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Thursday
Sep082011

PARSEC - A Review.

Victory Point Games ascribes to the “Less is More” school of thought.  By taking the Desktop Publishing route, Victory Point Games (VPG) is able to release a number of interesting games, and expose the gaming hobby to designers and games that may have otherwise flown under the radar.  VPG was originally created by Alan Emrich as a way to showcase the quality games coming from his game design students at the Art Institute of California: Orange County.  Since then, VPG has grown to encompass games by other aspiring and experienced designers as well.

VPG’s tagline “The gameplay’s the thing” reflects the company’s focus on the meat of a game over shiny packaging and components. In fact, VPG games are very minimalist in presentation, forgoing the big box presentation of most hobby games for the simplicity of a plastic bag containing the game’s components.  The contents of a VPG game may be surprising at first to someone who is used to the expensive plastic, wood, and cardboard found in most recent hobby games, but after playing a few of VPG’s games, I think that I am coming around to the idea that the fun in a game isn’t necessarily found in expensive bits.

I had the opportunity to play PARSEC, a space themed euro style game designed and illustrated by Sean Young. PARSEC builds on the tile laying mechanics found in games like Carcassonne, but ratchets up the complexity by introducing pick up and deliver, area control, and set collection mechanics to the formula.

In PARSEC, each player takes on the role of a spaceship pilot, exploring the galaxy, and competing with the other players by scattering his army of robot minions across the expanse of space. The players score points by controlling and occupying planets, and are constantly jockeying for dominance as the landscape of deep space grows and changes. In addition to scoring points, players can also allocate resources to research technology, and gain money to assist them in their quest for points. Because, at the end of the game, the player with the most points wins.

 

Components:

The components in PARSEC are basic in comparison to traditional Euro games, yet still manage to look professional. The pieces are printed in full color, and bear illustrations and icons that are very easy to distinguish. It’s important to note that the majority of the Victory Point Games catalog consists of wargames, a genre with components that traditionally consist of small cardboard chits and paper maps. This heritage can be seen in the production of PARSEC in its cardboard tiles, game pieces, and rulebook.

The Rulebook – The first place where VPG’s wargame roots show through is in the structure of the manual. The different sections and rules in the manual are all individually numbered using decimal notation. At first this format can seem a bit intimidating, and appears to read like a stereo manual. But, with its generous helping of friendly color illustrations, the manual is actually surprisingly readable. In fact, this numbering system, which has been used by wargames for years, removes a large amount of potential ambiguity as each rule is explicitly notated. For example:

[6.1.2] Unused APs: Unused APs not spent that turn cannot be saved up for later use nor transferred to another player. They are simply lost.

The Tiles – The game board in PARSEC is built by randomly drawing, and placing small hexagonal tiles as the game progresses. These tiles represent planets, asteroid fields, nebulae, empty space, and other features of the stellar landscape that the players are exploring. The graphic design on the tiles is clean, colorful, and playful.  

Like all of the components in VPG games, these tiles are handmade. The artwork appears to be printed onto a label, affixed to a cardboard backing, and then die cut. This process generates professional looking tiles, with a matte finish.  I did have a slight issue with some of my tile sheets, however. The die cutting process VPG uses sometimes results in title sheets that were not completely punched, or had some alignment issues between the top and bottom of the token. This misalignment wouldn’t be a huge problem in most cases, but because PARSEC is a tile-laying game, the combination of small tiles and alignment issues made it difficult to position the tiles so that they fit flush against each other. I would suggest using a small hobby knife to ensure the tiles are completely separated before punching, to avoid any unfortunate tearing of components, and reduce the impact of any alignment issues.

The Counters – The majority of components in PARSEC are small square counters, representing the players’ ships, robot minions, money and research. Like the tiles that make up the play area, they are colorful, and direct in their iconography. Throughout the game, these counters are placed onto the tiles, denoting the player’s current position, and the influence he exerts in different areas of the galaxy.

Cards – Technology in PARSEC is represented by small cardstock cards. Each card represents a technology that the player can purchase, which will allow him to bend certain rules. There are a limited number of technology cards available in the game, so they are hotly contested by the players.

 

Gameplay :

Setup and play in PARSEC is fairly simple: First, players take turns placing the 12 starting tiles around the home world to create the known galaxy. Then each player receives three credits and army of robots in their color.

The start of each player’s turn involves drawing a new tile from a cup, and placing it somewhere on the table to extend the game board.  There are 4 major types of terrain that the players will draw. The first is empty space which has no direct point value, but can be used to shape the board, potentially impacting travel time for the other players. The second type of terrain is the planet segment. Each planet is made up of three segments that must be placed together to build the planet. When all three segments have been placed, the planet is considered complete. Players will compete for dominance on a planet by attempting to maintain the largest standing army there. Different planets are worth different point values, so as new planets are revealed, players will have to change their strategy to accommodate them. The third type of terrain is the nebulae. Nebulae are similar to the cities in Carcassonne. They are free-form in shape, and can be extended by placing nebulae tiles next to an existing nebula. By inhabiting a nebula, players are able to work towards advancing their technology. The final major terrain type is the asteroid field. Occupying tiles in an asteroid field allows players a way of obtaining credits, the currency in PARSEC. Aside from these main tile types, there are also warp tiles and black hole which affect player movement across the board.

