Times played: 1.5 (one game aborted due to rules confusion) – with demo copy
Time: 90-120 minutes
[Author's note: This is one in a series of many game reports from the Spiel 2010 crop of games. While I would normally not write reviews without playing a game at least three times, I have decided to write my initial thoughts down in order to be able to get to more games in a timely fashion. I realize that some games have complexities/subtleties that only are evident after multiple plays – and as such, I will make a point to always outline my level of experience with the game. Finally, while I will always make an effort to describe the rules to the game, the descriptions here are not meant to be comprehensive nor complete – just enough for the reader to get a feel for the game and how it works - DY]
One of the great things about Essen is getting to learn about new companies and the new games that they have produced. To me, this is one of the most exciting parts of the week – trying to find the "diamond in the rough" as it were. The first great finds like this that I can remember was Jenseits von Theben (Prinz Games) or Leapfrog (Fragor Games). These were both in small booths, tucked in an out-of-the-way hall at Spiel – and I knew virtually nothing about them before I saw them demoed at the fair. Finding games such as these has spurred me on to continually be on the lookout for similar finds.
This year, there were a multitude of new booth renters at Spiel – many of which were from Eastern Europe. Sinonis was one such company, and they had two new games on offer this year: Show Business and Master of Economy. There was only a smattering of information available prior to the show about both of these games, so I only knew about the basic themes before I arrived in Germany. I did manage to set up a short meeting at the booth, but the guys running the booth were super-busy. They were in a pretty small booth, so there wasn't much room for demos (only one table IIRC) – so while I was there, I was able to get a short overview but not a full blown demo. I was very intrigued by the idea of Show Business – put together the best band you can and tour Europe to make the most money! So I brought a copy (or two) home from the show to try.
Here's the short version of the report: I honestly don't have a verdict on the game. I'm not entirely sure that I've played the game of Show Business yet, and I don't know if I have the willpower or time to figure it out. For more details, read on.
The object of the game is simple: form a music band during the course of the game and win by having either the most popular band (highest up on the Popularity scoring track) OR by having the most money in hand. Sounds good so far, right? I agree! I'll try to go into some detail about the rest of the game (or at least how I think it's supposed to be played) – but there are a number of questions that aren't answered in the rules and a number of questions that are generated in the rules due to the atrocious translation. And, before you think I'm being unfair in judging the rules, I will note that the game designer and publisher have made mention of the translation issues online and have said that they are working on a new translation to come out soon. They have also put out five detailed "tutorial" articles to help novice players get through the rules and understand how the game "should" be played.
As a short example, this is the introductory paragraph of the rules, directly lifted from the .pdf file:
"Show Business is the economic-tactic game for 2 to 5 players, aged 13+, with the game time 60 to 150 minutes. Become music manager, create your own, unique band and have it play Rock, Pop, Black, Jazz or Club music and record popular hits. Predict trends and influence mass media, to have your hits better ranked on charts, than hits of your competitors. Use your influence power to hire professionalists available on the market, to help your band raise its popularity or to weaken career of other groups. Contract most lucrative concerts and travel with your band around the best music clubs. Take care of high satisfaction within the group, to have your band as long as possible with you. You've got one year to lift up your debuting band on top of popularity. Gain fame and money greater than your competitors!"
So, as you can see, it's not perfect English, but in general, it should be "understandable". Unfortunately, the game is quite complex, and the imprecise wordings that are seen in the translation does lead to a number of questions about the rules. In the groups that I played in, one group was willing to try to make a table ruling to continue playing the game while one other just decided that to throw in the towel.
Each player has a band, represented by a player board. There are spaces on the board for the musicians – which come from a separate deck of 50 musicians (and each of them has their own set of statistics); these cards are two sided representing the two styles of music that each one likes to play. Of course, you also have to make note of the types of instruments that they play because you can't put a singer in the drummer spot of your band! There is a bunch of other information that you track on this board including the songs that you've recorded, action cards and other attributes. You start the game with 3 musicians, and your band can have up to 6 people in it. Managing the composition of your band is important because you can only record songs or go on tour if you have at least 4 members in your band (comprising the mandatory instruments).
The main board is also full of stuff. There is a popularity track (VPs) around the edge of the board. The left side has the Top 10 song chart while the right side has a map of Europe which shows where the bands are touring currently. Finally, there is a rondel on the board which shows 5 special actions which might be taken at the end of a round.
