Monday, 31 May 2010

Die Handler

I have heard of Die Handler (The Trader?) before, known to be a good Eurogame that was never published in English and never republished after going out of print, but never tried to find out what it was about. At the Wesak Day game session at Old Town Kopitiam Cheras on Fri 28 May 2010, Jeff brought it, and taught Afif, Han and I to play.

Note: Some photos are courtesy

The Game

In this game the players are traders trying to make money by delivering goods from one city to another. The money earned is then used to increase your social standing. The catch is once you've achieved a certain status, you will need to pay an upkeep cost every round, depending on how high you are on the chart. We joked that it's not cheap being a Datuk. You need to maintain a good income. At the end of the game the highest ranked player wins, tie breaker being cash on hand.

Some background: Tun, Tan Sri and Datuk are Malaysian honourary titles awarded to people who have made significant contributions to the country. Tun is the highest title and is very rarely awarded, followed by Tan Sri and Datuk. In some states there are lesser titles in addition to these.

There are six cities on the board, linked by roads. Every city produces 3 types of goods. There are 3 wagons which start in different cities, and these are shared by all players. At the start of every round each player produces up to 3 goods. This can be all done in one city or split up. If there are wagons in cities waiting for cargo loading, the players do a blind bid to become wagon master. The wagon master can load up to 3 of one type of goods. The others can only load up to 2 of other types of goods, but this is subject to negotiation with the wagon master. They have to agree on a price. The wagon master may choose not to load your goods. Due to the rules for loading goods, sometimes you can guess your opponents' intentions by looking at the number and types of goods they have in the city. Two players each with two red goods may actually hope that a 3rd player with only white goods will become wagon master, so that they won't have to spend on the bidding, and they will still be able to load their goods. But then, the 3rd player may decide to be nasty and not load any of their goods.

The whole game board.

Once loading is done, players start moving wagons. Each player has 4 movement cards numbered 1 to 4, and every round you can only use one of them. Once used they are turned face down, and will only become available after all 4 are used. The wagon master has no control over wagon movement. Anyone can move any wagon. Wagons can only move in one direction, so if you drive a wagon into a road leading to one city, it cannot turn back. This is important because goods can be sold at a higher price in a city not producing the same goods type. Also you may have goods waiting to be picked up at that city.

When a wagon reaches a city, all goods are sold. There is a market mechanism in the game. All goods start cheap, but the prices can increase up to 4 times. However, once the price hits the peak, if someone tries to increase it again, it will crash back to the bottom rung. Before any goods are sold, every player secretly assigns 0, 1 or 2 goods to boost the prices of.

The stock market chart for the 6 goods types. The number on the left is the buying price, and on the right the selling price.

On the left, a wagon, for illustration purposes only. In the real game no one can load 3 types of goods. The shields on the sides of the wagon tell which goods belong to who. On the right, the courier. At the bottom, the disk which you use for secretly assigning two goods types to increase the prices of. You can decide not to push any by pointing both hands at your shield (like in this photo). You can move the game goods type twice, or you can move two different goods types once each.

After you make money, you first pay for upkeep of your title, before spending money to increase up to two steps on the social standing chart. The cost to move up increases as the game proceeds. If you can't pay upkeep, your social standing crashes down to the level which you can pay upkeep for. This can be very painful.

The social standing chart. The number on the left is the upkeep cost to maintain your status.

There are some special powers auctioned off at the start of the game, allowing players to do various fancy stuff, e.g. extra moves for the wagon, adjusting market price, buying goods cheaply. There is a courier piece (a horse rider) in the game. If on your turn you can move a wagon to meet the courier (or vice versa), you get to choose a one-time-use bonus card. These cards have various cool abilities and there are only 3 copies each. They are discarded from the game once used.

The game ends at the end of a round after a certain number of deliveries have been made. For 4 players, it's 8 deliveries.

The Play

Our game started peacefully enough. All goods get loaded, sometimes after some haggling. There were some "misdirecting" of wagons to deny one another the bonus selling price of goods, or to secure it for one's own goods. I was the ambitious one, taking two steps on the social standing chart, when the rest were more conservative and only took one step. Jeff and I monopolised the courier the whole game. We both had special abilities to move the courier and to make the wagon move extra steps. We were the only ones getting bonus cards.

Early in the game, at the city of Genoa. The track above the city indicates the bonus price margin if you deliver goods that are not produced here. This bonus increases every round that no delivery is made, and resets when a delivery is made.

As the game proceeded, I continued to stay in the lead, with everyone else one step behind. This was probably a bad thing, since I was directing all the negative Qi at myself. Advancing early had its benefits, because the cost to advance was cheaper, but then I also had to manage the upkeep cost. Things started going bad when the Broken Axle card struck, played by Jeff. It, of course, hit the wagon which I needed most urgently. The wagon could not move that turn, and my unhappy customers wouldn't pay me because of the delay, despite my pleading and my perfect past record. Ungrateful peasants! Thankfully that round I was still able to pay the upkeep cost. I retained my Datukship, but had no money to progress any further. Everyone else was catching up or overtaking me. Without the Broken Axle, I think the game would have ended that round, and I probably would have won. So the Broken Axle was a very well-timed move by Jeff, who was in last position at that time.

Broken Axle was played on this wagon. I (orange shield) had two black goods, Jeff (blue) had 1 red good, and Afif (pink) 1 red and 1 purple. The track on the left tracks the number of deliveries made and also the cost for promotion. It is also the countdown timer for game end.

