June 16, 2014

Dynamic Balancing Acts - A Perspective on Ginkgopolis

This review was originally posted on BoardGameGeek.Com April 8, 2013.  As of this reposting, I've played Ginkgopolis over a dozen more times.  The below review still applies.

Ginkgopolis is Xavier Georges’ fifth (I believe) game, following Royal Palace (2008), Carson City (2009), Troyes (2010), and Tournay (2011), along with a smattering of expansions for some of the above. This is the first of Xavier’s game I have played, and is currently ranked 325 in BGG (April 8th, 2013). Both Troyes and Carson city rank higher (39th and 167th respectively).

I admit that I have not played Ginkgopolis exhaustively – as I only have 3 plays under my belt at the time of writing (one each at 5 players, 3 players, and 2 players). Despite this, I found myself enamored with the game, both its flaws and its successes, and spent considerable time thinking about it.

Reactions to Ginkgopolis seem a bit of a mixed bag. The primary criticisms of the game being lack of theme integration with the mechanics and the high level of apparent randomness and uncertainty in the game. I decided to write this review to explore these two criticisms and examine the overall gameplay dynamics at work. I will conclude with my thoughts on how Ginkgopolis “fits” into the overall gaming scene and why I think it will be a compelling but underappreciated game.

Rule Time!

I am not one for doing exhaustive mechanics/rules overview, but for those not familiar with the game, here are the key bullet points on the rules and gameplay:

(1) Players are (abstractly) building “up” and building “out” the city of Ginkgopolis to earn VPs (called “Success Points”, but I’ll call them VP’s in this article).

(2) The gameplay revolves around card drafting (e.g. 7-Wonders style) from a hand of cards; to do one of 3 actions each round: (1) placing tiles to build out (urbanizing), (2) placing tiles to build up (construction) or (3) activating tiles/cards directly (exploiting). The cards you select determines the location or existing tile where your new one will go, in the case of urbanizing or constructing respectively, or determines what existing tile is activated (exploiting).

(3) “Building up” feeds the tableau building aspect of the game. When you build on a tile, you get to place that tiles card in front of you to derive a game-long benefit or end-game bonus scoring.

(4) Tile placement and tableau building drives an engine-building system, netting players VP’s, resources, and tiles during the game for performing certain types actions.

(5) Placing new tiles also drives a shared deck-building mechanic, where new cards are added (and subsequently removed) from the deck of cards as tiles are added to the city (and subsequently built on).

(6) In addition to endgame bonuses from your tableau, VP’s are also earned based on players’ relative control over the city’s districts (i.e. area control).

(7) The game ends when a player has placed all their resources or the stack of tiles is exhausted for the second time (the first time it is exhausted, players can turn tiles back into the stack for VP’s).

Clear as mud?

The promise...

I will say this about the game’s mechanics; they are intricate. Yet when you boil it down, Ginkgopolis is not a complex game (there really aren’t many rules) – but the major mechanical elements (drafting, tile placement, deck building) all interconnect in such a way that it can be hard to describe and teach the game in a linear manner. The learning is certainty front loaded, and it often takes a few rounds for new players to get a sense of how all the pieces fit together. Once you “grok” the game, it comes together in a very elegant and fluid way.

However, Ginkgopolis has the paradox of being both elegant and fiddly at the same time. The interaction between the mechanical elements of the game is very tight and is where the originality (and innovation) of the game resides. It IS elegant how you build cards to your tableau, covering the associated building tile, and then add a new card to deck based on the new tile you placed. It’s quite cool to see these different systems so well intertwined.

Yet the actual play experience is considerably more fiddly. There are cards all over the place (draw piles, discards, hands to pass, cards in the stack, cards in tableaus); you need to pause the action to sort through stacks of cards to find the right ones to add to the deck, you need temporary markers to keep track of what new tiles were built, drafting itself is somewhat fiddly, you have a small mountain of tiles behind your player screen, two pools of resource tokens, etc. It’s a case where the ergonomic of the gameplay play don’t quite match the efficiency of the mechanics as they exist as a concept.

Credit: Jakub Niedźwiedź

Fortunately, the artwork and component quality is great – so all your fiddlying about with the game components is at least a reasonably enjoyable experience, and NOT mired by poor production values. The tiles in particular are really nice and chunky, and the card quality is quite high as well.

And this brings us to the next topic…

Theme (from target audience’s perspective?)

