Posted by: gschloesser | August 2, 2011

Globopolis

Design by:  Mike Lasher
Published by:  Glopolis Games
2 – 5 Players, 90 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

This review also appears in abbreviated form in Counter Magazine #19

One of the toughest chores that I face as a reviewer of games is to deliver an unfavorable review.  I know fully that the heart and soul of a designer has likely been poured into a project and it is, in a sense, his “baby”.  No one enjoys hearing criticism about his baby. 

However, to me, truthfully reporting my opinion on a game is of utmost importance if my credibility is to be maintained.  I write reviews primarily because I enjoy writing, but also because I do feel a sense of duty to truthfully report my perceptions of the games I play to other gamers and the general public.  Some have suggested that only positive reviews should be published and if a game is not enjoyed, it is best that a review not be written.  I disagree with this approach and feel that everyone deserves to be informed of the merits of a game, be they good or bad.  To do less, in my opinion, would be a lapse of duty and an injustice. 

That being said, I also suffer no illusions that my opinion is the only opinion.  Indeed, I fully urge anyone who reads reviews or reports I may write to also read the reports and reviews of other trusted individuals.  I wouldn’t want anyone basing their game purchases on my opinions alone.  Ideally, a “try before you buy” approach is the best, but in the absence of that, I strongly urge folks to read the reviews and reports of a variety of individuals when making a purchase decision.

OK … enough of that.  Let’s get back to the game at hand – Globopolis, released by a company of the same name.  The designer and owner of the company is Mike Lasher, an energetic, dynamic and aggressive American who is making his first foray into the gaming industry.  As a bit of a background, Lasher formed his own bicycle touring company in Germany, offering guided bicycle tours of various cities in Europe to tourists.  Apparently, the company has been very successful and benefited from Mike’s aggressive marketing tactics.  

So why take the leap from tourism to board games?  According to the story published in the Globopolis rule book, Mike acquired the idea of designing and marketing the game based on discussions with an associate.  Apparently, the name came first, with the story and board game being developed around the name.  Not exactly an orthodox manner of designing a game, to be sure. 

So what’s the story?  In the not-too-distant future, a large asteroid strikes the earth, causing massive volcanic eruptions.  The disaster is cataclysmic and results in a global winter, with sulfuric ash and soot blocking out the rays of the sun and contaminating the earth’s fresh water resources.  After years of chaos, order is finally restored and man develops ways to adapt to this harsh new environment.  The result is Globopolis – the global city in space that helps support life and allows man to continue to survive and develop. 

Certainly, this makes for interesting science-fiction and could conceivably make for an entertaining board game.  Sadly, this game has its roots solidly set in the tired old system used in Monopoly.  Perhaps the fact that the name of the game was originally known as Globopoly should have provided us a clue. 

To be clear, the game is much more than Monopoly.  Many layers have been added to the system, giving the game far more options and a more aggressive nature.  The question, though, is this:  do the additional layers make the game more interesting than Monopoly and make it more fun to play?  Well, they certainly add quite a bit of complexity and decision-making, but at the cost of a more confusing and difficult game to learn.  This is not going to be a game that your average family can learn and play without considerable difficulty.  Given a choice, I’d likely choose to play Globopolis over Monopoly, but hopefully my choices wouldn’t be limited to just those two games as both games pale in comparison to the abundance of German-style games available on the market.  One can’t help but get the distinct feeling that the designer’s main exposure to games was Monopoly and similar designs. 

Time to look at the game in detail.  First, let me state that the components are outstanding.  Clearly, a considerable amount of money went into the game’s production.  The board, artwork, rules, pieces, cards, player aid charts, etc. are all top quality and, for the most part, professionally arranged.  The Lego-like pieces were that are a central component of the game were specifically designed for the game.  I can’t imagine the expense involved. 

The board depicts a globe with 64 individual spaces divided into four quadrants, with a scoring track running along the outer edge.  This does make the board a bit crowded and the constant reaching and placing of pieces required by the game’s mechanisms often causes pieces to be disrupted.  More than once the scoring markers have been knocked asunder, forcing us to attempt to remember the correct scores.  This is quite bothersome and could have been rectified with a more functional layout. 

The spaces themselves are each color-coded and labeled with the names of countries, guilds or special game locations.  Most locations have a corresponding Title card which lists that territory’s starting resources, cost to develop and income should someone land on that territory.  Unlike Monopoly, the color-groups are not all adjacent, but rather several are scattered at various points around the board.  Many of the colors shades used are very similar, so it makes locating various territories a bit difficult.  

