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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, November 28, 2005

Beowulf: Hot or Not?

The early feedback on Beowulf has been largely negative, but it has also received very strong support from Chris Farrell and others. As with most things, I tend to find the truth is in the middle somewhere (although I'm hesitant to give too much leeway to a game title that anagrams to "Flub" and "Woe"). The most common specific complaint has been about how getting more than an average number of successful "Risks" is key to winning. I know that this wasn't true in my one match, as I took a fair amount of Risks and had a high rate of success, yet finished far behind the leader. I think that just as big of an issue is the number of times you draw double-symbol cards (and in which suits), but haven't we been through this discussion already with Giganten? Similarly, there is a potential imbalance in luck in drawing blind alliance markers (where the values range from 1 to 3). I like games with luck-of-the-draw, but this wide range in payout does seem a bit much for such a short and simple game. I expect someone to come up with a "strategic" variant that reveals upcoming draws prior to the drafting decision being made; this could be done easily with alliance markers, much less so with the cards (which I feel are the biggest problem).

All this aside, the game is a load of fun. In the final auction of our match, after Mike played the Iron Shield (with its four Fighting symbols), Doug proceeded to take a Risk and ended up drawing two matching double-symbol cards! But is the game that light, or is there substantial room for skill in hand & Risk management? I do not have the answer yet, but below are some aspects to consider. I assume that the reader is familiar with the mechanisms and terminology of the game; if not, check out Shannon's review.

Differences in the auctions: There are a total of eleven auctions where cards are used for bidding. Seven of these auctions are circular auctions (action continues clockwise until everyone passes), and four of them employ blind-bidding. The range between greatest reward and severest penalty (or, in some cases, least reward) differs among the auctions. Five auctions stand out as having the widest range, and they correspond to the most intense story action: Grendel's Attack; Hunting the Sea-Hag; Encountering the Sea-Hag; Raid against Friesland; and Dragon Battle. Each of these five is a circular auction. These differences should be accounted for in managing your hand and choosing your battles.

Differences in the suits: The five suits (not counting the wild-card Helmet (Beowulf)) are Axe (Fighting), Fist (Courage), Fox (Wit), Horn (Friendship), and Ship (Traveling). Each appears in four auctions, with Horn appearing in three blind bidding auctions, and Axe only appearing in circular auctions. The number of times that these suits show up in the five key auctions mentioned above is as follows: Axe, 4 times; Fist, 3; Ship, 2; Fox, 1; Horn, 0. None of the auctions featuring Horn have a negative reward, and Fox is the suit most often paired with it. Therefore, I rank the suits Axe, Fist, Ship, Fox, Horn, and this should be considered in Recovery (where players draft from a pool of cards). However, it may be more important to build up a strong suit (but how strong?), and, in any case, choosing between something like a single Axe and a double Fox gets a bit tricky.

When to take the Risk action outside of auctions: There are five such stops on the adventure track. Given the ranking of suits above, I think the only obvious Risk that's a must-do is the Axe/Fist Risk. I would consider the Horn/Ship and Fist/Horn Risks only if I was very sure that an extra Ship or Fist card would make a big difference in an upcoming battle. Tougher calls are the Fist/Fox and Axe/Fox Risks; I think I would prefer to save my Risk-taking for the end of the more important battles.

Playing the circular battles: Beowulf has been compared to Taj Mahal, in that one can spend a lot of cards in a battle yet exit without reward. However, I don't think that's as true here. In Taj, in every city after the first one, two players could be competing for a key palace location or elephant tile, and long battles are more common. In Beowulf, once one or two players have dropped out of the big battles, the remaining players can easily cut out of the battle. 3 of the 7 circular auctions (all among the "big 5" listed above) have a top payout that is significantly better than the second-best payout, so these are more likely to turn into a long battle between the top contenders. For these 3 auctions, if you have a mediocre hand, you might want to play cards early on to see if anyone else is forced to drop out, but I would be unafraid to bail out sooner (taking a Risk on the way out for a shot at avoiding the biggest penalties), saving your cards as long as others are spending them. For the other two big circular battles, most players will probably end up losing the same number of cards, so it doesn't hurt to stay in it, saving Risk-taking for later rounds. Playing the final two circular battles (Dragon's Rampage; Celebration) is a tougher call, and what I would do depends on how likely my opponents are to take Risks; I would certainly lean towards dropping out once one other opponent does so to avoid gaining card disadvantage.

Playing the blind-bid auctions: These 4 auctions feature Horn, Horn/Fox, Horn/Fist, and Ship. I would likely not play anything other than Horns in the first three. I am inclined to bid really light in the Ship auction; two big battles requiring Ships are coming up, and, while the penalties are near-equivalent to those in the blind-bid auction, the rewards are much greater!

