Thursday 16 April 2020


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Bus is one of the earlier games from Splotter Games, first published in 1999, more than 20 years ago now. Games from Splotter are now a blind buy for me, but when I heard about the reprint, I still did a bit of research before deciding to preorder. Afterall it is an earlier work and it might not be as well designed as their later games. However I found that the reviews were all good. People all said this was a strategic and cutthroat game much like Splotter's other games.

Prior to my research, the only thing I knew about Bus was the unusual * cough * ugly * box cover, which was of the same "unusual" level as Roads & Boats. This is the new box cover, and I find it lovely.

This is the old box cover.

One thing I like about the game components is the ziplock bags in the five player colours. They also provide a grey bag and an orange bag for the shared game pieces, but I prefer to use my own transparent ziplock bags for these. The rulebook (top right) looks like a bus timetable, which is nice.

These are the player pieces. The cylinders are action tokens. You get 20 for the whole game. They are single-use, so you will have at most 20 actions for the whole game. That funeral pyre in the background is made of bus routes. The bus markers on the right are for keeping track of your bus level, or how many passengers you can deliver each time you make a run.

A big part of the core game mechanism is worker placement, and the worker placement bit reminds me of Dominant Species. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing action tokens on the right side of the board. Everyone must place at least 2 tokens. From the 3rd cycle onwards you may pass. If you continue to place tokens, there is no restriction on how many. You may keep placing until you run out of tokens, or you run out of spaces to place tokens. One way the game ends is when only one player has any action token left. So it is possible for a few players to intentionally speed up the game by using up their tokens.

Once everyone is done with placing tokens, you go into the second half of the round - executing actions. Some action spaces are marked A to F. A is always the strongest action, and F the weakest. When placing an action token, you place on the A space first. The next player who wants to perform that action type must place his token on the B space, and so on. When executing the action, you don't execute from A to F. You execute from left to right. So some stronger actions are executed later than the weaker actions. That's important to consider.

The full board looks like this. At the start of the game, there are four (orange) passengers at the four corners of Central Park. In the upper right and lower left you can see two train stations. During the game new passengers enter play through these train stations. The roads are where you build your bus route. Everyone has only one route. You may not fork off (sorry that doesn't sound quite right). You may only extend your route from one of the ends. There are many black circles on the board numbered 1 to 4. They are for buildings, of which there are three types - home, office and pub. At different times of the day passengers will want to go to a different building type. Your job is to help them get there. Each passenger you deliver using your bus route gives you 1VP. This sounds simple, but it is not. The average score of the game is about 7VP, i.e. about 7 passengers delivered in total. The numbers at the building spaces dictate the order they must be filled. You must fill all the #1 spaces before filling any #2 spaces, and so on.

You can see the three building types - home, office and pub.

As part of game setup, every player sets up a 2-length bus route, and places two buildings. Kareem (red) and Allen (yellow) connected their routes to one of the train stations, to secure passengers. That's a smart move. I (green) decided to keep to the centre, hoping that by being where the busyness was, I could leech other players' passengers even though I had no connection to a train station. That did not work out so well, to put it nicely.

Let me briefly explain some of the actions you get to do in this game. First, you get to extend your route. There are strict rules around this, and as a result it is rare to have two routes overlapping on the same street. Your route will often meet others' routes at junctions, but they usually won't overlap. You can increase your bus capacity. Every round only one person gets to do this, so this action space is often hotly contested. You can place buildings on empty spaces. You can bring passengers into the city. The most important action is running your bus, called Vroom. Before any bus runs are done, you must check the time of day to determine what building type the passengers want to head to. Every building fits only one passenger. For each passenger, you examine whether the junction he is at has a building he wants to enter. If so, he just walks in. If there is none, or they are taken up by other passengers, he needs to look elsewhere. These are the passengers you as bus companies get to serve. If your bus route connects a passenger to his desired building type, you deliver him for 1VP. Your bus capacity determines how many passengers you may deliver per Vroom action.

One more thing you can do in the game is fight for the start player position for the next round. If no one fights for it, the start player marker is passed clockwise. Being start player can be crucial, and often people will fight for it.

In this photo above, the time is afternoon, and everyone wants to go to the office. All offices are now occupied (briefcase icon). There is one passenger at the train station at the lower right who is unable to get to any office. I guess it's work-from-home for you.

This clock device is an important aspect of the game. Normally the clock hand always moves clockwise one sector per round, changing the time of day from morning to afternoon to evening and back to morning again. This changes the passengers' desired destinations. Notice there is one action space next to the clock. If you place an action token here, you gain the ability to stop time. You have the option to do this just before the Vroom step, after everyone has done all the route extension, capacity increment and building placement. What this means is you can royally screw everything up for everyone. People may be expecting time to move forward, and may have executed all their actions based on this expectation. If you decide to stop time, their plans may well be all for naught. The thing is, you don't even really need to stop time. Placing your action token there already creates a major threat and forces people to think twice. The downside of it is though, if you decide to stop time, you must claim a time stone (the green or blue marbles), and each time stone is -1VP at game end.

There is an important concept called the MaxBus. MaxBus is the bus capacity of the player with the highest bus capacity. The strengths of the extend route, place building and place passenger actions are dependent on MaxBus. If MaxBus is 3, then a player may extend his route up to 3 times. This is if he takes the A action space. If you take the B action space, you extend twice. If the C action spaces, just once. The action spaces D to F are useless for now. What this all means is the actions will become stronger as the game progresses. The game will escalate and accelerate. It is important to watch out for this.