The game begins with each player being dealt the Titles to several territories, the exact number being dependent upon the number of players.  Players set one of their plastic bases onto each of their territories and place the starting resource cubes onto these bases.  These cubes come in five colors representing water, food, energy, Ultralight Component Production (UCP’s) and Network Security Units (NS-Units).  They are tiny plastic cubes, ¼” in diameter and are designed to stack together, similar to the popular Lego blocks.  The bases have space for two separate rows of cubes, as well as a row for the wider economic development units.  Players ultimately strive to possess two complete sets of all five resources on a territory as this allows for economic development of that territory, which improves income and victory points.  

In addition to the Titles, players also begin the game with seven cards.  Cards come in three varieties:  

Ops:  These cards expand a player’s ability to attempt aggressive takeovers of opponents’ territories.  Normally, attacks can only be made against opponent’s territories in the same quadrant as your token (known as your governor).  These cards depict various color combinations that allow you to launch attacks to or from those colors.  Certainly they expand your options, but they are very cumbersome and you quickly grow weary of constantly consulting these cards to determine if you occupy the correct space from which to launch an attack.  Again, the functionality is called into question. 

Influence:  These offer special advantages that can be gained during the course of the game.  Think of these as ‘Event’ cards. 

Mission:  Usually, these cards will grant an instant victory if the requirements listed on the card are fulfilled.  The problem is that several cards are extremely unbalanced and the requirements far easier to achieve than other cards in the deck.  Fortunately, this is easy to correct by simply removing the offending cards from the deck prior to playing. 

Players also begin the game with several Agent pieces.  Agents are a quasi-optional rule, but their use does add more strategic options to the game.  Agents are used to infiltrate opponent’s territories or protect your own territories and can give advantages during takeover attempts.  Basically, the player with the most agents on a territory rolls an extra die in combat.  Players are free to rearrange the location of their agents at the conclusion of their turn, so it is very easy to move them to desired locations.  There is a strict limit of three agents per player per territory.  Again, it is quite common for the territory spaces to become quite congested due to the presence of agents, bases and pawns.  

After collecting their starting cash (known as ‘Economic Units’ in game parlance), players begin the game on the Teleport space and ‘take off’.  This space shoots each player randomly to a location on the board, effectively scattering each player.  Although a clever idea, it is not without some concern.  Some players will be zapped closer to the ‘start’ space (which is the Teleport space) and will therefore be able to cross the space more quickly than their opponents.  Each time a player passes the Teleport space, he collects 40 EU, not a trifle amount.  So, a lucky roll to begin the game will give you a strong edge in finances.  

Each player’s turn is divided into two phases: 

Options Phase:  During this phase, players may execute as many options as they desire.  If playing with the optional timer, then the amount of time a player has to execute these options is limited to 90 seconds.  After my first playing, it became obvious to me that the timer should only be used when playing with a team of Globopolis veterans.  Otherwise, little could be accomplished in that time frame.  Heck, it takes a considerable amount of time simply to un-stack, exchange and re-stack all those tiny little blocks!  Needless to say, we opted to play our games without the timer and this didn’t perceptively slow the game down. 

The options a player has on his turn are several: 

a)      Allocate Resource Units (those tiny little blocks) from your personal stockpile to the various bases you have on your territories on the board.  Since each base can only possess two of each type of resource – with the exception of the black NS-Units – excess resources are kept in front of each player in their personal stockpile.  Further, players may freely transfer Resource Units between their various territories.  The idea here is to form complete sets of resources on territories so you can economically develop them.  The problem, however, is that this involves constant switching of those tiny little blocks, meaning players are continually reaching across the board, picking up bases, stacking and un-stacking pieces, etc.  This is time consuming, tedious and disruptive.  I addressed this concern with the game’s designer, but there is no real solution as it is at the heart of the game system. 

b)      Invest in Economic Development.  If a player has at least one complete of resources on one of his territory bases, he may purchase an economic development piece for that base.  The cost of this project is listed on the territory card.  A second economic development unit may be constructed if the base contains two complete sets of resource units.  The advantage of an economically developed territory is that 5 victory points are earned for each level of economic development.  Further, the player with the greatest level of economic development gains an extra die when involved in conflict.  

c)      Trading.  Players may freely trade just about everything – resources, territories, cards, etc.  This can be an important element of the game and certainly favors those players who are trade-savvy. 

d)      Cash in EU for up to 5 victory points, or vice-versa.  To prevent folks from hoarding money, then cashing it in late in the game to make a surge for victory, the rules do prevent players from cashing in EU for victory points once they are closer than 25 points away from the game-ending victory point level.  

e)      Owners of a Guild Territory may transfer up to three resources from that Guild to their personal stock.  There are four Guilds on the board and they supply various resources.  Players are free to purchase up to three resources from a Guild on their turn, with the profits going to the player possessing the Guild.  The amount of resources available at each Guild is strictly limited, though, and usually depletes after a turn or two.  I personally found this to be a bit unbalancing as the lucky possessor of a Guild had free access to resources for a time AND was pretty much assured of an additional cash inflow for a turn or two.  The only way to lose possession of a Guild is if another player happened to land on that territory. 

