|Welcome To... (2018)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.84]
|Player Count (recommended)
Welcome To is a pleasant game and that’s really all there is to it. It’s not particularly clever. It’s not particularly exciting. It’s completely inoffensive and you’d have no real justifiable complaints as a consequence of playing. ‘That was a pleasant way to spend twenty minutes’ you’d say and then forget your session entirely. It presents you with a satisfactory number of moderately interesting decisions and doesn’t overly tax you in any of them. It’s absolutely fine and that’s a judgement I will defend to the death. It’s just a shame that’s all it is given what I’ve seen lurking in the dark heart of similar games over the past couple of years.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might remember our review of Ganz Schon Clever – a game that I could only get out of my mind with the help of a friendly priest and an aggressive exorcism. Welcome To isn’t a roll and write, because there are no dice involved – it uses cards instead. I’d call it a draw and write if that wouldn’t be horribly confusing. Aside from the source of the randomness in the system though, it’s a roll and write game in every way that matters. You are presented with some choices driven by randomness, and you decide how to use what you are offered to mark off locations on your player sheet. In this case you’re engaged in an act of civic engineering that is intensely bizarre in its erratic stochasticity. It seems like everyone down at City Hall has replaced their daily coffee with regular ingestions of high-grade LSD. ‘Hey, I know we planned for a pool here but what if, man, what if right, listen, listen, what if we subdivided the house six times and then stuck a fence in the middle?’
You’re responsible for trying to make some sense of a series of these directives, each of which looking as if they were generated from a Tarot reading. Your pad represents a neighbourhood over which you are in charge. Whether it’s a Good Place or a Bad Place is (kind of) up to you. You’re the architect.
Every turn of the game the top cards of three decks are flipped over to give you a combination of house number and special effect. Everyone picks the combination they like the most for the neighbourhood they’re building and marks it off. Special effects include placing pools and parks, subdividing properties (via the bis effect), laying down fences, manipulating numbers, and adjusting the point value assigned to completed sets of houses.
Every number you place in a row has to be higher than those before and lower than those after but they don’t need to be written together or even in order. At the end you get points for each contiguous sequence of houses provided they start and end with a fence. Regions of size six are as high as you can score. You’re basically playing a game of reverse bingo where you’re the one that defines when you can claim a house. A ha ha ha.
There are also a number of city plans you’ll be racing to complete, and these give bonus points if you can meet the requirements they outline – usually a set number of properties of a set configuration. The game ends when all three of these have been claimed by the same player, or when someone fills their street, or when someone can’t place their third house number.
It’s a perfectly pleasant game, but what it lacks really is any fire in its belly. It’s a game you can play on auto-pilot and while that’s not a problem as such it does mean it struggles to stir any real passion in my soul. The choices with which you are presented are rarely very difficult. The range of numbers, and the existence of the temp agency that permits you to nudge an attached number in a more agreeable direction, mean that you’re rarely stuck for options until the very end of the game. At that point, you’re usually so stuck for options that the final reckoning is only a couple of turns away anyway. Nothing really feels like it matters and that’s because everything matters. The effect is to essentially nullify the challenge by spreading it too thinly over the entirety of the game. You either go for big combos which give lots of points in one category or you go for a wide range of effects which give smaller chunks of points in lots of categories. There’s something of a push your luck element here but it’s rendered largely impotent by not actually punishing you for hubris. In the end you usually do as well by acting cautiously as you do by acting courageously. You can play it safe here and still excel.
Part of the reason for that is down to the predictability of the core game system. Dice are problematic for all kinds of reasons, and the main one is that they don’t guarantee fairness in any game session. Cards smooth out that unfairness but the ‘fog of war’ that comes with uncertainty is rapidly eaten away. If you see a lot of low numbers coming out of the decks you know that you’re going to get a streak of high numbers later on and you can bank on that. It’s fairer as a system. It’s more civilized. However, the cost of all those desireable qualities is that it’s also less interesting. The big benefit of dice is that they tend to create more chaotic game systems, and nobody is ever bored in a riot.
A lack of manageability is an important feature of a game like this. Many roll and write games work best by tricking you into their own bespoke versions of the gambler’s fallacy – that subconscious belief that the dice have memory. Dice also give you something that a fixed deck of cards can’t possibly replicate – game states that are intensely jagged and clustered in non-intuitive ways. Combine these two factors and you have a great recipe for a game where you’re betting future successes against past performances when the effects of neither are predictable.