I’m probably the perfect audience for this game’s theme. I went to college for natural resources and sustainability science, followed by a master’s program in Landscape Architecture / urban design. Buying this game was, in some cosmic sense, my destiny.

For the record, less my credentials be tarnished, no one in their right mind would build a city around the Ginkgo tree (without some genetic modification perhaps) – they are horrendously messy dioecious trees (that means there is a male and female plant) and the female trees in particular have a notoriously stinky fruit that it drops. The matter is made more difficult because it’s hard to tell what sex a particular plant is until it flowers. The lush city of Ginkgopolis would likely have air quality “issues.”

Regardless of that, I can dig the theme. It’s different and refreshing, and it sets it apart from the recent flood of other City Building games. I happen to like the cartoony (but very well done) artwork. And frankly, the cover art sold me before I knew anything about the game. So there you have it!

Now, the subject of theme-mechanic integration is another matter entirely. Even without reading Xavier’s prior posts about how he conceptualized the theme in the mechanics, I can put on my super-hero landscape architect / urban designer hat and imagine the thematic connection to all the mechanics.
Trading around hands of cards? Obviously a metaphor for the need to take advantage of development opportunities when they present themselves. Otherwise the market may change and the opportunity is lost. And of course, you can’t do everything, hence passing the cards.
Urbanization (suburban sprawl) and Construction (redevelopment)? No brainers. Heck, even discarding success points to build a lower number tile makes sense (you’re going to rip down a sky scrapper and build single family housing!? Are you mad!?).
Deck-building/evolution? Cities evolve, and actions taken today shape what might happen in the future.
Drawing random tiles? See point #1 about the need to take advantage of tactical opportunities. This made even richer because you, as the planner/developer, are literally aligning opportunities in matching a card (site) and a tile (development program). Makes sense.
Tableau building? These are your development assets that, once constructed, provide continued opportunities and paybacks. It’s all about investments man.
Resources? The connection to capitol and financial investment (and the liquidity between them) comes across to me!
Starting characters? Obviously the horde of interns you have working for you at various city departments.
Area control? Get off my turf dude!

But, despite my uncanny ability to see into the mind of the designer, I can fully understand why the theme doesn’t come across to most players. I think it’s a combination of the nice but sci-fi / abstract nature of the artwork coupled with a lack of text saying “what” such and such a card/tile/resource is.

If the various cards/tiles actually had names that implied in some way what their function is, I think people might have an easier time of it. If red (resource) buildings were commercial/economic/job generator type buildings (factories, stores, etc.), and blue were public assets (parks, libraries, etc.), and yellow were residential/housing (more people, more success!) I think it would instantly start making sense to people. Heck, even give them goofy/sci-fi names (habitation domes, hydroponic factories, space dome etc.). This would help reinforce the end-game area majority scoring too (Bob’s a slum lord with all those low value yellow tiles again!).

I’ve veered off into conjecture a little there, I apologize… but I think you catch my drift. The theme in Ginkgopolis is there and does make sense at a fundamental level; and it’s a very evenly abstracted manifestation of city building dynamics, which I at least appreciate. HOWEVER, I also think the theme can be readily lost on people, and the game missed opportunities to play up its theme in a more overt and compelling manner. For those willing to look past this pasted-on-y-ness, the theme does provide a refreshingly unique setting and style.

Side note: Of course, one has to consider that by NOT putting text on the cards/tiles, the game is immediately language neutral in terms of its components. This has merit, and is no doubt why the decision was made to exclude such text in the first place.

Alright, enough on the subject of theme….

Dynamics in the City of Stinky Trees

First off, and to acknowledge the criticism of the game’s critics; yes there is mechanical uncertainty in the hand of cards you are dealt (and passed) and in the tiles you draw. Does this make the game too luck based? It depends on your perspective and tolerances.

If I had to guess, the people that find this most troubling are headed down the river in the same boat with the people that think it’s absurd and totally random that in Carcassonne you only get 1 tile and you have to play it, or that in Kingdom Builder the thing you draw each turn tells you where you have to build. If you feel that way about those games, I wouldn’t be surprised if you feel the same about Ginkgopolis; which is that it’s too “random” for your mojo. This may feed the impression many people seem to have, which is that there is little long-term planning opportunity in the game.