f)        Roll the Dice.  A player can roll 1, 2 or 3 dice and move their pawn clockwise around the board.  At this point, a player enters Phase 2 of their turn.  Alternatively, a player can choose to roll 1, 2 or 3 dice and move counter-clockwise.  However, if opting to move counter-clockwise, for each die rolled, the player must surrender 3 victory points.  This is a clever mechanism, but made less effective by the rule that a player must decide BEFORE rolling the dice whether he desires to move clockwise or counter-clockwise.  This was certainly not clear in the rules and had to be clarified by the manufacturer.  More strategy and decision-making would have been added to the game if the rules allowed for a player to decide the direction of his movement AFTER rolling the dice.  As is, the luck factor in the outcome is just too strong. 

This ‘Roll the Dice’ option caused considerable confusion, particularly when attempting to decipher the rules.  Once a player rolls the dice, he moves his token and moves into Phase 2 of his turn.  Yet, the dice rolling options are listed under Phase 1 of the rules, which state that players may execute as many of these options as they desire.  The implication is that you can roll the dice, move your pawn, than continue to execute other options listed.  That’s not the case and this, too, had to be clarified with the company.  The ruling is that once the dice are rolled and you move your pawn, you do, indeed, enter Phase 2 of your turn and can no longer execute any of the other options listed under Phase 1.  Technically, the ‘Roll the Dice’ Option marks the beginning of Phase 2 of your turn. 

Event Phase.  After rolling the dice and moving your token, you perform the action based upon the space upon which your token lands.  Most of the spaces on the board are standard territories.  If no one owns the territory you land upon, you immediately take the corresponding Title card and starting resources.  Unlike Monopoly, there is no cost required – you simply take control of the Title.  Place one of you bases onto the territory and stack the starting resources onto the base.  You also gain victory points as listed on the Title card.  

If you already own the territory, you draw a card from the Operations-Mission stack and can then either: 

1)      Roll again and continue moving, OR

2)      Attack another territory located in the same quadrant.  The attack is launched from the territory you currently own and occupy.  Alternatively, you can attack a territory located in a different quadrant from the territory you occupy IF the color conditions match the requirements of any Operations cards you possess.  Yes, this requires checking each card every time this situation occurs, which is quite tedious. 

If, however, the territory you land upon is owned by an opponent, you have two options: 

1)      Pay the ‘conference costs’ as listed on that player’s Title card to the player who owns the territory, OR

2)      Attempt to take-over the territory.  The attack must be launched from another territory you own in that same quadrant, OR from a different quadrant IF you possess an Operations card that matches the circumstances.  Again, you must consult your each of your Operations cards to ascertain if the requirements are met.  Did I mention tedious? 

There are several other types of spaces located on the board, including: 

Guilds.  When landing on an un-owned Guild, take the Title and starting resources associated with that particular Guild.  You also gain 4 victory points.  If, however, the Guild is already owned by another player, simply confiscate the Title and remaining resources from that player, who loses the 4 victory points he had previously gained by possessing the Title. 

Independent Territories.  Landing on one of three of these four territories provides a super buying opportunity.  The player rolls two 6-sided dice and can then purchase up to that many resources from the territory.  Israel produces food, Russia produces UCP and NS units, while India produces food and UCP units.  If you are not in need of any of these resources, simply roll again. 

If you are lucky enough to land on Switzerland, you receive 10 Economic Units and 5 victory points.  Then, you may purchase resources from any one of the other three independent territories in the same manner described above.  Talk about your lucky roll!  This is better than hitting ‘Free Parking’ in Monopoly when playing by the incorrect rules! 

Card Fields.  This is sort of like ‘Chance’ or ‘Community Chest’ in Monopoly.  Draw a card and move on.  There is a limit to the number of cards a player can hold, however, and excess cards must be discarded.  

Orbital Shuttle Locations.  There are four Orbital Shuttle locations that allow the player to zip to any other Orbital Shuttle location on the board.  This is a quick way to get to a side of the board you desire. Of course, if you pass ‘Go’ (err … the Teleport space), you collect 40 Economic Units.  

Network Security and Infiltration Academies.  When landing on one of these spaces, you roll a 6-sided die and take a number of NS-Units or Agents, as listed on the appropriate chart.  

And let’s not forget that wonderful Moonshot location, which earns the lucky player who lands upon it 10 victory points!  Now we’re talking ‘Free Parking’! 

