Saturday, 18 February 2017

World's Fair 1893

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The setting of World's Fair 1893 sounds dull to me. I would not have given it a second thought had I seen it on a shelf, and I would have missed out on this little gem. This is a Eurogame with area majority and set collection, and it is implemented quite cleverly. Here's how it works.

This is the game board. It is a ferris wheel surrounded by five exhibition areas, each in a different colour. On your turn, you place one of your agents (i.e. cube) in any exhibition area, and you claim any cards next to that area. At the end of each of the three stages of the game, each exhibition area is scored based on agent majority. You score points, and also win rights to convert designs to products.

Each of the exhibition areas will have some cards. These can be design blueprints, exhibition tickets, or famous characters. Whenever you place your agent in an area, you take all the cards there. At the end of your turn, you add three new cards to the board - one each to the next three areas on the board. So the cards in each area will be claimed and then will be replenished gradually.

The first two cards (red and blue) are designs. Designs are your main source of points. By themselves they are worth nothing. You need to convert them to finished products before they can be worth anything. So collecting designs is just the first step.

The third card is a ticket. These cards are a countdown mechanism. Each time anyone claims a ticket, the timer marker moves one step around the ferris wheel. When the marker makes a complete round, a stage ends and scoring is done. The game ends after three stages. Claiming tickets affects the tempo of the game. Also tickets are worth 1VP each, which can add up to be significant.

The rightmost card is a character. These cards give you a special ability which you may use on your next turn, e.g. placing two instead of one agent, placing an extra agent in a specific area, moving a agent from one area to another. These special abilities can be quite handy, but you must use them next turn or forfeit them.

At the end of each stage, each of the five areas is scored. Players with the most and second most agents in each area score points, and also win the rights to convert some of their designs to end products. Naturally, said designs must be of the same type as the area being scored. So as you collect designs of a particular type, you need to also remember to fight for the conversion rights of the same type. In this photo, the tiles on the right are the end products.

You want to collect sets of different end products. A complete set of 5 different products is worth 15VP. A set of 4 different products is worth 10VP. A set of 3 is 6VP, a set of 2 is 3VP, and a single product is only worth 1VP.

The medals and coins on the left are what you score from winning majority in an area and from tickets respectively.

A game only lasts three stages, so you only have three chances to convert designs to products. A stage passes very quickly. The things you do on your turn are very simple, so turns pass in a snap. You just place a agent and collect cards. Sometimes there is a little more to do because you have collected tickets or you have a character card to use, but mostly it's like eating chips. You finish a whole pack before you realise it.

The Play

Gameplay is mostly tactical. In general you want to collect wide, i.e. you want to complete many sets of all five different types of products. Getting there is done via many small tactical decisions where you try to play as efficiently as possible. You want to collect designs and convert them to products more efficiently than your opponents. This game uses the area majority mechanism, so what you want to do is to compete efficiently, spending the least effort for the most gain. You want to avoid the hotly contested areas, preserving your resources, and invest your energy in less competitive areas so that you win more rewards with the same amount of resources spent. This is easier said than done, because everyone thinks this way. The situation on the board is ever changing. The competitive landscape in each area changes, and the cards available in each area changes. You are presented with five options, and you need to evaluate which is best for you. This is the juicy part of the game. Sometimes you want to win majority in an area, but another area which you don't intend to dominate turns out to have a few very attractive cards. What do you do? Do you grab those cards and waste your agent placement, risking losing majority in the area you actually want to win in? Or do you steel yourself to fight for the area, even if it means you're getting lousy cards, or even no card at all? Another thing to think about is how lucrative the options are to your opponents. You need to evaluate what they want too. Sometimes you make a move not because it benefits you, but because you want to deny your opponent. Sometimes it is worthwhile to deny your opponent at a cost to yourself.

In the early game, each player already starts off having one or two agents in some exhibition areas, so the value of each area to each player already starts to diverge. If you are already leading, you will hope to maintain the lead without expending too much more effort. There is a barrier to entry for other players. Still, since everyone wants to make end products in all five types, the early stage of the game is quite open. You don't have a strong preference which products to focus on first. You know you want to get all of them eventually. You just try to grab opportunities as they arise. By mid game, after you have already progressed in some areas, the needs and wants of every player become more obvious. If an opponent already has products of two types, he will probably want to focus his energy on the other three types. This is when you start to have a better grasp of your opponents' intentions.

Assessing the value of an area becomes more interesting when tickets and characters come into the mix. Tickets affect the tempo of the game. If you are in the lead in multiple areas, it will be good to end the stage quickly when you have the advantage. In this situation, you know your opponents are less likely to claim tickets because they want to prolong the stage. The characters can be useful to some players but not others. E.g. a character that lets you place an extra agent in the agricultural area is worth little when you already have a few agricultural end products, but it can be crucial to an opponent who has a few agricultural product designs and desperately needs to convert them to end products.

What makes the game interesting is how the many items in each area have different values to different players, and how you need to constantly assess the changing options on the board to make the right tactical decisions. You rarely get a perfect choice - the area where you want to win having many cards that suit your purposes perfectly, but that's the beauty of the game. You are presented with multiple choices with different mixes of pros and cons. It is these agonising decisions that make the game.

In the agricultural exhibition area (green) at the bottom left, the white player already has three agents (cubes), while the others have one each. The area has one design (grey - industry), one ticket and one character. This is more cards than any other area on the board. For the white player, these three cards may seem lucrative, but placing yet another agent here is a little wasteful. It might be better to place it in the red area (fine arts) to try to catch up with the leader (blue), or maybe even the grey area (industry) to secure a safer lead. This is the kind of decision you need to make in this game.

The Thoughts

World's Fair 1893 looks pedestrian, but I was pleasantly surprised. I felt nostalgia. It reminds me of the good old days, of the time when Eurogames had fewer rules, were quick to play, but still had decent strategic depth. It is a clean and clever game. I like how it constantly forces you to make tough decisions. You evaluate your options not only based on how much they benefit you, but also based on how much you will benefit the next player by not taking a particular option. I like the tempo element of the game - how claiming or not claiming tickets will speed up or prolong the game to your advantage. A game flies by quickly. You feel that you just need a few more actions to execute your perfect plan. But there is no perfect world. You have to make do with your limited time and resources, and make the most out of it - like Agricola. This is the hallmark of a good game. I am impressed.

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