The main actions in each round are played out using "Influence Cards". These cards have all sorts of different options on them – there is a deck of 80 different cards. Essentially, you get to play a card from your hand. Then, you can either use the action printed on the card OR you can use one of the cards that are laid face up next to the board in the Influence market. This market is made up of four cards, and you are only allowed to use a card if it is in a numbered slot that is equal or less than the influence number on the card you played. Once you've chosen a card to play in this fashion, you do it.
Again, let me quote the rules for this section: "Active player places INFLUENCE CARD, played in previous step, onto INFLUENCE FIELD on her/his BAND BOARD on the top of pile (irst card played will start forming this pile). This activates that card for ACTION. Individual ACTION may be carried out always with the use of active INFLUENCE CARD, it is card actually laying on the top of the pile on INFLUENCE FIELD. Player can decide to activate for ACTION one of INFLUENCE CARDS available on ields 1 to 4 on INFLUENCE MARKET, instead of the card played from the hand. In such a case, she/he takes one chosen card from INFLUENCE MARKET, but only from field, which number is less or equal to the POWER of INFLUENCE CARD played from hand. Then places taken card, on the top of the pile on INFLUENCE FIELD on her/his BAND BOARD, directly on the card played from hand, placed there before. Since this, the card taken from INFLUENCE MARKET is active for the ACTION, instead of card played from hand in step 3. After active card is set up, player carries out one of the ACTIONS available for this card"
Trust me – even with all the components in front of us, it took about 10 minutes in our initial attempt to learn from the rules to figure out this step alone… Anyways, there are many possible actions that you can do here: you can try to add new people to your band, take your band on tour, record a new song, try to influence the popular music trends (to match the qualities of the songs that you're recording), promote your songs to get them on the Top 10 chart, or you can use the special ability of the person depicted on the card – there are 10 different possibilities here. A few of the special abilities involve direct confrontation, and this was a turn-off to a few of the gamers that I played with.
Some of the steps can be fairly intricate – for instance, if you choose to record a song, you have to be in one of the three cities that have recording studios. Then, a song must be available there in your color. Then, if you choose to take it, you have to mark down its music style (from 5 possible), lyrics (5 possible), volume (5 possible) and tempo (5 possible). You also make note of how many of your musicians play in the style of the song that you've chosen.
Each player gets a chance to play one (or two) actions when it's their turn. The game itself is timed over a year – well, actually 56 weeks – and each action that you play will take somewhere between one and four weeks of game time, the actual amount is detemined by the influence number printed on the card. In most turns, you get to play two actions – you only get one action though if your marker crosses one of the quarter-end spaces on the time track after the first action. If this occurs, you only get one action and then you move into a special "quarter-end" phase.
Again: from the rules… "Active player plays out of hand one INFLUENCE CARD and moves her/his marker on TIME TRACK as many fields towards field 56, as indicated by POWER of played card. If in consequence of this move, player's marker crosses or reaches as first one of four QUARTER END fields (14, 28, 42, 56), player carries out his ACTION (step 4) and goes to phase INFLUENCES (step 5) and further to steps 6 to 10. Otherwise, after first ACTION is completed (step 4), player plays out of hand second INFLUENCE CARD, moves again his/her marker along TIME TRACK (step 3 again), carries out second ACTION (step 4 again) and continues to phase INFLUENCES (step 5) and further to steps 6 to 9. In that second case, step 10 is ignored. Player does not carry out steps 3 and 4, if her/his marker stays on field 56 on TIME TRACK or if has no INFLUENCE CARDS on hand or gives up intentionally." Simple, right?
After all players have had a chance to play their action(s), there is a little bit of housekeeping to be done… The bottom most card in both the influence market and artist market is discarded, all other cards are moved down one slot, and a new card is dealt into the "4" space. Then, all players apply the event signified on the rondel, there are 5 possible choices here, and it should be noted that the location of the marker on the Rondel can be manipulated by actions previously taken in the round. The Rondel might cause the music trend dice to be re-rolled, allow players to collect royalties (gain money) based on their songs, players may have to pay salaries to their band members (money back to bank), or possibly deal with a band breakup as some of your more independent band members might leave the band if they aren't happy. After the rondel action, there is a closed fist auction to determine the next starting player. If no one has ended the quarter on the time track, you start again with playing Influence cards (and doing the appropriate actions) with the new start player.