Once a player has completed any actions required by the space(s) landed upon, his turn is complete.  While the next player is performing his actions, the player may freely re-arrange any Agents he has in his possession, transferring them to new location as he sees fit.  The idea here is to move agents to locations that you feel you will attempt to takeover on your subsequent turn and/or to help protect your own vulnerable territories.  

I’ve mentioned ‘takeovers’ and ‘aggressive actions’ several times.  Unlike Monopoly, territories you own are not secure in Globopolis and they can come under assault with regularity.  Assaults are resolved by rolling dice … lots of them.  Basically, the defender has an inherent advantage as he receives a 10-sided die and two 6-sided dice, while the attacker receives an 8-sided die and a 6-sided die.  However, these can be augmented by several factors.  More dice are awarded to both players for each black NS-unit present on their respective territory involved in the attack.  Further, the player possessing the greatest level of economic development receives an additional die.  Finally, the player possessing the most agents on each territory receives an extra die.  Then, the rolling begins, with Influence cards sometimes being played to vary the odds. 

Both players roll their dice and the results compared.  If a player rolls doubles, triples, etc. on their 6-sided dice, then the value of their large die (the 10 or 8-sided die) is doubled or tripled accordingly.  Results are tallied and the player rolling the lowest total must lose one of his 6-sided dice.  This process is repeated over and over again until one player is completely out of dice.  To the victor goes the spoils, as the loser must surrender the territory he controlled to the victor.  Along with it go all resources and victory points, with the exception of the black NS-units and the Economic Development units, which were destroyed in the confrontation.  Players then adjust their victory point levels accordingly. 

This dice-rolling method is, at first, quite fun.  However, after a few rolls, it usually becomes obvious as to which player will emerge victorious, so the final few dice rolls tend to be anti-climactic.  Further, since the stakes are so high, it is usually not advantageous to enter into a confrontation unless you have a clear and substantial advantage.  Risk-taking can be costly.  In the games I’ve played, this becomes evident after an initial attack, so such takeover attempts become relatively scarce.  

The game is played until a pre-set victory point limit is achieved, or until someone achieves the requirements listed on one of their Mission cards.  The round is completed, giving each player an equal number of turns and a chance to achieve victory.  Barring the situation wherein multiple players achieve special Mission card victory conditions, than the player with the most victory points, or the player who achieved their Mission card victory conditions, is victorious. 

All of our games have clocked in at between 60 and 90 minutes, which is not a bad time frame.  Victory points are fairly easy to earn, so there is a steady progression towards the required total.  Further, since attacks have been relatively rare in the games I played, the loss of victory points is also rare.  

So, with several playings under my belt, what is my assessment?  Is the game worth playing?  If you are a fan of Monopoly and are interested to investigate other possibilities with that core mechanism, then Globopolis may certainly be worth a look.  It certainly adds many layers to that game system, but with corresponding layers of difficulty and, often, confusion.  Although the rules are presented in an eye-pleasing, artistic manner, there are gaps and ambiguities.  The average family would likely become extremely confused and frustrated when attempting to learn and play the game.  Just think about how widespread the rules misinterpretations and blatant errors are in a game as relatively simple as Monopoly.  Globopolis is at a much higher level in terms of complexity and this could likely deter the average family from making the effort to lean and play the game. 

The designer has stressed that the game can be considered a ‘kit’, with owners free to design their own rules and variants to suit their tastes.  I have no problem with this concept, but do have concerns when the game itself has ambiguities and gaps.  The average family simply will not take the time or effort to fill in these gaps on their own.  They, as do gamers, want a game that is playable right out of the box – one that is easy to understand and fully developed.  Anything less is bound to disappoint. 

On top of the rules gaffes and complexity of the game system, however, is the fact that the game just doesn’t measure up to the fun, excitement and ingenuity offered by many, if not most, contemporary games.  In spite of some clever new ideas and layers, the game has that familiar feel to it.  I guess as long as Monopoly continues to sell hundreds of thousands of games each year, there will be designers who have the urge to tinker with the game’s system and offer new variants using that tired, old mechanism.  I, for one, grew weary of that system years ago and have since moved on to better, more exciting designs and games.  

I can’t end without mentioning the marketing efforts being used to promote Globopolis.  For years, I’ve been hammering game companies for their lack of creativity in the promotion of their games.  The term “thinking out of the box” has been vastly over-used by corporations and groups, but it certainly fits here.  Mike Lasher and his team have been creative, innovative and aggressive in their marketing efforts.  Yes, the “sell games for us and earn money” idea is of questionable taste, but his other efforts are to be applauded.  It is easy to see why his bicycle touring business has become so successful.  Large and small game companies stand to learn a great deal from the marketing ideas and efforts he has implemented in the promotion of his game.  Sadly, I just wish there was a better game in the package he is promoting.

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