The game ends in three ways - when only one player has action tokens remaining, when time stones are exhausted, and when all building spaces are filled. All these can be manipulated by players, so you need to consider whether it's beneficial to you to drag on or to speed up.

The Play

I played with Kareem, Ivan and Allen. 4-players is supposed to be the best player count. Kareem had played Bus before, and warned us that scores would be low, around 6 to 7VP.

This is an open information game. Players actions have great impact on one another, i.e. very high player interaction. To get one simple thing done - sending one passenger to where he wants to go - takes a lot of coordination, almost like trying to align the stars. The game rules are not difficult. Compared to other Splotter games, this game is almost simplistic. Yet it is highly strategic. Many things are interlocked. You need to think and plan very carefully. There are many possibilities you must consider. This is in no way an easy game, despite how straight-forward it may seem.

Now Ivan (blue) had connected to the train station on the upper left. I (green) was the only one still running in circles at the centre not connected to any train station. More and more passengers were coming to the city via the train stations. Now there were no more #1 building spots. The next time anyone placed buildings, they would go to the #2 spots.

One thing I realised was that having more than one type of building at the same junction is usually a bad thing. Let's say a junction has both a home and an office. In the morning, let's say one passenger comes and occupies the home. Next round, when it is afternoon, the passenger will want to go to work. Since there is already an office here, he just walks in and doesn't need to take a bus at all. That's a business opportunity lost from the bus companies' perspective. So if you want to hinder your opponents, you may want to consider doing this to junctions on their routes. And you probably want to avoid doing this to your own junctions.

Every round before you deliver passengers, many other things happen, and the board situation changes. It is not easy to plan everything out nicely to make sure you can deliver. There are many things you need to do, and there are many actions by others which can mess up your plans. E.g. someone increases his bus capacity and delivers that one more passenger which you were planning to deliver. Or someone extending his route to reach destinations which he previously could not reach, enabling more deliveries. Everyone is fighting for those previous few deliveries. Yet despite the uncertainties, quite often the first action people go for is the Vroom action, because if you are slow to the party, there may be no more passengers left. Often the mentality is commit first, then try to work things out.

We made two rule mistakes. The first one was the number of action tokens. We played with 21 per player, when it should be 20. I didn't realise that each player colour had one extra backup token. I told everyone to use all of them. The second mistake was much more severe. I had misinterpreted the clock rule. I said that for the clock to tick, someone must place an action token, and use it to move the clock hand. This made things unnecessarily difficult for us. Every round someone had to "take one for the team" and spend one token just to keep the clock ticking. If the clock didn't move, it normally meant bad business for everyone. This probably dragged our game too. It certainly distorted our game experience. In our game the clock action was not a threat to stop time. It was a necessity to keep the game progressing, and we found ourselves playing a game of chicken to see who could not hold out and must sacrifice a piece just to make the clock tick. Sorry guys.

Kareem (red), Allen (yellow) and I (green) had many touchpoints. Ivan (blue) was a bit more isolated and he had a monopoly on some areas. At first I thought it was a good idea to have more touchpoints with others, because there would be more passengers going around, and I would be able to leech the passengers off others' routes. There would be more opportunities available. The problem was there was also more competition, and I often lost out. A monopoly is more powerful because once you grab a passenger and send him to a location which only you can reach, no one else can steal him away from you. If your bus route has all types of buildings, your customers will be super loyal, always taking your bus to bounce about the three building types on your route.

The road names all seem to be related to Splotter Games and their games.

Due to my incorrect rule explanation, we did not claim a single time stone the whole game. Kareem found that strange because in his previous game, the game ended when all time stones were claimed. He looked up the rules, and found out we had been playing wrong all along. By then it was late game, and we decided to continue with our silly ironman version of the game.

Overlapping routes rarely happen, because of how route extension works. Planning your route extension is important because this is a land grab. You not only stake your claim, you also block others from expanding. If you are not careful, you will be denied lucrative paths and you will be forced to make detours.

Now the only building spaces left are the #4 spaces.

Nearing game end.

The Thoughts

After playing Bus, I feel torn. It has many of the qualities of other Splotter games. It doesn't have some of the problems of other Splotter games. The qualities include being highly strategic, competitive and unforgiving. It is heavy, brain-burning and brutal. Yet it doesn't have the fiddliness of many other Splotter games, like Antiquity and Indonesia. In fact this lack of fiddliness makes it feel like a more modern game. It is more streamlined and polished. Yet after playing the game, I did not like it immediately like other Splotter games. Other than Antiquity and Indonesia, I also love Roads & Boats, Food Chain Magnate and The Great Zimbabwe. At first I wondered whether the unforgiving nature was what made me uncomfortable about Bus, but all Splotter games are like this. Why is Bus different? Eventually I concluded that the fiddliness in the other games is actually a soothing balm for me. When it keeps me busy, I feel like I'm doing something constructive and meaningful. I feel like I'm making progress. This is the kind of feeling that development games give us. So even if I lose badly, I feel I've contributed something to society. I still know I have screwed up and I lost fair and square, but I am consoled that throughout the game I have built something I can take a photo of. Bus is so streamlined that I have nowhere to hide. I can't find any excuse for myself. I need to face its brutal honesty.

Despite being an early design, Bus does not feel so. It actually feels more modern than some other Splotter games. My feelings towards it are complicated, because the mind tells me I should like it more, but the heart is siding with its younger siblings.