Friday, 5 August 2011

The Great Fire of London 1666

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

In 1666, some baker who-shalt-not-be-named caused a massive fire that burned down most of London. In this game, players are London land owners who try to fight the fire. They have some selfish agenda too, hoping to let the fire spread to buildings owned by their competitors and trying to blow up some of their competitors' buildings using the pretext of wanting to prevent the fire from spreading. The game ends after a pre-determined number of rounds, and players score points based on a few things, including the buildings they have left, fires they have put out, and secretly assigned districts to protect.

On a player's turn, he first plays a card to spread the fire. Fire spreads from one district to an adjacent district, and if a district being burned has many houses, the fire will burn stronger. Trained bands, which are neutral pawns and can be controlled by any player, can divert the spread of the fire. They also fight and contain fires. However it is the player-specific land owner pawns which can work with the trained bands to put out fires. After spreading the fire, the active player takes 4 actions, which can be moving trained bands, moving his land owner, or using these in combination to put out fires.

The game set up and ready to go. Within each of the four regions - green, light blue, purple and orange, the number of players houses are the same. The fire starts at Pudding Lane in the south, next to River Thames.

There are some tokens seeded on the board. If you burn a district with a token, you gain that token. Some are 1pt tokens. Some are double fire move tokens which allow you to spread fire twice on a turn. Some are bombs that let you demolish whole districts to cut off the spread of fire. At the start of the game each player is secretly assigned 3 districts to protect. Possible protected districts are marked on the board, but you won't know who is assigned which one. If you manage to protect your districts, you gain points. Naturally the closer they are to Pudding Lane (the fire source) the more points they are worth.

At certain specific points in the game the active player will Intensify the fire, by placing additional fire cones. This maintains the momentum of the fire. It is a powerful action because you can use that to threaten your opponents' houses. Every player has the same number of Intensify actions.

Pudding Lane starts with 25 fire cones.

I quite like the graphics work. Districts with a red banner are potentially secret objectives that players want to protect. The numbers in the district are the potential scores. Districts with yellow banners get a round taken placed face-down.

The Play

I read the rules and taught the game to Allen and Han. I made a number of mistakes, which distorted our game significantly. So my first impression of the game may not be a very accurate picture of the game. In the early game, we were puzzled at how efficiently we managed to put out fires. It was only then I realised that I had taught the rules for putting out fires wrong. Both trained band and land owner need to be at the site of the fire in order to put it out, not just the trained band. Also fires can only be put out if all fires in the district are being contained (i.e. trained bands equal or exceed fire cones). No wonder it was so easy to put out fires. Despite this, the fire still managed to spread far and wide across the board. We were very busy burning down one another's houses.

Han picked up many tokens on the board, which gave him many additional abilities - spreading fires more quickly and demolishing districts. He was so busy blowing up buildings that we felt like we were playing a game about arsonists rather than fire fighters. Only at the end of the game I realised I had missed another few rules. Demolishing districts needs a trained band to be present, and you are not allowed to demolish districts with three or more buildings. Aaarrgghh... it should have been harder to bomb my properties. OK, at least I was the main victim of my poor game teaching, so I didn't feel as bad.

The black cones are the trained bands who fight fire. The blue and yellow pawns are the land owners, i.e. the players. That little green district is burning hot with four fire cones, and the trained bands are converging there to fight fire.

In the foreground, that district on the left has been demolished, marked by the charges token. In the background, trained bands fighting fire are placed on top of the fire cones they are fighting.

Perhaps the ease of fighting fire in the early game and the ease of demolishing buildings balanced each other out. By game end, most of London was devastated afterall, much like the real fire. Han and Allen had been competing to be the hero of London by being the one to have put out the most fires. Both of them scored many points from extinguishing fires. I fell behind in that and later did not even bother to try any more. None of us were able to protect our more valuable secret objectives, we only scored for the 2pt objectives. Most of our buildings were burnt down, and none of us had more than a handful left. Han won the game with Allen close behind, while I trailed by a wide margin.

Late in the game. The green region had few houses left. Most remaining houses were at the fringes.

These tracks are for marking the score for houses remaining. Every time a house is burnt down, you use that house to cover the highest remaining number on your track. We only had 3 players, so we didn't bother to do this for houses that didn't belong to any player.

The Thoughts

I think this is a game born from theme and not from mechanism. Many aspects of the great fire are present in the game. Game mechanisms are found or invented to fit into the background story, although some may not be logical (e.g. players getting tokens when burning specific districts, players being able to decide how the fire spreads). How logical the mechanisms are is not a big concern to me, however one thing that I find is the overall package doesn't seem very interesting, despite being built up from the theme. In summary you are burning others' properties, protecting your own properties, and trying to put out as many fires as you can. Most turns seem to feel quite tactical and a little repetitive.

There are strategic aspects of trying to subtly steer the fire away from your secret objectives and from areas where you have more houses. You want to bluff and mislead your opponents regarding your secret objectives. You also want to guess your opponents' secret objectives. Movements of the trained bands and your land owner seem to be mostly short-term tactical decisions. You want to hinder your oppenents or at least avoid creating opportunities for them, and at the same time you want to create opportunities for yourself. Overall the game still tells a story - how the fire spreads, how districts get burnt down or demolished, and how the brave fire fighters work to contain the fire while at the same time selfish land owners try to take advantage of the fire to hurt their competitors.

One variant (which we did not use) keeps your colour secret, so there will be more guessing about who is trying to protect houses of which colour.

This first distorted game that I have played may not have given me an accurate feel of the game, so I will need to play it again to get a better grasp.


Ivan said...


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Best regards,

Damien said...

Mr. Hiew, was this game purchased outside the country? This is a great game to complement Martin Wallace's London.


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Damien, indeed theme-wise this game is the "before" and London by Martin Wallace is the "after".

This is Allen's game, but I'm not sure where he bought it. I think it's from overseas.