While the GF and I were in Europe recently (on my first vacation in a long, long time – short version, Paris is great, Brussels is great, Amsterdam is great, western Germany is great, Luxembourg is pretty to look at but otherwise it blows), I had the opportunity to spend a day at Essen Spiel, which was fun even if I couldn’t buy half of what I wanted to buy because of luggage limits.
One of the games I bought was 504, and here’s the thing: in terms of game design, it is arguably the most important game to hit the market in years. Friedemann Friese is a good designer with a strong track record (his most notable creation is Power Grid, arguably one of the seminal/definitive Eurogames) but this is far and away his masterpiece.
The base elements of 504 are more or less the same, from game to game. You lay down a bunch of six-sided uniform tiles to create a game map; all players play on this map, which has a bunch of different types of terrains (cities, mountains, plains, lakes, etc.). In most games, you get money every turn to buy dudes. You use the dudes to expand across the map, turning the dudes into settlements, until you hit the game-end condition and tally up the victory points you have earned. That’s the game.
That sounds rather banal. But the genius of 504 is the modules. What Friese has done is put together nine modules, pulling together mechanics from many major types of gameplay – in order, pickup-and-deliver, racing, special powers (“privileges”), military battles, exploration, road building, area majorities, resource production and share companies. When you play a game of 504, you pick (or randomly select) three of the nine modules. Hence the game’s name: 9x8x7 (all of the possible combinations of modules without repeating) is 504. The game includes a flipbook which lets you choose your configuration of models and then alters the rules accordingly (how player turn order works, how much starting money people get, what map you use, etc.). And then the module choices determine how the game works:
- The first module determines how you score victory points and what the end-game condition is – for example, if your first module is roads, you score points based on how widely spread your road network is, and the game ends when one player connects his road network to a certain number of city tiles. If your first module is exploration, you score points for discovering new tiles and the game ends when there are only a certain number of tiles left. If your first module is shares, instead of players controlling the various colours of dudes and settlements on their own, the various colours of dudes and settlements become companies in which the players buy and sell shares, and instead of victory points it’s a straight-up fight to earn the most money via share transactions and dividends.
- The second module determines how players generate income – for example, if your second module is roads, you earn income each round based on how widely spread your road network is. If your second module is racing, you don’t earn additional income every round but you get a one-time burst of cash whenever you settle in a new city. If your second module is privileges, you also get to build factories and your income is based on the factories plus additional special powers you get from your privileges.
- The third module is “flavour” – a secondary form of victory points, for example (if your third module is majorities, you get points for having the most settlements in each type of tile) or an additional power (if your third module is pickup-and-deliver, you get to use the little cart that comes with the pickup-and-deliver module to shuttle your dudes around).
At present I have played seven different games of 504 and they have all had a radically different feel. Exploration->Race->Pickup, for example, has a moderate luck element to it (since you randomly determine which new tiles you discover and the city discoveries are far more important than the others) and takes about forty minutes regardless of player number. Roads->Privileges->Majorities is a highly strategic affair that takes about ninety minutes and bidding on the special powers is a huge part of the game since you need to be very wary of overspending on them. Shares->Majority->Military is a vicious, aggressive economic/wargame that lasts about two and a half hours (and can go longer).
But here is the thing: every one of the games thus far has worked as a game. They’re all a bit dry, I suppose, since there’s no real theme to the game at all (Friese makes an effort to pretend they’re 504 alternate universes, but whatever), but they’re all solid games that are balanced and offer a lot of opportunity for critical review of your own play and strategic decisions about what to do, and they all feel very different from one another as games; the modules aren’t just decorative, they actively alter the substance of the game itself. Furthermore, the components are very nice quality – the wooden bits are particularly nice – and the flipbook of game worlds is surprisingly comprehensible given the inherent complexity of the design (you might need two or three games to get used to it, but once you do, you will barely ever need the base rulebook to play the game).
It’s a monumental accomplishment. It would be one even if the games weren’t all fun, just by virtue of the nature of the experiment. But the games are fun (in varying levels of fun, depending on your tastes) and as such it’s a remarkable success in game design.