Reviewed by Joe Huber

LOVELACE & BABBAGE (Artana Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 15-30 minutes; $20)


Long ago, I realized that just because I loved one game from a designer, there was no guarantee I’d love another game from the same designer.  There was certainly the possibility that I would – and there are designers who frequently design games I’m quite fond of – but either designers are designing different games, not all of which will be for me, or they’re designing the same game over and over again.  And I prize originality and innovation in game design far too much for this to be a fit. But the opposite really also should be true.  Just because I didn’t enjoy one game from a designer, doesn’t mean the next one won’t be for me

I do become wary of some designers – Vital Lacerda for example – so that I’m more careful about which games I try but I always do hope find at least one game I enjoy from all designers. Such was the case with Scott Almes.  The other games of his I’ve tried (Boomerang, Claim Kingdoms, Coaster Park, and Kings of Air & Steam) really haven’t been a fit for me.  But Jessica Davis was working on developing a new game of Scott’s and Dan Blum suggested I try it, so I did.  And it worked.

Lovelace & Babbage is a speed math game.  The game is played over four rounds. Each round, you are aiming to get your total, which starts at 55, to a number of different values: one value for a subroutine you choose to aim for, and 5-7 values (depending upon the number of players) for “patrons”. 

To get you to these numbers, you start with eight operations: +/-1, +/-2, +/-5, swap digits, +/-10, +/-20, +/-50, and divide by 2.  So, for example, to get from 55 to 26, you could divide by 2 to get 27 (the remainder is dropped) and then subtract 1 to get 26.  Each round you can use up to five operations; you score points for matching your subroutine, and collect symbols for matching patrons.  The first person to match a patron gets a choice of two symbols, the second person the other symbol, and anyone else receives a pity point.  OK, it’s not called a pity point, but it is.

A round operates by each player choosing the subroutine they wish to aim for, the patrons being revealed, and players starting to calculate.  The first player to be done takes the timer and flips it over; the other players have that much time to complete their actions, taking the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th player tokens when they do or when time runs out.  Then players carry out their first operation in order of completion, then their second, and so on until all players have completed all of the operations they wrote down.  The patrons are then removed and any subroutines not matched returned to the players for possible choice in future rounds.

For each successive round, there are additional options.  Four new operations are added; most either set your total to a specified value, or allow you to add or subtract a two-digit value, such as +/-19 or +/-36.  If you can use these new operations to reach a subroutine or patron, bonus points are scored.  In addition, players may utilize any subroutines earned in previous rounds which provide bonuses such as two extra operations or receiving two of a symbol from a patron instead of one.  There is one additional option in the game; if a player has found that they made a mistake, they may “debug” their code, receiving one sand-timer’s length of time to do so, at a cost of three points. After the fourth round is complete, players score.

Having the most of a particular symbol earns nine points with four points for second; ties are split.  Players add pity points, points for each subroutine completed, and points for each of the round 2-4 operations used to match a subroutine or patron, subtracting three points for each debug.  The highest score wins.

As I mentioned above, I first had the chance to play Lovelace & Babbage when it was in development.  Jess was doing a lot of work to help make the game work better but underneath there was a clever idea: using the historical work of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage as the basis for a game about computations.  Jess’ involvement was having the often necessary but not always pursued impact of making the idea of greatest possible appeal as a game but it’s definitely Scott Almes underlying design that provided the foundation. Of course, there are limitations.

Speed games, in my experience, are very difficult to make stand up to repeated play.  Part of the reason for this is that they typically want to reward skill but that can prevent the game from being close.  Ricochet Robot is probably the game which manages this balance best;  I typically find that, by giving the advantage to players with fewer points, the scores tend to reflect skill levels but at reasonable levels.  But even there, a significant advantage in solving that type of puzzle can lead to highly disparate scores.  And that’s very much the case with Lovelace & Babbage. Even more importantly, however, there just aren’t quite enough tricks to learn about the game.

The advantage of scoring with the operations made available in later rounds quickly leads to optimizing the order of operations to collect those scores and looking for patrons whose values differ by the amount of an operation.  Once these tricks are applied, there’s really not a lot “new” in additional plays of the game. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the game; I most definitely do.  It’s the type of game that strongly doesn’t appeal to some – either the words “speed math game” entice you, or they don’t – and even among those who enjoy such games, it’s hard to get a good, close game. To the game’s credit, there are a lot of things it does very well. 

The theme will appeal to many in the hobby.  The production (in the commercial edition, not the Kickstarter one) is reasonable; the only parts of the Kickstarter edition one might miss are the wooden tokens for the 2nd/3rd/4th player in the round and the erasable player boards.  Of course, the former came with wooden operation tokens that are very difficult to read and the cardboard tokens are completely sufficient, and the erasable player boards don’t fit in the box, which is a nuisance for some.  Personally, I much prefer the two-sided paper sheets included in the base game; they might not be reusable but I fine them must easier to use. The subroutine cards include take-that actions which is not a selling point for me but the rules specify how to play without those.  Otherwise, the rules are reasonably clear and the game is easy to teach; people’s reactions to the may vary, but in my experience everyone gets the idea fairly quickly.  The debug action is a nice solution to the problem of incorrect math / etc.

I like Lovelace & Babbage and I hope to play it more.  But in the end, I haven’t enjoyed it quite enough to make sure that happens by keeping it in my collection.  Still, it’s not an expensive game and I feel I got my money’s worth out of it.  The good news is that it’s fairly easy to determine if you should try the game or not.  If “speed math game” sounds good to you, you should definitely try it.  If such games are up your game group’s alley, it’s a particularly good choice due to the theme.  Otherwise, it’s simply not necessary. Still, I’m always happy, for any given game designer, to have a game I can point to and say “I enjoy [insert game name here]”.  For Scott Almes, that game is now Lovelace & Babbage for me and my hopes of finding others have gone up. – – – – – – Joe Huber

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