What I hope to achieve below, is to discuss how the very visceral constraints in Ginkgopolis and how you anticipate and mitigate around them is one of the chief dynamics in the game and where the depth is. I suppose, at the end of the day, you either like that dynamic or you don’t. Regardless, here we go…

Balancing Acts

The cat in the hat image comes to mind when I think about the gameplay experience in Ginkgopolis. There is quite a bit of uncertainty coming at you from quite a number of directions; yet there are only 4 choices staring at you each round (actually that’s 8 each round, because each card be used to exploit or to build/expand).

The skill in the game, in my still limited experience, comes from being able to anticipate the likely opportunities and risks that are coming down the pipe, while balancing different sets priorities over the course of the game. It’s about how you position yourself to be able to take advantage of those 8 choices so that you are not stuck with a hand of only “bad choices” but are flush with “variably good choices.” Mitigating the inherent randomness of the card deal is entirely about positioning yourself for flexibility.

A Healthy Dose of Flexibility

Ginkgopolis is not a game of prescriptive strategies (from what I can tell). You can’t go a few turns into the game and say, “I’m going control a giant blue district and win!” You may not even be able to say “I’m going to focus on building high value cards for end game bonuses!” The game state is too volatile over the course of the game for that kind of planning. Plus, the mechanical interconnections in the game mean you need a flexible approach that doesn’t totally ignore any one aspect of the game. So, the long-term strategy isn’t in trying to force a particular path to victory, but rather in playing the odds, maintaining flexibility, identifying opportunities, and knowing whether and when to seize on a stream of opportunities.

If you find that you are faced with nothing but “bad choices” in your hand, it’s probably because you specialized too much in one aspect of the game early on - e.g. specializing in construction and then running out of resources and/or not having good exploiting bonuses to fall back on. This need for flexibility speaks to the tension between spreading out your risk by building your tableau so that any move is potentially strong, versus focusing your tableau-engine around a particular action type.

Choices, choices ....

Layered onto this is the balance between the four principal scoring mechanics, (1) VP’s earned during play (2) VP’s earned by cashing in tiles, (3) scoring cards in your tableau and, (4) the area control. And there is also the need to decide when to focus on building end-game scoring cards, which needs to synergize with what else you have in your tableau, and area control in the city. In my few games, the points awarded for tableau cards can easy rival points for district control. How you prioritize the balance of the two is pretty critical to effective play. Obviously, if they can be combined in some way, that’s preferable – but it doesn’t always work out.

Execution + Interaction

Key Questions: what cards have come up? What opportunities are still out there? Who’s likely to want to take advantage of what things? What play maximizes gains now versus what play helps build my engine in the future? What cards do I not want to pass to my opponent, is it better to play that for myself versus give it to them?

These are the types of questions that will (hopefully) come to your mind as you weigh and consider your options each hand. And while the big strategic picture is shaped by the need for flexibility as a tool to mitigate uncertainty, the execution of that strategy is an engrossing tactical affair.

Each “round” (e.g. between deck reshuffles) you know that every urbanization spot and every tile will come up as a card in someone’s hand, and each reflects an opportunity for tile placement. Each player is going to have some optimal moves based on their tableau bonuses and available tiles, and keying in on these locations is important. If I know Bob is going to pull a lot of points if he builds on top of my spot, then I better deny him that if (and when) I can.

In the smaller player count games, with a hand of 4 cards it is entirely possible that cards you pass along are going to make it back into your hand. I don’t have this level of skill (and familiarity) in the game yet, but I can imagine that an experienced player could find considerable depth in a 2 or 3 person game in just this dynamic. Perhaps there is a good card that you pass on to deny your opponent a strong move by taking their card. Now your opponent has a choice – do they pass your strong card back to you or play it sub-optimally themselves? Potentially interesting choices abound.

Generally speaking, when you get into the higher player counts this type of analysis becomes more difficult to perform. There is quite a bit information to look at and consider, shifting the focus away from predicting everyone else’s needs/optimal moves and more towards your own turn maximization. But this isn’t all bad, as there is still a fair amount to consider and plenty of interaction through the district control game. And there is a nice ripple effect to almost any choice. Urbanization changes the landscape for subsequent urbanization actions – and you need to be mindful of what opportunities you might be (literally) handing someone else by expanding.

Similarly, building up not only adds cards to your tableau but affects the district control majorities – the biggest source of interaction outside the drafting mechanic. While you might not be able to control whether you ever get the opportunity to deliver some crushing area control takeover, you will likely have a number of strong moves in your hand nonetheless if you detach yourself from what you “want” to do and instead think more creatively about how the opportunities you do have could translate into future benefits.