Things became quite interesting in the last round. I had the bonus card that allowed me to "naik pangkat" (get promoted) for $1200 per level. In the final round it would cost $3000 per level. However, I was quite low on cash. I had enough cash to pay the $1000 upkeep for the Datukship, and should be able to earn some money that round. Han was a Tan Sri (2nd highest title), and the rest of us were Datuks (3rd highest title). If I could earn some money, I would be able get promoted, possibly even by two levels to Tun. $2400 was not a lot of money. I had been keeping that bonus card precisely for this purpose.

Han (yellow) was the only Tan Sri at the start of the final round. The rest of us were Datuks.

The wagon that had the Broken Axle repaired would hopefully reach its destination (unless Jeff had yet another Broken Axle card). There was another wagon at another city which could load goods and had a chance of making the delivery within this last round. Jeff, Han and Afif all had goods in that city. I had none. When it was time to bid, I thought: although I had no interest in loading goods, from the experience in previous rounds, it was not unusual to spend money to win the wagon master privilege, and then earn back most of it by collecting (cough*bribes*cough) loading fees; then why not try to win the privilege, and charge all of them an arm and a leg? I might make a profit. Afterall it was the last opportunity they had to deliver goods. The other Broken-Axle-fixed wagon had 1 of Jeff's goods and 2 of Afif's. If they decided my price was too high, I could just deny them the loading rights and this last chance of making a delivery. I think I surprised all three of them when I won the wagon master privilege.

This was the wagon that I won wagon master privilege for. I (orange shield) had no goods in this city. From left to right, Afif (pink) had 3 browns and 1 purple, Jeff (blue) had 2 purples and 2 blacks, and Han (yellow) had 3 blacks.

I asked for $900 from each of them to load their goods. Han didn't have enough money and declined. Afif and Jeff discussed for quite some time. The wagon would need at least two players moving it to be able to reach another city, so it was either they both loaded goods (so that they both had an interest in it), or the wagon wouldn't complete a delivery. I think Jeff wanted to load, but Afif decided no. So there was no loading afterall. I was actually secretly hoping to receive this $1800 bribe, although I put on a "take it or leave it" air, lest they try to haggle. When Afif said no, my heart sank. I think I spent $1100 on that privilege which did me no good at all, even though I ruined everyone else's plans.

After the final delivery, Afif could afford to move up one more step to Tan Sri (2nd highest rank). The rest of us only managed to retain our statuses. Afif was winner by tiebreaker, $700 to Han's $500. Jeff at 3rd position beat me by tiebreaker too. He had $1200 and I had $600. If Afif and Jeff had paid me that $1800, I would have had exactly $2400 to upgrade myself two levels to Tun! Too bad they didn't take the bait. Of course they would have made money, but I suspect neither of them would have been able to reach Tun.

What a tense last two rounds it was! My head was actually throbbing a bit from all that scheming and strategising and double guessing.

One hilarious moment in that last round was the market manipulation. I had two black goods delivered, and I knew everyone would be trying to crash the price, to minimise my profit. The black goods price was around the middle of the market chart, i.e. it could easily be pushed over the top and crash. I made a gamble, pushing its price up twice myself. When all the market manipulation disks were flipped over, so many people pushed black that it not only went over the top and crashed, it climbed the whole chart again all the way to the highest price! I raised my arms in exultation, and probably would have howled in delight if we were not at a public place. Then Jeff reminded me - Afif had the Large Office, which could push the price of one good after all the price movements done by the players. Needless to say, black crashed all the way to the bottom. Aarrgghh! Who said Eurogames are all nice and tame? Why am I getting saboteurs wrecking my wagon and unscrupulous market analysts crashing my stock prices?

The Thoughts

Die Handler is a game with quite a number of moving parts - the goods production and delivery, the wagon master bidding and negotiations, the goods prices manipulation, the social status chart, the courier and bonus cards, and the unique abilities auctioned off at game start which impact all of these areas. Thankfully none of these are complex, and amazingly everything ties together quite well.

There is blind bidding / simultaneous secret selection in the game, for the wagon master privilege and for the market price manipulation. So you need to read your opponents. You can try to psycho them to do what you want them to do, via table talk. There is no randomness, since the choices are all made (albeit secretly) by the players. Sometimes your guess will be lucky, sometimes not. This aspect reminds me of Alladin's Dragon, Dungeon Lords and the selling phase of For Sale.

Negotiations is also an important aspect of the game. How much do you charge to let others load their goods? Quite often players need to cooperate due to vested interests in the same things. E.g. they want to move the wagon on which they have goods, or they want to push the price up for a goods type that they are selling this round. There is a tension between cooperating and competing, and also in the negotiations. Negotiation in games can sometimes cause hard feelings (e.g. in Quo Vadis, Greed Incorporated, Chinatown) due to unfairness (perceived or otherwise), so not everyone likes it. It isn't the central mechanism in Die Handler, but it is an important part.

I was surprised to later find out that this game was designed by the team of Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, who also designed the highly regarded Princes of Florence and El Grande. Die Handler is a pretty decent medium complexity game. There is zero randomness in the game. It is a very high player interaction game, and cooperation and competition among players are very fluid. We played with four players, and I suspect this is the ideal count. I can't imagine playing this with 2 players. I think it would be rather boring.

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