During a player’s turn, he gains 5 action points which he can use to perform a variety of actions. The majority of gameplay involves picking up, and delivering robots around the galaxy, and strategically placing them in tiles to score points. Movement through tiles costs a number of action points depending on the type of terrain the ship is passing through; and beaming robots up and down from the ship costs action points as well. As the galaxy begins to grow, it becomes harder and harder for the player to manage his robot population with only 5 action points, so planning ahead becomes critically important. Luckily, the player has opportunity to increase the number of action points he can take during a turn by spending credits or utilizing certain technology cards. Because action points are so important, especially during the later turns in the game, control of nebulae and asteroid fields becomes increasingly necessary, and can make for some difficult placement choices.

After a player has used his action points, he has the opportunity to purchase a technology card. By completing or inhabiting nebulae during the game, players can gain technology tokens. Each technology token is marked with an icon that corresponds to one of the 5 technology types. When a player gains a token, he blindly chooses one from a cup. When he has collected three of the same type of token, he can trade them in for a technology card, which grants him use of one of the rule-bending technologies. Technologies can affect many aspects of the game, including the number of action points a player has per turn, the cost of certain actions, and the strength of a player’s robots.

Scoring in PARSEC occurs at certain intervals during the game. It is during this time that the players gain victory points, credits, and technology tokens based on the placement of their robots on the board. Scoring occurs when the final tile of the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th planet are placed. At the end of the game, a final scoring occurs, and the player with the most points wins.

 

Conclusion:

I have to admit that I have never been a big fan of Carcassonne; its gameplay has always left me feeling a bit empty, and wishing for more depth. PARSEC definitely appears to be inspired by Carcassonne, but unlike Carcassonne, PARSEC just seems more fulfilling. The addition of the pick-up and deliver mechanic turns PARSEC into something completely different than its terrestrial inspiration. Where most tile-laying games can feel very static and puzzle like, PARSEC feels dynamic and interactive; an unfortunate tile placement in PARSEC can be mitigated through the movement and manipulation of robots, pulling the focus away from the offending tile, and forcing the opponents to retaliate, unlike the lazy farmers of Carcassonne who just lie there in the field. There is quite a bit of positional give-and-take in PARSEC, and what I had assumed would be a fairly non-confrontational game, evolved, to my delight, into an extremely interactive game. PARSEC has a nice pace, with just the right amount of tension. With 5 actions per turn, the player always feels like he can accomplish something, but never everything that he needs to do, which creates some very interesting and meaningful decisions.

PARSEC is quite a bit of fun, and I would easily choose to play it over Carcassonne, but there are a couple of unfortunate issues that keep it out of my must-play pile. The first is the size of the tiles. I totally buy into VPG’s mantra that gameplay is more important than the components, but when the components begin to affect gameplay they have to be considered. Unfortunately for PARSEC, the size of the tiles makes it extremely difficult to keep them lined up during play. During my games, when a new tile was placed, it would undoubtedly push other tiles around, and a good amount of time during the game involved realigning the tiles. Because these small tiles make up the board, it also means that when more than two players are participating in play, everyone ends up huddled around the unusually small play area. Most wargames can get away with small tiles and chits because the actual play area is a fairly large map, but a tile based game like PARSEC would definitely benefit from tiles that were twice the size.

I really liked the inclusion of rule-bending technologies in PARSEC. The variety of special powers really added a nice flavor to the game, and mixed up gameplay. However, the method in which technologies were acquired seemed a bit too random and unbalanced for my tastes. Because the technology portion of the game was based on set collection and a random draw, there was no way to build a forward-thinking strategy around a particular technology. Unfortunately, technologies add a significant benefit to players, so it is really necessary for a player to tailor decisions around his technologies. This uncontrollable randomness of the technology draw turns what could have been an excellent opportunity for strategy into an exercise in reactionary decisions, due to the arbitrary tech.

The non-directed randomness of the technology draw, by its nature, also gives a significant advantage to the first player that collects a technology in the game. This is especially apparent in lower player counts, and tragically unavoidable in a two player game. When all technologies are available for purchase, all of the technology tokens in the draw cup are useful. But, when the last technology of a certain type is collected, none of the tokens of that type can be used. This creates a bit of a runaway leader issue, as the first player to clean out a technology not only has a gameplay advantage, but has also made it increasingly difficult for the other players to gain a technology, forcing them to spend extra resources as they draw useless tokens from the cup.

By giving the players a way to target certain technologies, the whole technology process could have been streamlined, and added some more depth to the game. Perhaps splitting the technology tokens up across 5 cups, with a different token distribution in each one could keep a bit of randomness in the game, while still allowing the player enough control to make a meaningful decision. I hope to revisit PARSEC in the future with this variation, and see how it plays.

When all is said and done, PARSEC has a lot going for it. It was enjoyable to play, despite its flaws, and while it may not end up as my first choice when choosing a game, it is unique and interesting enough to get more play in the future. In fact, PARSEC may find a place as my go-to game when someone asks to play Carcassonne. I think that with larger components, and a subtle tweak to the technology rules, PARSEC could really shine.

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