Monday, March 4, 2013

Resemblance Review: Level X

Link to Level X on BGG
A few weeks ago I stumbled across an online site called HappyMeeple.com which randomly matches up online players in five boardgames, including the subject of my last review of Keltis: The Card Game.

It is likely that I would have never come across Level X had I not tried it here. It certainly has a colorful appearance and its visual artwork reminded me of a Sid Sackson classic that offers similar mechanics and experience but a different game play style.


Comparing Can't Stop to Level X

Clever integration stop sign & traffic cones
Can't Stop Overview

Can't Stop is an early 1980's Spiel des Jahres recommended title from legendary American designer Sid Sackson. Two to four players take turns rolling four dice and pairing dice together to mark progress on the board.

An example roll of (2, 3, 4, 6) can be combined into 5 (2+3) & 10 (4+6) or 7 & 8 or 6 & 9. Each player continues rolling and marking their progress with the goal of completing three columns first on a board designed to reflect the probability of dice combinations.

The primary limitation in the game is that a player may only mark progress in three columns/numbers each turn. A player may continue as long as they like so long as they can mark progress after each roll in one of the three columns they have active this turn. If the player rolls and cannot make an addition they lose all progress for that turn  and the next player begins their turn. A player may stop at any time and mark their progress, essentially "locking it in" and pass the dice to the next player.

When a player reaches the top of a column and "locks it in", the progress of all other players in this column is removed and the number/column may not be used for the remainder of the game, both creating a zero-sum race to lock up each number and making future turns decidedly less productive.

Can't Stop Analysis

Can't Stop is at its very core a game of press-your-luck and as with the other games in the genre, it is a game of probability. Can't Stop presses a player to continue on, rolling until an individual's risk aversion sets in and pushes them to finish their turn. As players are attempting to climb over one another a player whom has progressed very close to finish still has to sweat it out as other players may try  to complete the entirety of that same column in a single turn, capturing one third of their objective and destroying a near scoring opportunity for their opponent.

As a game that rewards varying degrees of aggression, the luck factor is diminished from what would ordinarily be expected. In Can't Stop, rolling high values is not necessarily better than rolling low depending on the player's progress each turn. The luck is better classified as chaos and all rolls are potentially valuable based on probabilistic opportunity on the board.

Player choices are often selected by options that are closest to the average distribution of two dice, as it is much easier to have an long-sustained turn if you are rolling looking for 6, 7 & 8 rather than 2, 4 & 11. In this way the game can become predictable in the prioritization of player choices, but it is a short game and not an issue for a press-your-luck game.

Level X Overview

Level X is a 2010 Spiel des Jahres recommended game for two to four players that shares the similar dice grouping mechanism of Can't Stop, the primary difference in Level X is that you can also take single die to mark progress (A roll of 6, 5, 5, 5 can be a 6 & three 5s or a 10, 6 & 5), thus broadening options. Players are attempting to get the highest VP score.

On a turn, a player rolls four dice, group them and moving their tokens from left to right down the path corresponding to the die values selected. Once a player reaches the "X" space they take a VP token corresponding to that number which also reflects the point value added to the player's total. The VP tokens are initially set up in quantities inversely proportional to their face value.

In Level X while any number of players may coexist on an ordinary space, the X space can only ever have one occupant. When a player reaches an X space with an opponent, they "bounce" the opponent back to the starting position very similar to the mechanic in Backgammon.

Players can earn bonuses based on number of complete sets of the six token types. The first player to collect a VP token from 5 through 10 gets a +15 VP bonus chip to add to their score. The following three sets earn +12, +9 & +6 respectively. The game ends when either all four bonus chips have been taken or three of the VP token stacks have been depleted.

Level X Analysis

Level X blends a number of interesting ideas into a fun little package. There is a racing element that rewards bonuses to the first player to grab a VP token in each of the six rows, a complete set. The second player to each X space will dethrone the first player and have additional uninterrupted scoring opportunities.

Two player Level X is a strategic pacing game as you want to optimize a first mover advantage in a row or position yourself to "reset" your opponent and gain position through a second mover advantage. Three or four players is a decidedly different battle as a great opportunity will not hold for long as players are displaced frequently and the cycle repeats more often.

The luck factor in Level X is handled elegantly as lower rolls are traditionally less valuable. Rolls of more than a single "1" die roll allow a player to revalue additional 1's and orient the die however they desire. The solution may seem strange in concept it works wonderfully in execution as it would often be a crippling turn to roll several 1's in a turn otherwise. This reclassifies a liability into an interesting strategic decision. There are enough turns for the dice to play out and although final scores are very close, luck rarely feels like a decisive factor.

The player choices are rarely as straightforward as one might expect. After a game or two I found that maximizing the value of the dice grouping and taking advantage of every die was often a huge mistake. Level X is about keeping your opponent's scoring options under control, positioning yourself with more options and pressing your scoring opportunities.

Conclusion

While the games are decidedly different in game type, they offer similar decisions and Level X has the more intriguing game with more diverse options and exciting player interaction.

Level X

Originality (0.75/1.0) - An elegant mixture of ideas
Theme (0.0/0.5) - A colorful abstract
Pure Fun (0.75/1.0) - Structured tense fun experience
"Re-play-ability" (0.75/1.0) - Worth revisiting when possible

Strategy/Luck Ratio (0.5/0.5) - Dice tend to even out
Player Scaling (0.5/0.5) - More players leader to more adaptive play

Parity (0.5/0.5) - Excellent, scores generally very close

My Rating:
Overall 3.75/5.0 = 7.5 out of 10


Can't Stop registers at a 6 out of 10 for me. Each game has their own style and one does not necessarily replace the other but Level X is the more interesting game with more replay value and thought provoking decisions.