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Thinking Out Loud

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hacienda >> Initial Reaction

Got my first playing of Hacienda in last night. It wasn't my copy, and I was taught the rules -- I can't help but think (hope?) that we must have had some rules wrong, because I was surprised at how much I felt was lacking from the game.

Comparisons to Ticket to Ride and Through the Desert are obvious, but the game does offer some interesting twists on both games. Unfortunately, it includes some of my least favorite aspects of TTR -- the face up draw piles, where having matching cards available on your turn saves you precious actions, while invariably some players have to churn actions to get into playable positions. Otherwise, I think the similarities to TTR are mostly superficial, while TtD provides a roughly comparable gameplay experience.

I also was shocked that there was no balancing system to soften the player order advantage to going early (or rather, the huge disadvantages to going later) especially in a five player game. I'd play it again, but I think Through the Desert offers an overall superior experience in roughly half the time.

Gut feeling rating: 5/10. Probably would peak at a 6 if we found some rules inconsistencies or mistakes. I just don't see how the decision making or interaction would carry this much higher than a 6. I'd love to be wrong, though, since the production quality is superb.

More on what I felt was a significant player disadvantage for going last.

In the asymmetric map, the first 4 players all have the opportunity to make a 2 action move that places land and then an animal to connect a market, while being adjacent to water. And then they still have a third action to draw a card or commit another animal.

Meanwhile, the last player must use all three actions to connect to a market in this way, including the use of a pampas terrain card or a non-money making animal card in order to do so.
So they lose out on the water terrain scoring and actually have to invest more actions unless they deliberately make an aggressive opening move to place tiles at an already occupied market/watering hole, a decision that forces them into confrontation with another player for purely arbitrary reasons.

I also realized that the last player is disadvantaged by several other factors:

1) The last player has fewer overall turn options to purchase water or hacienda. As limited resources with a discrete counter mix, these two scoring items are harder to acquire for the last player in turn order. Each water source has to "get past" 4 other players in order for the last player to purchase one. Getting one for free doesn't disincentive other players from purchasing additional ones -- so they're all contested. It's just that the last player has the worst position to purchase and benefit from these.

2) The last player has far fewer potential turns/actions than the other players due to the half and end game conditions. When the animal draw pile is exhausted, a scoring round is triggered. If this happens early in the turn, the last player has fewer options -- it's quite likely that few, if any, animal cards will be left face up to select from, so the common draw and play an animal in the same turn option is not available, leaving them with fewer opportunities to take scoring/earning turns at the end of a round.

3) Since they don't have access to water immediately, they have 1 fewer total action available to them over the course of the entire game if they want to even the playing field -- they have to invest an action to purchase water which other players get for free. If the others get just 1 or 2 VPs from their initial water placement, it's worth it, since they didn't have to invest anything in that.

4) Simply to balance out starting positions, that person also has to spend 12 gold to normalize the situation. This means investing cash (and 1.2 VP) to get water they need a maximum return on -- they can't afford to spend the action AND the gold if they're only to score 2 or 3 total VPs for the water/hacienda placement, unlike someone who starts with this option for free.

I just don't get it.

Scoring Results (1st half/interim scoring in parenthesis)
listed in turn order -- I was 4th of 5 players
Justin: 70 (20)
Trey: 73 (21)
Julia: 36 (12)
Jay: 96 (37)
Chris: 25 (74)

I seriously won purely by opportunity. It's not necessarily that I played better, but we were all learning the game and didn't fully appreciate all the scoring nuances until the interim scoring. Had we cleared the board and started over right then and there, I think things would have been far different. I had one goal and one goal only in mind from the outset -- build a big land mass. That's it.

As it was, I was the only player to score a land chain in the first half -- 8 land tiles with a hacienda for 31 of my 37 points right there. Rather than try to cut me off and restrict that territory from growing further, folks basically conceded and started playing for 2nd place, allowing me to add 4 more tiles to that in the second half. By the end of the game, I only had 3 markets linked -- virtually all my points came from that enormous land chain, and purchasing 2 water spaces I could completely enclose with my tiles.

So it was definitely an aberration, and a game which would be very unlikely to occur again. But it was a learning experience. Ultimately, I learned that unless I was missing something fairly significant about the gameplay, decisions or scoring, that Hacienda probably won't have much to offer me, and doesn't really provide anything unique or compelling.


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