Friday, May 20, 2011

CLASSICS CLOSET - Doubletrack (Review) - Reliving a Game from my Youth

When I was a kid we actually had quite a few games around our house that I remembered playing. A good number of them really. However, I'd kind of forgotten the extent and variety until I first discovered and started looking around on BGG back in 2008. As I ran across them/remembered them I started marking them as Previously Owned and, in this case, 'Want in Trade'. Some others I remembered included: Inner Circle, Leverage, Touring, WaterworksSurvive!, Stay Alive, Operation, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Tri-Ominos, Quadominos, Pictionary Yahtzee, and many more. And, I'm not ashamed to admit it that we owned Monopoly and it was one of my favorite games!

So anyway, last year I picked up the version of Cave Troll with the figures and I marked my version with the chits for trade. I wasn't sure if I'd ever get any bites on it, but recently I did as I received a trade request in exchange for Doubletrack. I'm sure not everyone has heard of this game but it was one I certainly remembered.

Doubletrack box (this is a fairly large box at 12"x20"x1-1/2")

In this game, I recalled there being plastic gates attached to the board that controlled access to certain paths on the board and you used a physical (cardboard) 'pass' that had to be inserted into the gates to open them up. I always found this functionality intriguing both the gate itself as well as the concept - each player controls a gate pass (or several in some cases) which gives them more control over who can go through them and when. I don't recall seeing this sort of feature in more modern games (if you've seen it I'd be interested to hear about it in the comments)

I also remembered the mechanic of using a Big pawn on an outer track that moves and then affects what the Small pawn on the inner track is doing.

So, I accepted the trade and thought this could be fun to play again.

Soon it arrived. It was a bit more beat up than the copy we used to own, but it had all the familiar components to it. There's something about getting your hands on a game you remember from your childhood that brings back warm memories of simpler days. You get this sense of zipping back in time, remembering where you would play it (on my bedroom floor with it's bright red carpet - no really, that's what I chose, much to my mother's chagrin), who you played it with (my sister mostly, sometimes my friend Jeff), and some vague memories of really enjoying it.

Well, my son and I got this game out the other evening. As we got out the pieces my son was intrigued by the gates. I had him install them, get the money chips out and set up initial money while I started reading the rules. There were more to the rules than I remembered. I wanted to be sure to go through everything and, as I explained it to my son he eventually said - "Dad, let's just play!" He's a little impatient. He had tired of fiddling with the gates and was ready to play. But reading the rules takes time! I guess it was my own fault for not following my own advice about reading the rules ahead of time. Especially when it comes to someone like my son.

Example game set up for 4 players

Anyhow, I glossed over the rest of the rules, except I'm glad I covered one rule in particular. There are certain actions which let you (rather force you) to sell a gate pass, sell a card from your hand, or even sell the lead (if you are leading). Something that surprised me about this game was that it used a blind auction for the selling part! I hadn't remembered that at ALL. I'm not sure if we ignored it (just as we ignored the auction in Monopoly) or if we did something else entirely.

And then I realized it was a game designed for 3-5 players. Which makes sense when you have a blind auction. We ended up playing that if you are selling you just haggle over the price. In the case of it being a card, the card offered would be kept secret (as per the rules) until sold - thus, you could sell a worthless card. Yes, there is a card that actually says "This is a worthless card". This is awesome as well - more games with auctions should have items that are intentionally worthless and try to get you buy/sell them.

With Selling the Lead it is supposed to be a blind bid for the remaining players. For 2-player this wasn't going to work so we just haggled over it as well. This action didn't not really come into play much.

The 'Sell a Pass' blind bid also still works for 2-player as it forces the person selling their pass to made a good bid if they want to keep it. Whomever loses gets the money so you may have to pay the other person money to keep the pass.

So, the outline of rules of this game are as follows:
  • Roll the dice (2d6) to move your big pawn. 
    • BUT, before you roll, check to see what gates you might want to go through. The gates let you take a slightly shorter path that has spots for moving your little pawn 1-5, 10 or 15 spaces - really nice if you can hit them.
    • If you might want to go through them, if you own the pass you can decide whether to put the pass in or not to open the gate. You cannot change it after you roll, so you have to decide now.
      Blue Gate is open and blue's Big pawn is ready to go through it!
    • If you don't own the pass you have to ask permission (or pay money or otherwise make some sort of deal to go through).
  • On the outer track, move the Big pawn exactly the number of spaces you rolled. 
    • If you land on a number then you move your Small pawn on the inner track exactly that many spaces.
    • If you land on one of the special spaces you can play a card, take someone's colored pass, take $25 from any one player, or sell a pass, card or the lead!
      • There are rules around each of these, but it really is pretty straight forward and you can pretty much guess what you do on each one.
  • Then, if you have less than 3 cards, draw back up to 3.
  • Finally, if your Small pawn reaches the HOME space then you win!
Very simple really.

