Friday, April 21, 2017

From Merchants to Vikings

Stefan Feld may be one of the most consistent and creative board game designers around, but even his games go out of print sooner or later. One example is The Speicherstadt, his cutthroat take on an auction game. A number of cards are put up for bids each round, and the first player to bid on a card gets the first opportunity to buy... but at a cost equal to the total number of bids made on it that round. Good strategy is a blend of bidding on the things you actually want and bidding just to raise prices for your opponents.

I quite enjoyed the game, and with my own copy safely in my collection, I hadn't even really known that it had gone out of circulation. Or at least, I hadn't known until last year, when the game returned to print with a new title and theme. Jórvík has the same gameplay as The Speicherstadt, but it's now a competition between Viking jarls attempting to out-feast, out-pillage, and out-craft each other to the most prestige.

In my mind, the new theme doesn't make a lot of sense. It's possible I feel this way only because I know the original, trade-oriented game theme. Or maybe it's that I'm steeped in the familiar trope of aggressive raiders -- a trope that doesn't make much room for crafty, infrastructure-minded Vikings. That said, I don't know that "traders or Vikings" makes a world of difference. The charm of this game is in its mechanics, and under either name, their connection to any story is quite tenuous and abstract.

But Jórvík is not just a re-skin of The Speicherstadt; it's also a re-skin of that game's expansion, Kaispeicher. I never picked up that expansion, so Jórvík was my first chance to play it. And it turns out that skipping on the expansion was probably a good thing.

I think one of the hardest challenges in board game design is to create a good expansion for a game that wasn't originally meant to have any. A great board game is a precariously balanced affair, and an expansion usually disrupts that tight balance to make room for new elements. So it seems to be with Kaispecher. More than just a new batch of cards to shuffle in and add to the auction, the expansion adds a different way of auctioning cards. Half the cards are bid on in the classic manner, while the other half are sold using what might have been an alternate universe version of the game's core mechanic.

The result seems to pit the "starboard rowers" in a completely different rhythm than the "port rowers" (to seize on the Viking flavor), giving you an unpleasant strategic whiplash as you flip between the two. The expansion also unnecessarily adds 3 more types of goods to the core game's 5, and makes the new ones confusingly more rare and valuable than the old ones. It's still more design that feels less like an expansion and more like a second game grafted onto the original.

As a result, my experience with Jórvík left me cold -- even though I quite like The Speicherstadt. If this is now the only way to pick up and play the classic game, I suppose it's better than nothing. But I personally would always choose to play without the built-in expansion. Jórvík is not a "value-added" proposition in my book. I'd give it a C.

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