Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Board Game Review - Riches & Rascals

Educational games have a long history, and most of it involves them being boring and preachy. They are usually designed to make children learn things whether they like it or not, and so actually being fun pulls a far second place to being chock full of knowledge.

Riches & Rascals follows this storied lineage as if there were a formula. It is immensely educational, but sadly, it is not a good game. However, since it is most likely to appeal to grade-school teachers attempting to make inattentive fifth-graders remember some modicum of world history, it is good that the part of the game that imparts knowledge is exceptional.

The game does not look like it should be dull. The board is huge, hand-illustrated, and beautiful. There are dozens of tiny counters indicating things like dead cave men and scarab beetles, plus some big ones for stuff like the invention of the wheel. These are supposed to be placed on corresponding pictures all over the board, which makes the setup for Riches & Rascals take approximately twice as long as you'll be able to get a classroom of kids sit in their chairs without someone throwing a spitball. If you are trying to grab the attention of a small group of sugar-junkie pre-teens, I recommend simply dumping the tokens in a pile and playing the game, already.

Each player has a boat, signified by a small plastic boat (a fortunate choice, really). The players roll dice to move around the board, going from port to port and trading stuff for other stuff. If you're the African trader, you'll start out with gold, and you can take it to China to trade for diamonds. If you're the Middle Eastern boat, you'll have cedar logs that you can take to Europe and trade for amber. This is ostensibly the goal of the game - to trade up and score big points for having a bunch of different commodities at the end of the game.

Every time you roll the dice, one of them might show you a scroll, and when it does, you get to read a page from the history scrolls. Each one tells you some historical fact that you may or may not know already, and then you get a reward, unless your boat capsizes and you lose all your goods. The rewards you get usually entail putting some of those tiny tokens into your boat, which is probably overcrowded to start with because you put all those diamonds and stuff in there.

So that's how you play, more or less, but that's also where you start to run into problems. For starters, the various trade goods are little beads. The cedar logs are cylindrical wooden beads, and the amber chunks are brown beads, and the diamonds are paste-on glitter buttons. The gold bars, on the other hand, are cute little plastic deals that actually resemble gold bars. It appears the budget came to a grinding halt after procuring 50 gold bricks, and the creators of the game had to resort to what they could find at the discount craft store.

Then there are the boats. Apparently, nobody counted on meeting great white sharks, because you're definitely going to need a bigger boat. As soon as you hit two or three ports and swap your wood beads for plastic beads, that boat is going to be overflowing, and every time you move it, the trade goods are going to fall out. It's immensely impractical, not to mention the fact that if any of the players are aggressive traders, you're going to run out of beads.

So let's say you can forgive the beads and the tiny boats. Let's just jump right past that and chalk it up to the production values you expect in an educational game. Now we stumble headlong over the game itself, which is a complete mess. Like the kind of mess you might find if you leave the ham out on the counter and the dog takes it down and eats it all and then throws up all over the house.

At first, this looks like a very basic roll-and-move game. And to my complete horror, that's all it is. The game consists of rolling dice and moving. You might trade, you might not. That's it. Those are your decisions. Even a stupid child is going to figure out pretty fast that this game is less interesting than, say, eating boogers.

And the trading thing doesn't work at all. Seriously, you need an abacus to keep track of the trades. Trade five amber for ten cedar, then ten cedar for twenty gold, then twenty gold for forty diamonds, then do it all again on the way back, and before you're six pages into the book, someone is trying to pile 160 beads into a boat that can barely hold five. You'll run out of beads, and worse, you'll forget about teaching history because you have to spend all your time teaching math.

The worst thing, though, and the one reason I could only possibly recommend this game to an elementary school teacher, is that the game is way, way too long. You only read from a scroll when you roll one, which happens about every third turn. The game goes until all the scrolls have been read. And there are enough scrolls that if you start when the kids get to school, you'll still be playing when the bell rings and they all go screaming out the door to see their mommies.

I understand the powerful desire of the home-brew inventor to create a game. I've had that itch, and I've given it a shot myself. But in my case, after a few tests, I understood pretty quickly that the game I was making would not work. In the case of Riches & Rascals, however, it seems the creator did not test the game anywhere near as much as she should have, and published it without getting even one unbiased response. Otherwise, someone, somewhere would have said, 'this is like a train wreck into a tidal wave caused by an earthquake.'

But all is not lost. The history scroll element of this game is very cool, and the educational aspect is extremely sound. A few simple tweaks, and this game could be just the ticket for a small classroom of smart children. For instance, throw away the scroll die and read one every turn. Hell, read two. And allow trades on a one-for-one basis, which works because amber is worth more in China and gold is worth more in Saudi Arabia, and if you're hard-pressed for more currency, allow trade-ups only in your home port. Finally, use two dice, not one, so that the standard turn consists of something more than rolling the dice, moving one space, and then frowning as you pass the dice.

Normally I wouldn't suggest repairs to a game. I like to review them the way they were written. But there is so much promise in the educational side of Riches & Rascals, and I fear nobody will ever discover that brilliance if they can't bring themselves to play the game. A few simple changes to the rules, and this could be a fun learning experience that really makes kids feel like they're part of history. But leave it the way it is now, and Riches & Rascals could be renamed Six Hours You'll Wish You Had Back.


Very attractive map
Nice tokens
Great educational value

Unfortunate choice of components
Trading rules are a complete disaster
Roll and move and that's all

If you're a teacher willing to do a little legwork to make Riches & Rascals a fun game, you might find it brings a lot of interest to a classroom. You can find it here:


GeekInsight said...

Ugh! I often wonder how obviously flawed or broken games make it to publish. It seems like the individual (even if its the designer) putting up the money would want to make sure he could get a return on investment.

Luckily, I've only had the opportunity to review one utterly broken game on my blog.

Guava said...

the stand you took here is worth a praise.