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504

reviewed by Herb Levy

Stronghold Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 30-120 minutes; $99.95

   The art of designing games has been transformed into a science in this new release by Friedemann Friese. Scientists in the future, Friese postulates, have managed 504boxto construct alternate Earths, programming each of these worlds with their own specific sets of laws and rules. The essence of these worlds has been reduced into nine different “modules” and, by combining these modules differently, 504 worlds (9 x 8 x 7 = 504) can be created and, as a result, players will be able to experience 504 different games in the aptly titled 504.

As Friese sees it, the basics of gameplay can be found in nine different mechanisms which he has separated into modules. Module 1 is “Pick Up and Deliver”, 2 is “Race”, 3 “Privileges”, 4 “Military”, 5 “Exploration”. 6 “Roads”, 7 “Majorities”, 8 “Production” and 9 “Shares”. When playing a game, you choose THREE different modules and, by combining them in any order (from the most significant to the least), one of those worlds and the specific game aligned with it is created. For example, by choosing modules (and world) 253, you would have a racing game where exploration leads to growth with technology playing a role in racing or exploration improvements. If that doesn’t appeal, you might choose 958 where you would be faced with a stock game (in the style of 18xx 5042railroad games) with network building to generate income and production sites being a factor for workers to build roads. And so on.

The game is packed with components. The rules (modules) are contained in a spiral notebook, cleverly divided into three segments so you can flip the pages to the proper modules and group them together easily. There is no board per se but rather lots of hexagonal tiles (of varying color and markings) that may end up being placed in various configurations to create the playing area a particular world requires. There is paper money (if money is needed) and lots of meeples (called “residents”) that may traverse tiles as the various scenarios require and more.

   Playing time varies, from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the world being played (although it should be said that constructing worlds from specific tile arrangements can make set up a bit time consuming). More importantly, the different modules INTERACT with each other depending on whether they are the first, second or third element in your game. These interactions can be daunting as not all rules hold for each configuration. Exceptions to the rules can be the bane of rulebooks and 504, because of its nature, is loaded with many exceptions. Considerable patience and a lot of “due diligence” is needed to make certain the elements interact in the manner intended.

504 is not exactly a game b5043ut rather a concept and system and this is not the first foray into this type of vision of game design. Orion (Parker Brothers, 1971) and P.E.G.S. (Parker  Brothers, 1978) are two examples of game systems that provided multiple ways to use the same basic components. But with 504, Friese has gone farther into uncharted territory. He has distilled the basics of European game design, isolating nine such mechanisms, providing the game player with the power to conceive a game, combining mechanisms of his choice, into a game of the player’s design. Normally, when you purchase a game, you experience the designer’s concept. With 504, the designer is compelling you to construct your OWN concept from the designer’s box of tools and tricks; an interesting challenge in and of itself So does 504 work? Let me present an analogy.

Did you ever see the great 1931 movie “Frankenstein”? Dr. Frankenstein made the monster (who has since been called Frankenstein although, in the movie, he was just “the monster”. Anyway…) All the parts were there – hands, feet, head, torso etc. and it moved. “It’s ALIVE!!!” famously exclaimed the excited doctor. And let’s face it, it was an incredible achievement. But the monster had no soul. As the monster moved through the community, he began to develop his humanity by interacting with the people he found in his wanderings (which, at the end, didn’t work out too well for him). This is 504.

In 504, Friese has brilliantly dissected key elements of games. All the parts are there, you can put the parts together and the thing “moves” – but there is no “soul”. Friese left out HIS vision for a game, leaving the actual game design almost randomized. The designer’s vision, that important part of any game, is the one component you will not find here. For the game(s) to truly come to life, the PLAYERS, like the monster, have to find their way and provide the “soul”. So, Friese and Dr. Frankenstein (ironic in that both names start with “F”, Friese’s favorite letter) have both embarked on an ambitious project and created something impressive but that certain essence that makes, for example, a collection of body parts into a human being or a bunch of game mechanisms into a great game, is missing.

The cover of the game, with various worlds displayed in what looks a bit like petri dishes, suggests that 504 is experimental, that the art of game design has entered the realm of science. Very often, art and science do not mix well. Will YOU like 504? If you choose the game mechanisms you find most appealing, you most likely will. If you incorporate ideas less attractive to you, you will not. If you are looking to discover the aesthetic of the designer, you will not find it here. With 504, YOU are the designer and the challenge of the game is not the game, it is finding the configuration from the hundreds of possibilities that will most satisfy you. Is this approach satisfying? That answer must remain a truly individual decision. – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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