Finding old games
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Letters to the Editor
Traumfabrik (aka Fabrik der Traüm)
The big buzz preceding, throughout, and long after Essen 2000 was around Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. The buzz was well deserved, but it pushed Knizia’s other major Essen release, Traumfabrik (Dream Factory), into the background when it really deserves a little buzz of its own.
Traumfabrik is a game about making movies. Players represent movie producers trying to cobble together the best talent to turn a screenplay into a hit on the silver screen. Screenplays require various combinations of directors, actors, guest stars, musicians, special effects and camera crews for completion. If none of these are available, you can always hope to hire from an agency during the game, filling any need as a wild card. All of these are ranked with a number of stars ranging from zero to three, except for four famous directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford who are worth four stars. In a clever bit of self- deprecation, Knizia himself is a guest star actor worth negative one.
The game is played over four rounds, with each round comprised of a number of auctions and a pair of parties. During each auction, players bid contracts for groups of tiles representing the actors, directors, etc. Bidding proceeds clockwise with each player bidding a larger amount of contracts or passing. Once all players but the high bidder pass, the bidder divides the contracts from his winning bid among all the other players. Any spare contracts are set aside and added to the distribution pool next time. The bidder then takes the tiles and places them in the appropriate slots in his screenplays.
The zero-sum nature of the bidding helps keep the game balanced, making it hard for players to overspend and fall too far behind in purchasing power. The bidding borrows from Ra where players bid with a fixed set of tiles that constantly change hands throughout the course of the game. Because a bid goes to the hands of the other players and not to a bank, players must evaluate the impact of their bid on the future purchasing power of their opponents. The bidding in Traumfabrik keeps the other players interested with a few magic numbers. Even after you pass a bid, you cajole and implore the remaining bidders to a bid level evenly divisible by the number of players not winning the bid to squeeze out an extra contract for the next round.
The other key mechanism in the game is the parties. In Hollywood (as many other places), it’s not what you know but who you know. Each round has two parties, the first occurring halfway through the round and the second ending the round. There is one tile per player available at each party, but these are not auctioned off. Instead players get their choice of these tiles based upon the number of actors and guest stars they’ve already cast in their screenplays. If players are tied in the number of actors, then the player closest to the left of the person who won the last auction gets first choice.
Having first choice at the parties is critical. You can often get a key, high-valued tile to complete a film or if that key tile isn’t available, you can grab another actor in an effort to help get better choices at subsequent parties. For this reason, actors tend to command a premium throughout the game since control of the actors means control at the parties. The auction occurring immediately before both of the parties also seems to command a premium in order to control the tiebreakers. There is nothing worse than seeing the player to the left of you win that bid when you are tied with several players for the number of actors giving you a last pull at the party. The player with the most total actors gets first choice, second most actors gets second choice and so on. The parties are a great fit with the theme. Showing up at a party with Betty Grable and Charlton Heston on your arm is likely to attract the attention of a hotshot cameraman or musician for your movie while going to the party stag won’t get you noticed.
Once a player completes a movie with all of the necessary parts, the star value of all of the components are added up along with the initial value of the screenplay. The player then gets a movie token equal to the number of stars and takes a new screenplay to develop. The first player to complete a film in each of the three genres (drama, entertainment, and action) gets a first film Oscar worth bonus points. An award for the best picture is given out after each of the first three rounds to the highest-valued movie produced thus far. Five other bonuses are bestowed after the final round, for best overall picture in each of the three film genres as well as the best direction and worst film. The direction bonus goes to the player with the most highly-rated set of directors in all his completed films. The worst film award makes the zero-star tiles valuable, prompting aggressive bidding for Reiner Knizia and his negative rating. The awards are worth victory points at the end of the game as is each completed movie and players’ remaining contracts. Totaling these up determines who finishes at the top of the Hollywood food chain.
The game hums along at a very nice pace finishing right around or even a little under 60 minutes. The rules are really quite simple to explain. At the same time, there is much to consider during the bidding and placement of tiles in screenplays. There is the opportunity for offensive and defensive bidding. Being aware of the key components needed by fellow producers to complete a film is a must. Because all of the tiles with the exception of the parties are face up throughout a round, you can see at the start of a round what is going to be scarce and command larger bids or available in abundance and had for cheap. The game also rewards different strategies. You can race to complete films early and often no matter how low their rating in an effort to get first film awards. It is just as feasible to try and get the best of the best for your screenplays and win the game end awards with high value films. Heck it even pays to put together a real box office bomb in an effort to win the worst film award. It’s important to remember that incomplete films are completely worthless, and not spread your studio too thinly among multiple projects.
Traumfabrik invites comparisons to Dirk Henn’s Showmanager. To be perfectly frank, beyond the theme, the games are rather different. Traumfabrik is an auction game with players bidding against each other with a high level of player interaction typical of auction games. Showmanager at its heart it a rummy and set collecting game with little direct player interaction, but with a reasonable ability to affect other players. I don’t see Traumfabrik making Showmanager obsolete or vice versa. Both are good games that stand on their own and are linked by a common theme.
Traumfabrik is a very good game with simple and tight mechanics— no chrome here. But, more importantly, the game is fun. Watching Boris Karloff cast in The King and I or Marilyn Monroe cast in The Ten Commandments is a hoot. I’ve yet to play a game where someone doesn’t grumble about the ratings of the actors like the fact that Henry Fonda deserves more stars than Jimmy Stewart. The game’s theme has significant appeal to a wider audience beyond the average gamer. Movies have a sort of universal appeal and the cast of actors and lineup of classic films from the golden age of Hollywood only adds to that attraction. It would make perfect sense for Hasbro to bring this game over to the states, but that is probably not going to happen while Hasbro churns out twenty new editions of Monopoly this year. This makes Traumfabrik like a good foreign or independent film that the mass audience never sees until it gets nominated for an Oscar, which is unfortunate. Fortunately, the only German on the components are the names of the movies and awards, so the language barrier is minimal. Traumfabrik deserves two thumbs-up, and is a must-see— er, must-play game.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)