How bad is getting 1 wound and 2 cards? In the game Struggle of Empires, players can get stuck with undesirable Unrest counters; you automatically lose the game if you somehow get more than 20, but, otherwise, there are VP penalties for those who end up with the most and second-most counters. In Beowulf, you are effectively removed from the game with 3 or more wounds, but once you have 1 wound (and lose the 5 VP bonus for having no wounds), you can take on a second wound without penalty. It seems to me that taking 2 wounds to get 4 cards gives you a decent shot at recovering those 5 VPs.

What to choose in Selection: Take 2 treasure points, take 2 VP, remove two scratches, draw an alliance, or draw two cards? I am inclined to take the cards, although there are situations that make the treasure very attractive (e.g., treasure and alliances aren't being taken by others). Note that collectively drawing more cards could lead to a larger fluke of an imbalance in symbols on cards, whereas collectively taking a lot of alliances could have a similar effect there.

There are a multitude of other seemingly meaningful considerations: turn order for Recovery; use of your wild Beowulf cards; whether Great Rewards (2 Axes for 3 treasure) is worthwhile (if late in the turn order, I would go contrary to what most others do, otherwise I would go for it unless I had a fairly long Ax suit); whether Peace Recruits (one of each suit for 5 VPs) is worthwhile (seems to be another exercise in groupthink; if too many others go for it, at least one of them will likely match your extra cards on a Risk draw in another battle), which treasure auctions to participate in. And so forth. There are certainly a lot of things to consider, and each of them could probably warrant its own strategy article. Is this enough to overcome the various random distributions? Is Beowulf the type of game you have to play 100 times to reliably tag someone as the "best player"? I am not sure at this point. But I see enough that I want to get it back to the table - soon - and, even if the luck element does overwhelm the rest of the design, the game is sure a lot of fun in any case.


  • At 6:36 PM, Blogger Matthew Gagan said…

    I'd love to see this come out next time game night's at my place. It's actually on my list of games I'm considering, but given that it's six weeks and counting that I've been waiting for my Funagain order, I'm sort of stuck in game purchase limbo...

  • At 9:24 PM, Blogger Dug said…

    I believe that Dave is correct in noting that Beowulf has the potential for a lot of strategic manuevering in terms of "picking your battles/auctions". In our game, we tended to be fairly aggressive in most battles, and by game end it was the person with the most remaining cards that won.

    I think that this game would be boring as hell without the Risk element. My two favorite game elements are Chicken and Guess What The Guy To The Left Will Do, my least favorite may be auctions. However, Medici has almost nothing but auctions, but it also has them in moderation along with a certain amount of Chicken (drawing the cards), so no surprise that a game that combines my least favorite elements in conjunction with my favorite will get a thumbs up from me.

    I was the other person who really liked this game (Chuck and Mike were Eh about it), and I'm looking forward to giving it another try.

  • At 9:53 PM, Blogger dave said…

    "by game end it was the person with the most remaining cards that won."

    Actually, I had both the most gold and the most cards, and still ended well in third. Hmm... that strategy (winning the last two auctions) seems to work in Havoc. :-)

  • At 10:34 PM, Blogger Mike said…

    > But is the game that light, or is there substantial room for skill in hand & Risk management?

    It's totally all about skill! :)

    Seriously, it was OK, I'd play it again, but it's never going to be more than just an OK game.

  • At 11:21 AM, Blogger Jeff Coon said…

    I really enjoyed my first play of Beowulf - enough to purchase it. As you pointed out, there is some strategy involved in hand management and choosing the battles to participate in.

    There are some interesting decisions regarding the wound tokens. In Taj, if you decide not to participate in a battle, nothing bad happens - in fact, you get the best selection of cards from the table. That's actually a consolation. But in Beowulf, going out first sometimes has negative effects that you must decide whether you can safely absorb.

    It's certainly not as good as Taj Mahal, but I enjoy it. There is most certainly a good deal of luck involved in the risks, but in some games luck is an asset. This is one.

    One thing that I didn't immediately realize is how important turn order becomes. I lost several auctions in a row towards the end of the game, but that set me up for breaking a crucial tie in the first of the larger end-game auctions.

    My only complaint was not knowing one of the "wound" spaces in the final auctions gives you two wounds. I was set to end the game with 2 wounds / 2 scratches until I realized that space gave 2 wounds! That key lapse cost me nearly half my victory points, which was too big a swing, IMO.

  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Jeff Coon said…

    Wow, that was much longer (and ramblier <-- neat non-word) than I intended.


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