquer some of my territories, and I had to resort to attacking Alicia's territories (I would not have won even if I succeeded in attacking the last remaining neutral territory - Australia). One funny thing that occurred during the game is when we spin (instead of roll) the last remaining die, we tend to get the result we want. We were not trying to cheat by holding the dice with the desired side face-up. We just spinned it. It worked so frequently that it made us laugh. When someone failed an attack, we'd say, "You forgot to spin it!" In the end, when Han conquered the last territory and won the game, he did it with a spin too. You gotta spin it!

Chee Seng, Alicia, Han, playing Risk Express on the floor because the dining table was already occupied by the already-set-up Die Macher.

The other game we played was Halli Galli. This is a fun and quick reflex game, good as an ice-breaker. This is a game that is better when the players are not good at it, because then you'll have lots of mistakes and false alarms. If all players are good then I think it doesn't become fun anymore and becomes too serious and competitive. Well, as serious as a game with a loud bell can be. To align with the Chinese New Year mood, when a player rang the bell by mistake and was forced to give one card to every other player, we called that "giving angpows" (red packets). Ricky won this game coming from behind, because he beat me in the last ring, where a lot of cards were up for grabs. Damned! I was leading quite comfortably for much of the game.

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