That doesn’t really work when you have even a rough idea of the distribution of riches within a fixed deck of cards, and that’s what you have here. I think in this respect Welcome To made a mistake in not using dice – it would have been much more interesting game with a few d20s and a pile of status cards. I’d be a lot less casual about my placements if I didn’t know that the constant stream of fifteens, sixteens and seventeens would be balanced out by ones, twos and threes later on. More than that, I’d also have to be wary of the possibility that this might be one of those weird sessions. Those sessions where the odds of the universe seem to have been nudged into a new configuration by some malevolent cosmic entity. It would acquire a flavour of those sessions of Catan where the elevens and the twelves are rolled far more frequently than the statistically safer sixes and eights. That scenario is unwelcome in Catan because it’s not fundamentally a game where the randomness is fun. That’s not true of a good roll and write, or even a good dice-based game in general. If managing the randomness was a key part of the puzzle there would be a frisson of danger with every number I tucked away into a box. I’d second guess myself. I’d have crises of confidence. I’d pay attention.
Welcome To though has a flavour of randomness built on a bedrock of knowability. That feature of the design kicks the legs away from any kind of building momentum. Ganz Schon Clever left scars across my neurons that I can still perceive. It did it by bundling all the jangly energy of a loot-box into a puzzle that had combos that felt incredibly satisfying to pull off. Welcome To has a more sedate progression – like checking the Dow Jones index for the incremental movement of stocks in a (mostly) orderly marketplace. The sudden spikes and unexpected dips are notable for their comparative rarity. If Ganz Schon Clever is the Racing Post then Welcome To is the Financial Times. For all its quirky aesthetics, it’s a very po-faced game.
This lack of bite to the randomness isn’t inherently a problem but I’d expect it to be balanced out by the presence of something else that gave some verve and drive to the experience. Welcome To is relatively unusual amongst X and Write games in that it has an obvious thematic hook – a way to contextualise the externally arbitrary decisions you make. That could have been marvellous if it were actually really taken seriously. It’s not though. It’s a veneer on top of a workaday roll and write scenario and it could have been really exciting had their been more choices to make. The neighbourhood you build is defined by frippery – parks and pools and fences and roundabouts. Imagine if you had another layer on top of this – plumbing and electricity and access to civic facilities. Imagine if you could award bonuses based on proximity to a police station, or earned exponential points for having a full catchment area of schools. What I’m describing sounds a bit like the bastard offspring of Yahtzee and Suburbia. The mere idea of it has given me more joy than you’d find if you summed up every game I’ve had of Welcome To. In the end, placing numbers into a sequence just isn’t very interesting and that’s pretty much all Welcome To is offering to its players.
You can see part of the lack of dynamism reflected in the supported player count – the box says from one to one-hundred but really the only limit is the number of pens and sheets you have available. That tells you one thing very clearly – there’s absolutely no real player interaction in the game. That is, except for the ‘expert rules variant’ and even then it’s limited to passing cards to a neighbour. It shares a feature with NMBR9 and Karuba in that everyone is making the same cake from the same ingredients. All that other players do in a game like this is act as a kind of high-score table pacer and the truth is they don’t even need to be there. You could play Welcome To like a game of correspondence chess if you could find anyone willing to spread their play over a few days of distracted decision making. That does mean you’re not stuck finding a group to play with, and there’s a perfectly good solo mode in the box that will passably divert you for a few minutes. It’s a cardinal sin in board games though, as far as I’m concerned, when they make the other players an entirely optional component of the experience.
It’s all just a bit sterile, really. The scoring pad you get even looks like someone made a spirited attempt to jolly up an Excel spreadsheet in preparation for the office Christmas party at a firm of charted accountants. There’s a timidity in the design here that creates a reliability of play but at the cost of an intensely inoffensive game. I like games that are brash and confident. There are too many great games out there and a lot of the conventional design space has been explored to death. Welcome To feels like it’s happier exploring the shallows of the beaches rather than the depths of the oceans. A game needs to be bold to command attention nowadays, and it needs to be adventurous to excel. Welcome To is trying to gain attention in a crowded marketplace by meekly raising its hand and hoping its mild competence will earn it prominence. Welcome To is a pleasant game. You can do much better than pleasant though.