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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Aton - A Puzzle of Pips.

(originally posted on BGG August 2011)

Game Designer - Thorsten Gimmler
Game Publisher - Queen Games
Game Type - Abstract Strategy

Aton - A Puzzle of Pips
Thinly veiled in theme, Aton is a truly elegant game of equal forces vying to occupy space. I must say that I am generally a fan of abstract games that "disguise" themselves with nice bits and pretty colors - Ohhhh the pretty colors. Anything that gets these abstract games to the table on a lighter, less intimidating note, is welcomed among my pals. Keep in mind we know damn well that underneath that neat little box lid is a nasty game of cutthroat tactics, plotting and scheming... it just helps to break the ice. You'll need the ice later, to cool your noggin of course.

In Aton, players each get a deck comprised of equal forces. The cards are nothing more than numerical ranks (1-4) that are shuffled and drawn gradually at random. The deck consists of 9 of each rank (9 4's, 9 3's...) for a total of 36 cards apiece. These are shuffled and drawn 4/turn. So you know what's in there, you just don't know what/when you're going to get.

The game board is divided up into 4 regions with 12 "spots" in each. Your goal is to strategically place your markers in these "temples" in order to either meet one of the instantaneous winning conditions or to score more points than your opponent through superior placement. How you place your markers in the temples will depend on how you'd like to spend the strength of your individual player deck. There are 4 "cartouches"  or as I like to call everything, spots, on each side of the board. You take one of your 4 cards drawn at the beginning of the turn and place it in each cartouche. After a simultaneous reveal, you will spend your cards' pips. The first spot is a little different than the other 3, so we will get back to that guy. The 2nd cartouche is an offensive action which allows you to remove your opponents previously placed markers. The higher the strength of your cards the more markers you can remove. Careful though, if you do not spend enough pips on this location you might end up removing a few markers of your own! The 3rd cartouche dictates the highest numbered temple you may place your markers in that turn. Temples are numbered 1-4 and the equity within these temples increases with the numeric value. The fourth cartouche tells you how many markers you get to put down that turn. Laying a "2" in this cartouche means you get to play 2 markers in your eligible temple. So what you have here is the want (most times) for a "4" in every spot. You want to be able to use your high cards to remove more of your opponents markers, play in the highest valued temples, place the most markers you can... but alas the deck makeup does not allow you such freedom. The very first cartouche is a straight points bid, scoring two points multiplied by the difference between your 1st cartouche card and your opponent's. The player with the high card in this cartouche get's point right away. If none of the instant win conditions are realized, this race comes down to points alone, so although this is the least functional cartouche, it offers a great share of points.

There are also instant win conditions to be watchful of. Each temple has a row of green spaces and a row of yellow spaces. If you can manage to fill up the green spaces in each separate temple you win outright. No need to play out the decks any further or wait until the end of the round to score! Same goes for the yellow spaces in each temple. It's important to note, that after each round ends the majority owner of each temple scores for the amount of markers he has in the temple. Often times the instant win strategies and point optimization strategies are contradictory to eachother. Meaning, to go for an instant win is often at the sacrifice of potential points. If you miss out on your opportunity to make this winning condition, you're giving your opponent an opportunity to score a lot of points. Note: another winning condition, 40 points prior to a scoring round... if 40 is met during the scoring the player with the most points wins. The trick is that first cartouche, it allows you to score prior to the scoring round. So if you're too aggressive in going for one of the non-point scoring victories you can let your opponent get dangerously close to hitting that 40 point mark prior to you achieving your instant win. Another instant wins - filling up a single temple completely with your stones only. This one is tricky for sure, as you'll be aiming for the most in each temple already. If MOST becomes ALL, it's over.

Once a track comprised of removed stones is full the scoring round goes as follows: in each temple the majority owner scores points, there are some bonus point individual spots in the temples, there are also black squares in each that instead of instant win conditions allow you to score a lot of points if you have the majority of them out of all temples.

To me, this is the core conflict of the game. To go for the instant win, or to pile up the points. But it's not that cut and dry. This isn't so much a "multiple paths to victory" game as it seems on paper. What usually happens is that while someone is going for all the green spaces on the board, you'll be going for all the yellow. They'll get close and you'll throw some stones on the green spaces in order to play defense, they'll commit higher cards to the 2nd cartouche in order to remove those stones... this opens up the other areas of the board for you to exploit. Maybe you'll get closer to victory with being able to capture all the yellow spaces, but chances are you'll have to re-respond to their green effort again... It sort of bogs down at some point, either from the start or when someone gets too close to an instant win and demands attention. What results is a tactical delight, involving card counting, conservation of resources, bluffing... it get's sort of tit-for-tat, little moves here, mini-swing there - until someone, tensely, grabs the reigns and rides the pony in to town.

Some people have argued on here that the game is good but simply not fun to play. Luck is pretty low. Turn to turn play is very samey. To me it's the tactics and "open" feeling of the strategy that are the appeal. The best move is sometimes very easy to recognize, especially in end game situations, but the mid-game is a beautiful mess. Although Aton is an area majority game, it really doesn't feel that way while playing it. It should, for every reason I described in the little rule synopsis, but it doesn't. This hearkens back to my first paragraph on theme. These thinly themed abstracts seem to fool unsuspecting players. As a friend of mine's girlfriend said, "What, do you get to be that guy on the box or something?", to which I answered, "No, you get to play chess with a pharaoh suit on." It had me thinking for a bit. Maybe the lack of perceived fun has something to do with the expectations that are presumed upon seeing the imagery and theme?

As for replay-ability, I think Aton holds up fairly well. No two games seem to be the same. Strategies change, the bluff or distraction from experienced players, or the amateur naivete of the noobs... because of the set value of each players' forces, there is nothing that can be squandered. That "4" has to go somewhere, whether it's the optimum placement or not, we may never know. The mechanic of placing the cards and doing the elementary math needed to determine the cards true value in each cartouche is a turn off for some people. I've even heard it called convoluted. I think it's rather simple, and even if it is a little convoluted aren't all game mechanics?

Aton a very nice game. It's actually impressed a few people that I didn't think it would. The area majority/area control genre is pretty void of good games for 2, I believe it to be one of the better, one of few that actually works. It's not gonna rock your world, but it might consume more of your 2P filler time than you thought. It feels like there is something here to "figure out", "let's do it again" is a common chorus. There are just so many moving parts here.

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