Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Early descriptions of Industrial Waste left me suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it. It was pegged as a game with little interaction among players. As someone who’d have a tough time choosing between 3 hours of Barney reruns or a crayon rail game, that was a red flag. Business themes do nothing for me, and environmental themes stir up about as much enthusiasm as National Tear Tags off Mattresses Day (May 9th, mark your calendar). So you can imagine the tremors of expectation in my fingers as I peeled the cellophane off of Industrial Waste, a game of factory operation and toxic waste management.
We’ve played it at almost every game session for the past month.
The damn thing’s addictive. The hook that keeps you coming back is the same one found in The Princes of Florence: the challenge of formulating and executing a game-long plan. Both games emphasize long-term strategy over short-term tactics and offer a variety of paths from which to choose. When players finish a game, their first thoughts are often about what to try the next time.
Players in Industrial Waste run plants which fulfill orders by processing unspecified raw materials, producing a toxic byproduct. Color-coded and well-designed play mats depict the status of each player’s plant, showing their current inventory, waste level, employee needs, and so forth. A communal chart shows each factory’s headcount (which, conveniently, is also the payroll) and the amount of money the factory receives for fulfilling an order. Throughout the game players improve their companies in an effort to increase efficiency, lower costs, earn money, and ultimately score points. All of this is accomplished through card play.
On each round, (# of players + 1) sets of three cards each are dealt to the table. A rotating start player gets first pick of the litter, with subsequent players choosing from the remaining sets. This card draft is one of the game’s two main points of player interaction. The interaction here is indirect-- a player will usually pick the set which does himself the most good, rather than considering what sets his opponents are salivating over. That’s because virtually all cards help their user rather than harming opponents (and the only harmful card does just a teeny-tiny bit of harm), so you’re rarely in a situation where you need to watch your back and select a set defensively.
Once sets are chosen play then proceeds clockwise with each player discarding or using a card from his set, optionally carrying one card over into the next round. Each card lets a player perform a corresponding action: hire or fire workers, increase factory value, recycle waste, fulfill an order, and so forth. Orders are the chewy center around which the game’s candy coating is applied. They’re one of only two ways to earn cash, which is needed to purchase raw materials, pay workers, and fund technological innovation. Cash also converts into victory points at a 2:1 ratio at the finish, so it’s good stuff to have.
Each factory has three technology tracks: manpower, materials, and waste. The manpower track indicates how many employees are needed to run the factory. Each order consumes the indicated number of raw materials and produces the indicated amount of waste. If a player doesn’t have enough employees on his payroll, he can’t process an order. If a player has insufficient materials on hand, he can’t process an order. If a player lacks storage capacity for his waste-- wait for it-- he can’t process an order. Cards let players advance on these tracks at a cost of five euros a pop (oooh, pretty pretty play money), streamlining their operations. As a further incentive to innovate, each rung on the technology ladders is worth more victory points than the last (1, 3, 6, 10, 15, a sequence which mathematicians call triangular numbers).
Much of a player’s strategy is reflected by how he handles these tech tracks. The scoring system encourages specialization, but the benefits of different tracks are useful at different times. Dabbling in them all may not score as much immediately, but can make up for it with long-term gains. Automating the factory lets a player cut costs by laying off workers, but effectively requires two cards for each step to do so (one to innovate, another to lay off). Reducing waste means fewer actions wasted by recycling and is the factory owner’s equivalent of basic black—useful in a wide variety of situations. Increasing efficiency stretches a player’s inventory across more orders, but can pinch off the other major source of income—selling raw materials at auction.
Raw materials are introduced into the game through action cards which trigger auctions. These function exactly like once-around auctions in Modern Art, including who gets the money. Selling raw materials, therefore, can be quite profitable—especially since it produces no waste. A player always sells the same number of materials he requires for a single order, which means as he increases his efficiency he’s decreasing the size of—and probably the bids for-- his auctions. That’s great if you want to buy goods from yourself cheaply, not so great if you want to sell to opponents for a profit.
These auctions are the other main point of interaction in Industrial Waste, and here it’s very direct. Money is secret, but potentially trackable. Players are allowed to take out €10 loans at any time but each loan carries a stiff victory point penalty if left unpaid at the finish. Repaying a loan requires the use of an Advisor action card, which can otherwise be used to double the effect of another action card—so taking out a loan is not something to do lightly. Making precise bids is crucial thanks to a nasty bidding rule: players may not bid more than they have. A player can take out a loan to make a higher bid, but if he is outbid he’s still stuck with that now-unnecessary loan. Victory margins in Industrial Waste are wafer-thin-- every €2 someone spends is one less victory point-- so brinksmanship in the auctions can make the difference.
Finally, let’s talk about waste. The danger of the stuff isn’t from exceeding your capacity to store it, but from exceeding your capacity to store it safely. Each player’s waste track has a green (safe), yellow, and red zone. Go beyond the green zone and you’re in danger. One card in the deck represents an accident. When it appears, the deck is reshuffled and players in the yellow and red zones pay a penalty. Waste management is therefore about managing risk. Accidents happen at least once every three turns in a four player game, but not every turn. So you’ve got at least a sporting chance if your waste gets a little out of hand. Ignore it for too long, though, and the penalties mount. The waste system works quite well, both mechanically and thematically. Waste is an annoying byproduct you’d rather ignore to focus on more production, but doing so will eventually carry financial repercussions that force you to deal with the problem.
Players can use their one carryover slot to hold onto a Bribery action card (which reduces the penalty), but then they can’t carry other cards over. The Bribery card seems underpowered, offering effectively the same benefit as a Growth card but with an additional monetary cost and usable only in case of an accident—hardly worth bothering with. We’ve experimented with the additional benefit of halving the monetary penalty (rounding down) which makes it more attractive.
Players must strategize the best way to invest their cash and manage their factory, but there are additional strategic choices to be made regarding when and how to use action cards. Holding onto an auction card until opponents are strapped, for instance, may allow a player to buy goods for himself more cheaply. Or he might wait until players cash in their orders, hoping to sell materials for a premium to players flush with loot. How players use the versatile advisors— to get or sell more materials, innovate more quickly, increase factory value, and so forth— is also critical.
The mechanics and structure of Industrial Waste evoke immediate comparisons with The Princes of Florence. Both games involve executing long-term plans with a strategic rather than tactical focus. The primary means of player interaction in both games is an auction. Both games feature 2:1 cash-to-victory-point conversions. But there’s one very important difference: Industrial Waste takes half to a third as long to complete, clocking in under an hour. The game just rattles along at a brisk pace, each decision point meaningful yet easy to work through.
Industrial Waste has that Lay’s potato chip quality, where you finish a game and want to turn around and try it again. It caught me by surprise, but the surprise is a pleasant one. A
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)