So, my son and I got to playing and we actually had a pretty great time. The most fun (for my son at least) was selling me the Worthless Card. And the card that makes you move your pawn Back 10 spaces (only slightly better than a worthless card, unless you really WANT to go backwards on the board -- generally only worth it in one or two instances). Oh, and stealing my passes. We actually had a lot of laughs doing all of this nastiness to each other.

A realization hit me...
Ok, in writing this review I noticed something - well a number of things about this game.

First, the inner 'track' is just a score track with no numbers on it and you are racing to get to the target score. BUT, what's interesting about this score track is that it has shortcuts on it that let you immediately advance/skip further along the path. These are effectively bonuses you get for hitting certain specific scoring spots along the track.

Ok, maybe that wasn't much of a revelation to some of you, but I never really envisioned it that way as a kid - I just saw it as a path you were racing along. Somehow, it makes me more intrigued about it and the possibilities this type of scoring could have in other games (although I'm sure it exists just in different forms already).

Here are some detailed pictures from the game:

The Small pawns on the start space

Blue has successfully hit a shortcut spot and
can quickly jump into the lead on his next movement

Yellow's starting setup

The "Sell a Card" and "Sell the Lead!" spaces

The Take $25 space and "Sell a Pass" space
and two more "Sell a Card" spaces
Now, I admit this wasn't the most exciting, brain burning game I've ever played, but for a game to play with my son it was really pretty fun and we actually had a lot of laughs playing. Which is the most important part about playing games, especially with your kids - having a fun time.

A couple of things that disappointed me about the game: the lack of control and the relative worthlessness of money. In regards to the money, you rarely care how much you spend on going through a gate or buying a pass because they are extremely valuable. And, you are likely to get the money back again in the near future for the same reasons you spent it yourself. In addition, there are spaces (and cards) that let you steal passes for no cost. 

Buying cards from other people is not all that valuable since you can get them easily for free after playing them. And, buying the lead is generally not worth it unless you are very far behind and then it's worth as much money as you have. 

Some optional rules I think might actually make this game more interesting:
  • Roll the dice to move as usual, but then pay a certain amount of money to modify the dice rolls somehow - either adding/subtracting or maybe flipping the dice (borrowing from Troyes and Alien Frontiers here).
  • Another option might be to roll both dice then choose one or the other, or use them both together. In this way you at least have a bit of a choice of where you can move on the board (2 or 3 options)
  • Have ways to play cards on other player's pawns in the middle or affect them in some way - not too much, but a little. You could also then use this to bribe other people into paying you to NOT do something to their pawns.
  • Have a display of, say, 3 cards. You must buy cards from the display instead of just getting them for free after you play another one (or buy one blindly from the top). The cards may even need a mechanic to be able to scroll them out. The worthless card is free to pick up.
Other things need tweaking as well such as ways to make the money more important so that you have to spend it more wisely. But, honestly, I think there's some potential here with some rules tweaks. In fact, my son and I tried out a couple of changes on a 2nd game the next day

First, we used the rule of being able to use whatever combination of dice that you want. This led to more decision making as to what would be your best option (steal a pass or go 15 spaces?, etc). I thought this change worked really well and I felt like I had things to 'do' in making a decision.

Second, we allowed for moving the OTHER player forward OR backward using only the spaces on the shortcuts controlled by the gates. Thus, landing on one of those spots (and by extension, owning the passes) became much more valuable. Unfortunately this just made the game really long as I got very close to winning and my son kept pushing me back 15 or more spaces rather than trying to advance himself. I think an alternate solution might be that you have to PAY to move them back and maybe only be able to move them so 1-5 spaces (not 10 or 15) - thus you can still make progress, although perhaps more slowly.

Anyhow, we may go on tweaking this game a bit more to see what we can come up with.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane (well, my memory lane at least).

Now, go pull out a classic game and teach it to a kid or a friend and see what fun you might have.

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