However, if you are at the end of the quarter, there are a few other things to be done. First, score all the songs on the chart. To do this, you see how well the songs match up to the current music trends (signified by 4 dice on top of the chart). There is a fairly complicated (and tedious) method of scoring the songs, assigning points based on whether or not the song matches the current trend in each of the four categories as well as a bonus based on how many of the band's artists actually play in the style of the song. This is then followed by a round where players can use cards out of their hand to further influence the scores. Then once the songs are ranked, bands are awarded Popularity points (VPs) based on the standings of their songs. That ends the quarter-end housekeeping, and players go back to playing influence cards and doing actions. This whole procedure is repeated for the four quarters of the year, and then at the end, the player with the most popularity wins. If there is a tie, money is a tiebreaker.
Sound complicated? It is, but not necessarily in a bad way. There are a bunch of interacting mechanics here which might lead to a great game. It's hard to wrap your head around everything going on in your first game. To that end, the designer has put out five tutorials on BGG to try to help new players understand the game. Here is a link to one of them.
Is the complexity too much? Possibly… First, it's hard to judge for sure because the poorly translated rules don't help. Unfortunately, I don't have access to a native Polish speaker, so I don't know whether or not the rules are just as complicated in the native language of the designer/publisher. However, it's hard to play a game with this many complex pieces when you're not entirely sure of what rules you are following. The bits that I have quoted above are straight from the rules and are completely representative of the syntax/grammar used in the 12 pages of 10-point text. There are plenty of illustrations which help you muddle through the rules, but for us, it still wasn't enough. Second, the fact that the designer felt it necessary to augment the rules with such detailed tutorials makes me wonder that the rules still may not be sufficient to teach me the game properly. That being said, I wish I had seen these tutorials before I tried to play the game because they would have really helped me figure out what the heck I was doing!
In the end, we struggled through a 4p game of Show Business in about 3.5 hours including reading the rules, re-reading the rules and arguing over them, playing the game while taking breaks to discuss the rules that we didn't understand, and then actually making it to the end. It was far too long to spend playing the game, but certainly there was a lot of time lost on the rules and rules discussions as well as the usual time delays involved in any game being played for the first time. And, surprisingly, it wasn't a completely negative experience because there are a number of mechanisms in the game which are quite interesting.
I liked the idea of building a band from the different artist cards. The number of options here are huge as there are many different artist cards, and each one is two-sided leading to many different permutations. The composition of the band is of paramount importance in the game because of the bonus score that your band makeup has on the score of the songs you record (only if they match the popular music trends, of course!). Trying to find the right band members in the artist pool is only one way of adding people. You might also use the special ability of the "Groupie" card to "steal" a band member from an opponent. Once you've got the band that you want, you also have to constantly keep your eye on the overall happiness of your band so that the members don't leave. I found this part of the game to be an enjoyable puzzle.
However, overall, my experience was soured by the abysmal rules. Just as with new friends, first impressions are important – and the rules pretty much serve as the first impression. If you can't understand how to play the game from the rules, it's going to be a hard sell getting the game to the table. This isn't the first (nor sadly not the last) game at Essen to come out with a bad set of rules. Even if most of the issues here are in translating, more attention should be paid to having a native speaker go over the translation before publication. Similar to my experience with Brass, which also had a truly abysmal original set of rules, the negative impression that the first attempts of learning the game have left on me might be too much to overcome. After aborting my first two tries to learn Brass, I haven't been interested in trying it again as there are plenty of other great games available with rules that are playable for me to spend any more time trying to decipher that ruleset any further.
NB: I have been asked, on many occasions, to do this very sort of final proofread for a translated ruleset which doesn't take a lot of time. Most of my suggestions revolve around word choice or modifying translations of idioms which simply don't translate well. However, in the end, I think that the final product is much better for the gamer who opens the box and learns from the rules.
After my one-and-a-half plays, I decided to move my personal copy of Show Business into the collection of someone who was interested in investing more time to figuring out the rules and playing it again. I still have access to a copy of the game (actually two!), so if I am motivated to play it again, I will be able to. Furthermore, the gamer who wanted the copy of Show Business did promise to try to write something up about the game after he played it a few more times. In the end, this is probably the best thing to happen to the game because it now has a home where it will be played.
Given the number of new games that I've still yet to play from Spiel 2010 combined with my overall limited time free to play games, it would take a lot for me to bring this to the table again. Hopefully, the re-written ruleset will make the experience better (and quicker) in the future – and I hope it does because I do think that there could very well be a good or great game described within those rules. And if there is, hopefully someone will figure it out and tell me, because I'm not likely to try it again otherwise as I was so frustrated by my initial attempts to play the game. I would certainly recommend to anyone who wants to try the game for the first time to read the 5-part tutorial on BGG, or better yet, wait until the new translation is available.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor