Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A review of Chaotic Connections....

I must admit I have quite the affinity for network-building games.  Unless this is the first post of mine you've ever read, you'll probably know that I think Ticket To Ride is the cat's pajamas.  In fact, any sort of train game, simple or complicated, in which the goal is to connect various locations, usually sits pretty well with me.  Another quick and simple game of network-building, TransAmerica, has also been very well-received in our group.  So when a copy of Chaotic Connections was offered to me for review, I took a look at the description and thought, sure, why not.  (I tend to be wary of indie games offered for review lately as I have had at least a couple completely unplayable games sent my way - games whose rules were so incomplete, sketchy, or just contradictory that they had to be aborted 5 minutes in.  I just can't review that.) 

But Chaotic Connections, cleary inspired by TransAmerica, seemed like a silly enough mashup of that game and your classic card-based game Sorry.  Now that I've played it, I can say it feels a bit more like the classic but dated game of chaos, Nuclear War.  I must be honest right now and say that this game just isn't for me.  But considering the outstanding success of something as god-awful boring and chaotic as Killer Bunnies (which really is just a bloated rip-off of Nuclear War), I think this game may be enjoyable for many.  It's definitely a lot shorter and simpler than KB, which already makes me think it is a much better game.


Before I discuss the gameplay, though, I really need to mention the main issue I have with the game and the thing that may just hold it back from getting a wider audience:  the production values.  To say this isn't your usual Days of Wonder production would be an understatement.  The graphic design is not only very bland but it also works against the game.  The square player chips don't actually fit on the spaces that well and we found ourselves rearranging them a bit mid-game to try and fit them all on a path between cities.  The cards have no indication on them of where on the board the cities lie (unlike, say, TransAmerica or Ticket To Ride) so we searched a little at the beginning.  Besides this, the cards are very, very cheap stock.  One of our city cards got a little wet in the first 5 minutes started to warp immediately.  No glossy protection for you!  The worst offenders, though, are the standup signs which get placed on the board to mark detours, road closed, and intersections. They come with some generic black stands (which don't fit) to hold them up but unfortunately they are printed only on one side.  So unless you're all playing on one side of the table, half the people can't make out the signage.  This could have so easily been fixed by either printing on both sides of the card stock or maybe offering a fold at the top so it would be folded into a two-sided piece.

Having said all that, once the coloured chips were all punched out (and a few lost forever due to the really crappy cutting job of the card stock) the setup and explanation of the rules was a breeze.  The game itself is quite simple.  Like TransAmerica, all players are given a set of cities to try and connect to using their own and other players markers.  But unlike TA, everyone marks their cities at the beginning so you know exactly what your opponents are going for.  And I actually like that.  What I didn't really like was that the cities are randomly dealt and only one of your goal cities is picked by an opponent.  So basically you pick the 3 of 5 city cards that are the closest on the board and then the player to your right picks the 4th from the two cards they have left (clearly they pick the one farthest from your other cities...) 


Then the game proceeds with players playing 1 of 4 cards from their hands every turn, some of the cards being a forced play if you have them.  Cards allow players to add mileage markers (chips), take away opponent's markers, block routes temporarily or permanently, or even add or remove cities from a players goals.  It's all quite random, and, well, yes, chaotic and players continue adding their chips and removing their opponent's until someone connects all their cities and wins.  The game moves quite quickly and our games averaged 20-30 minutes.

It is fairly clear to me that I am not the target audience for this game.  The choices are very simple - "player A is going to win.  I should remove his markers", "I have add 300 and add 500 miles cards.  I should play the add 500 miles", etc. - but the board play is rather interesting.  Connecting to someone else's network will get you further but also may help them with their goal.  These are some great lessons for kids but a bit simplistic for adults.  As well, the frustration of being randomly handed more cities to connect to while the player beside you gets to remove his is, well, chaotic.  And having all your cities spread across the board while the other players manages to start his within 10 spaces of each other is also, well, chaotic.  And to add 4 mileage markers and then have them removed by others before your next turn, and then add them again, and then have them removed, and then added again.  And then you win!  Well, that is pretty chaotic.  I think you get the idea.

One of the comments from another player is that this game could be house-ruled tons to make for a much better experience.  Other ways to determine cities would make for a much better game, I think.  For example, you pick one of your cities and then the other players pick 3.  That would make for a much better experience and a far more interesting game.  In fact, it's something I think I'd like to try.


Still, the fact is the very similar and much better-produced TransAmerica offers a way more balanced approach to the game set-up and removes the chaos completely by not using cards and giving each player the same number of plays a turn.  A game of TA is usually very close each time and offers much tougher decisions.  But maybe that's not what you're looking for.  Maybe you enjoy the randomness of a classic like Mille Bornes or the nasty take-that of Sorry and you think that would improve a game like Ticket To Ride or TransAmerica.  Then I actually think you may enjoy Chaotic Connections.  Hey, on the website they even advertise that a game could take 5 or 45 minutes.  If that's okay by you, and you've got some young kids to play with, this could actually be a decent one.  For my money, though, I prefer a much more balanced game -  I like to feel like my decisions aren't entirely obvious each turn and that I have some semblance of control over whether I win or lose.

But hey, extremely chaotic games like Killer Bunnies sell tons of copies.  If you like chaos, and you want something to play with the kiddies, you might want to consider this one.  Just don't get the cards wet......

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