Background - Why I bought Crisis
When I found out a few weeks ago that I would be going to my first Essen Spiel, one of the first things I looked at was the Spiel Preview page on BGG, curated by the fantastic W. Eric Martin. This is a one-stop shop for all games being released at Essen and believe me, it was exhaustive: 32 pages long at the last count. Sorted by publisher, you can find details on just about every game either being released or demoed prior to Kickstarter campaigns etc.
I guess this is where the 'hotness' starts. We are encouraged to look through the list for games that might appeal, reading blurbs, perusing the artwork...trying to get a feel for the games on offer. Now, whether this is a flaw in my personality or just the result of getting a few purchases wrong over the past couple of years, I tend to do a fair amount of research before I decide to buy a game. I don't have endless money to spend and every time I buy something that doesn't work for me I've lost out. One of the features of the preview page is that you can hide games that don't appeal from appearing again, the idea being to narrow down your list to those you want/need to hear about. I read all about Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail and A Feast for Odin but wasn't particularly drawn to them, although the latter was more based on cost. I would happily buy it but that's a fair chunk of money to spend on one game. The other two, I just didn't have enough information to make an informed decision on. There are no reviews, plenty of blurb saying how great the games are- of course, it's written by the publishers- but very little concrete information. How can you judge a game by its cover? We don't get much more to go on in this situation. Incidentally, I guess this is one of the reasons why I'm a little cool on Kickstarter. I want people to have played the game and given me their take on the game, picked out the important bits relevant to me. Almost by definition, this is pretty rare for a crowd-funded game. However, for Crisis Rahdo had done a run-through and the quality of the gameplay shone through.
What is it about?
1-5 players are working to revive the economy of Axia by investing in failed businesses, hiring staff, generating goods and money and earning victory points in the process. The common goal is to save Axia but each player is aiming to better their opponents. Every round the players have a victory point target (see austerity card above); whether the collective succeeds or fails affects if the financial status improves or worsens. If the economy fails completely, it's possible that all players will lose; this creates an amazing trade-off between acting selfishly to attempt to earn the most points for yourself and also keeping a wary eye on the state of the economy. Each player count specifies different victory point targets and there are also 3 difficulty settings: brilliant! It is set in a fictional world (Axia) but based on the Greek financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Crisis is a worker placement economic game. Thanks to variable setup, there will an unknown demand for each type of good in the game leading to commodity speculation.
Now I am not one to be drawn into a game based solely on nice artwork or fancy miniatures. Of course I love games that appeal visually, but it's not the be all and end all. If the mechanisms work and combine to create an engaging experience, preferably with plenty of human interaction, and the game looks and feels great then that is a winning combo. Crisis shouts quality; attention has been paid to every detail from the smallest and least significant to the most obvious. I own the deluxe version which contains some of the most beautifully designed goods tokens I've seen in a board game. The artwork is evocative and attractive; any iconography is clear.
As previously stated, I like my games to have some interaction between players but prefer not to have combat included, unless it's minimal and very thematic e.g. Specter Ops. I do enjoy Eurogames with a fairly solitaire feel such as Roll for the Galaxy and The Castles of Burgundy so it's not a deal-breaker. In Crisis, there is lots of interaction by necessity of the game design. In my opinion, this is exceptional designing. The interaction feels completely natural, not contrived in any way; players are bumping off each other the whole time, geting in each other's way and competing for the things they need. There are very few spots on the board where multiple players can go which leads to interesting decisions, second guessing where your opponents might be going next and getting the order of your actions right.
I am not very keen on solitaire gaming but it is a mark of how much I'm enjoying Crisis that I would happily sit down and play this solo. It's just as much fun without any opponents and you have to work hard to get the synergy between your companies sorted. If the economy fails it's definitely going to be your fault!
Trading- a possible variant
One mechanism conspicuously absent from the game is trading. Considering that that this is an economic game with a common goal, it's interesting that trade between players is not mentioned in the rules. Already we have found situations where it would be beneficial for multiple players to be able to trade. Player A really needs food to run a business but the spots have been taken already. Player B has plenty of food going spare and needs money, but won't be exporting this round. Why not agree a trade? I would be interested to hear the views of the game designers on this subject; I don't imagine they didn't consider including it in the game so presumably it affects the balance of the game, or maybe makes things too easy? Or maybe they felt it was one mechanism too many in a game with lots going on already.
