Friday, May 25, 2018

Dave Reviews: Chokepoint Hell


Some games are good. Some games are good, but hard to like because they don't suit us. Some games are bad, but we like them because in some way they're just what we need.

Some games are just shit.

In the interests of fairness, this is currently rated 7.5 at BGG, which is pretty good. I acknowledge, therefore, that most people feel better about this game than I do. That's fine. I respect their right to be wrong.

Downforce is a racing game that isn't just about pushing your car to the finish line. Players bid points (money) before the game to own cars, and earn points at the end of the game if their car(s) finish anywhere except last place. Each car has a randomly drawn power associated with it; if you buy multiple cars, you only keep one of the powers, but it's applied to all your cars.

Just as important is the mechanic of betting on which car will win. There are three betting checkpoints; after any turn where someone passes a checkpoint, everyone bets on a car. If it finishes in the top three, you win points, and the earlier the checkpoint, the more points that bet earns you. If you pick the winner all three times, that's 18 points, which is a big chunk of a winning score.

You start with a hand of cards, the size of which is determined by the player count (all 42 cards are dealt, so that divided by number of players). Each card has anywhere from one to seven colors on it: one for each color of car, plus white for wild. These cards are used for bidding—show a card with a given color and you bid that number of points for that color car, white is zero—and during the game, where you move each car on the card the printed number of spaces, in order from highest to lowest.

You keep the cards you bid with, which means you'll usually buy cars for which you have at least one good card; in theory this could be a downside because your opponents see your cards, but everything jumbles into each other so much that remembering enough cards to gain a strategic advantage is unlikely. When you take a car, you also get an 8 card, good for one eight-space move. (This is both a good way to incentivize car purchases and the mechanic that winds up fucking the game. More on that to come.)

From there, the game simply proceeds in turn order. The first player is the one who buys the car in pole position, with play proceeding to the left from there. Your goal is twofold: use your cards and powers to push your own car(s) out in front while creating a cluster behind you that gets jammed into chokepoints and loses movement (e.g. if a green six is played and green can only move one before running into other cars, green effectively loses five potential movement).

And this is where the game starts to fall apart. The only strategy, really, is to decide when to prioritize pushing your cars forward and when to throttle your opponents. If you can create a serious enough roadblock, opponents may be forced to move you ahead more than themselves. In doing so, however, they'll often make it easier for other people to pass them, but if nobody moves you, you're still in the lead when it gets back to your turn, and unless all your cards are garbage, you can fly ahead of everyone else from there.

That doesn't sound so bad, right? It sounds strategic. And it is strategic. However, the implementation leaves a fair bit to be desired. First, movement per car is relatively limited. There's enough in the deck to get everyone around the track, but it doesn't take much wasted movement before a car literally cannot make it to the finish line anymore. While this is functionally not awful—whether you're last to cross or the only one not to cross, you're still last—it's an unfulfilling way to end the game. "I lost" is not as bad as "I didn't even finish", unless the reason for not finishing makes for an incredible story. But it's too common in Downforce.

Secondly, while forcing people into difficult choices often makes for a healthy strategic game, in this case those choices are frequently no-win situations. Playing a game where, if you don't get into the lead, you're spending the game making least-bad choices rather than good ones that can improve your position is a disheartening experience. It feels fine when you're winning and bleh when you're in the pack, watching someone race out into the lead.

Thirdly, because it's so easy for one person to jam into the lead, the betting process is too often cut and dried. You know who's going to win barring a serious strategic misplay, so everyone knows who to bet on. The real problem here is that the winner can bet on themselves; while there's no reason they shouldn't be able to, if you get winner prize money and also bet on yourself at all three betting points, you've maxed your score and can't lose. Unless someone else does well enough with multiple cars that is, which leads to...

The fourth point. A six player game is ok, since everyone owns one car. Two or three players is theoretically good; the cars don't need to be evenly split, but can be. In a four or five player game, though, some player or players will have more than one while the rest have just one, and that ends up being a serious drawback without a gin hand that has huge numbers for all of your cars. The special 8-card, for example, is supposed to be the thing that jumps you ahead at the right time; if you have multiple cars, though, playing one eight means you leave your other car(s) in the dust along with everyone else. It's harder for any of your multiple cars to succeed as well as a single one unless you hard focus on one of them, and if you do that it's likely your other cars will finish far enough back that they won't make up the points you spent on acquiring them unless you grabbed them super-cheap. So the potential balance of multiple cars doing well and competing with a one-car winner doesn't really pan out.

And, finally, the sign that the designers definitely did not put enough time into solving this game's issues: Track #2. The board can be flipped to play one of two tracks, which is great. However, on Track #2, the first single-space checkpoint can be reached on a move of eight. Therefore, the race basically revolves around who wins the pole position car. Is it red, and you only have a 2 as your highest point total for red? GG. Unless the pole winner doesn't realize the situation, all they need to do is play their eight for that card, get into the gap, and let everyone else crowd in behind them. They're off to the races, playing every big card they can for that color immediately if they're smart, and unless their hand is total garbage apart from the eight and whatever card they used to win the car, no one's going to catch them. It's a dumpster fire of a race, and the fact nobody on the design team realized that is gaming malpractice.

It's not like the single-space chokepoints are great in general; it's a take-that mechanic writ large. The game would have made substantially more sense if it was designed like Formula D, where there are always multiple avenues of movement and blocking only happens if multiple people happen to line up side by side. It's an aggravation, but a rare one, enough so that it can be called 'part of the game' and not take away from the enjoyment. It could easily be argued that Downforce needs that space even more, since the relatively low values on the cards (as compared to Formula D's dice rolls) make it easier for cars to pack together. Granted, the Downforce track offers a very F1 feel—if you've ever watched an F1 road race, you've undoubtedly seen the tight corners where passing is impossible—but the designers needed to take the time and realize mimicking that aesthetic was a terrible decision for their game.

The art's really good, and the overall look of the game components is solid. It feels like a game that should be good, and it plays like a game that should be good. Having only played larger games, I'll even allow for the possibility that it is good at small player counts. But at four and five, it's a rolling dumpster fire. Avoid it as you would any dumpster fire.

If you like dumpster fires, well... here you go.

Score: 4.5/10 (it doesn't even deserve a marginally thoughtful scoring mechanism)

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