And here again is where flexibility comes to play. Having more resources (and a good resource flow/engine) and more tiles on hands let you turn seemingly poor options into great ones. Maybe you can’t split up one player’s control in a district by building on top of his tile, but you instead build on a lesser tile and change the tile color to split his district in a different way – perhaps increasing your claim in another one at the same time. The game builds in these clever little balancing mechanics – players get their resources back (and VP’s) when someone builds on top of your tiles. It reminds me of Tigris & Euphrates in this regard, where your overt conflict actions often lead to secondary impacts and self-balancing measures to inhibit runaway leaders.

In my view, the luck swings revolve more around the tiles than the cards anyway. The cards are a more known entity, and there is far more predictability in what will be available. The tiles on the other hand are substantially more randomized, yet even here one can pursue a mitigation strategy. The best approach for managing your luck in terms of the tiles is by placing more emphasis on getting bonuses and taking actions that give you tiles. The more tiles you have, the more opportunity you will have to make a strong move out of your cards each round. Plus, tiles are also worth bonus points during the trade-in when the tile stack is empty, so 1 tile is potentially worth at least 1 VP, which puts it in perspective relative to the VP generating actions.

Closing Postulations

All in all, the relatively narrow set of choices you face at each point in game has a way of synergizing with the whole “doctrine of flexibility” strategy in a way that allows for creative an insightful play. Sure, you only have 4 cards (8 choices), but this is also compounded by all the tiles you have accumulated and their possible placements – a decision which creates ripple effects through the rest of the game. Incidentally, this is also a dynamic that I really enjoy, and Ginkgopolis has been a big hit for me in this regard. It is simple (when you boil it down) – with the constraints creating a strange sort of freedom at the same time.

My chief complaint against the game goes back to a point I made earlier concerning its fiddly-ness and how that impacts the play experience. The game length is listed as 45 minutes, which is about right for a 3 or 4 player game after everyone knows the rules and has a game or two under their belt. This does put the game in a rather unique niche of being a more engaging/intricate game that doesn’t take long to play. However, the high upfront learning curve means that with a rules explanation and the usual host of first-time questions, the first game is going to take considerably longer. At the worst, one could spend 30 minutes explaining a game that’s only supposed to take 45 minutes. Your tolerance for that will no doubt vary – for me it wasn’t an issue.

What I do find more irritating however is that the setup/cleanup time is out of proportion with the expected game length (although not with its depth). There are a lot of bits to sort through, card piles to separate, starting characters/hands to deal etc. Compared to something like Carcassonne, it is a bear to setup whereas Carc is far less involved. The short playtime might suggest that Ginkgopolis could be a good new-to-gaming game – but I think that’s a mistake. Just looking at the game, once setup, could easily overwhelming budding/new gamers in my mind – and coupled with upfront learning curve could make it a hard sell .

Ultimately – Ginkgopolis is a bit of a different animal. I think the game is going to have its share of fans (myself included) and among them it will remain a hit. But a lot of people are going to have a tough first impression and/or not be able to see beyond the theme and surface mechanics to get what the game is trying to do. However, the mechanical intricacy and potential depth in game, coupled with a short playtime, makes it an excellent “gamers’ filler game” in my opinion (along the lines of Race for the Galaxy) – and I hope the game will be recognized for its potential in that arena.

Is Ginkgopolis a monster weight strategy game with tons of long-term planning? No. But it IS a novel game that packs a surprisingly amount of punch and interaction in a short playtime, and does so with a theme that is as abstract and detached as it is unique and refreshing.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on my review. Much appreciate.

    It's interesting that you mention Glen More, both it and Ginkopolis are about as intricate as I'm willing to get with Euro's - after that they start to get a bit too murky for me.

    That said, I do like them both, and I should look into writing a review for Glen More some day, as I do enjoy it. A few months ago I had multiple games of Ginkgopolis and Glen More going on all at the same time on the web-based versions of the game, which was a lot of fun.

    I like Glen More (more?) because I feel like players have a bit more control over their destiny and the play feel smoother. Glen More is also a little easier to forecast who is in the lead or approximate score placemen, while Ginkgopolis is a bit more obtuse to see until the end. The theme in Glen More is much easier to get and understand too, as you say. I almost wished in Ginkgopolis that they just went fully abstract with it - as I think the hard to discern theme and the quirkiness of the theme turned a lot of people off on the game.