The first five plays
Our first play was with 4 players on the easiest difficulty: Peter, Jon, Emma and me. It was too easy, in the sense that the economy was never in any peril throughout the game. Playing the game is not easy- you have some pretty tough decisions to make a lot of the time- but when we reached the end we felt there wasn't enough tension in the game. We all sailed past the VP target most rounds. Jon managed to create a money-printing machine for a dominant win. We all enjoyed it, however, and the number of options and different strategies available felt very rewarding.
Second play was 2 players on the medium difficulty and from the first minute we felt under the cosh. Unfortunately the economy collapsed at the end of round 5. Peter and I had both spent our actions building up for a strong round 6 with loads of goods to export but forgot to do the maths. This play felt even more thematic, even more involving, and the loss just whet my appetite further to play it again and this time get it right. It was interesting that while this game is a long way from a co-op for me, we did have to work together to ensure the economy kept going and this provoked some interesting discussion. We weren't avoiding blocking each other or anything like that but the state of the economy created a different atmosphere; it emphasised that we really were aiming for the same thing.
Third play I introduced this to 2 more friends, Neil and David, at Bromsgrove Board Gamers who joined Peter and Me for a 4p game on medium difficulty. Things were looking pretty dire for Axia after 4-5 rounds with only me regularly reaching and surpassing the VP target. However, the economy survived and at the end of the last round I had won with a total of 124 points. There was a slight concern over the power of the banks in the game- I was able to run it from round 1 to the end and had enormous spending power compared to my fellow players- but reassurances from the designers have certainly allayed my fears. Money isn't everything in this game although it is certainly handy!
Fourth play I introduced this to my sister who is not a hardcore gamer but always happy to play light to medium weight games when we meet up. So, 2p on medium difficulty and we encountered a new end game: for the first time the economy failed but a player (me) had managed to exceed the VP target that round and claim the win. End of round 6 the target was 70; Eleanor fell short on 53 thus dragging the financial status from 8 to very minus while I scrabbled to 76. Although she didn't really get her engine going, Elle enjoyed it very much and will undoubtedly perform better next time.
Fifth play was solitaire for the first time. I had a strategy in mind to get my fifth manager and a power plant as quickly as possible to set me up for the rest of the game; while I managed to earn my extra manager during round 2 I didn't get a power plant until near the end. None came out in the first round and then there always seemed to be companies I needed more. Of course, the bonus of playing this solo is that you know the spots you need will be vacant. I was able to buy enough energy to keep my companies going until I got to run my power plant. One of the more challenging aspects of this play was the export market; only being able to store 6 of the more lucrative goods in the warehouse meant that every round where there were 2 or more contracts of the same type, I couldn't fulfill them all because of the limit of goods I could store. In the last round I bought and ran a farm for the first time because there was no other way to get VP once I had sold my machines and industry. The economy was in the red most of the game but I comfortably exceeded the target of 109 in round 7 with 138 (including points from money).
Ripe for expansion?
I have come to the conclusion that I am not the biggest fan of expansions. They have to tread a fine line between adding more interest and choices whilst avoiding adding any new mechanisms. Learning rules is not my forte and I hate having to learn additional things when adding in expansions. However, I think Crisis might be a good contender for an expansion. It seems like there could be lots of scope for new types of buildings, different events, maybe more powerful/varied staff, trading etc, without adding much more complexity/fiddliness. I would like an upgraded warehouse to be an option going forward; it would be awesome to have the choice to be able to store more goods.
I am attracted by economic games in general, though I don't tend to be good at them. My wife, on the other hand, tends to find them complex and a bit dull. The worker placement element of Crisis finds a perfect balance for us between the economic aspect of the game, and the nature of the mechanisms. It's not buy low, sell high: it's about exploiting possibilities, creating strategies on the fly, reacting to the pressures the game, and your fellow players, throw at you. The different event cards, variable contracts and businesses needing investment mean that every game is going to feel somewhat unique.
The theme is ever-present; probably the only thing that could crank up the tension even more would be a soundtrack from Syrinscape or something similar. It also fits beautifully into my 'grail game' category of simple rules but in-depth strategy. It is in my top 10 games. I only hope that you can find a copy if you don't own it. Re-print please LudiCreations!