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After a flood of train games it is nice to see another transport system featured in a game. Bus is about developing a bus system in an expanding city. The game is played on a large map, which is promised to be a delight for experienced gamers (!), and it features 3 types of buildings: homes, offices and bars. Citizens spend their entire lives travelling from their homes to work to the bar and back home again, and it is the players job to build a bus system that keep this infrastructure effective in order to obtain the ultimate goal: to earn a lot of money.
You can do this by buying more buses, expanding your lines, or making sure your bus rides before any other busses do--that will allow you to take away other people's passengers. But you can also decide to build new houses, offices and bars at strategic locations--or to attract more people to the city so that you can earn more. If other players don't lure them away....
Each turn, players decide which actions to take by using two or more of their action tokens--players have 20 to spend as they please during the game. Timing is all-important, so the game is all about interaction--guessing, or if you're clever, foreseeing what the other companies are going to do. There is no luck involved, but it does contain a weird twist in the form of a mad scientist. He has discovered a machine that can stop the time--which will really hurt most bus companies, but perhaps not all.
Forget the warped board and the fact that a person may fall over occasionally--it's not a big deal. This is the Die Macher of transportation games, and has some wonderful mechanisms working in tandem to keep you thinking and engaged throughout the whole game. When you notice that the scoring track only goes up to 20 or so, and that the play time is around 3 hours, you will wonder why it is so hard to get people where they want to go! Spiteful opponents and limited opportunities for control go a long way toward explaining it! Great game, but the board IS going to be warped, and therefore the price is going to sting.
We played this game one aftenoon, but a couple of problems arose.
First, the four sections that comprise the board came slightly bent so the pieces have a hard time staying in place. Some of the pieces have to stand vertically, and end up falling over when someone would make the table shake even slightly.
Secondly, it could use a much bigger board. When you have four parallel routes running in the same road, it gets over-crowded and hard to keep track of.
Once we got past the VERY steep learning curve, things picked up. Unfortunately the frustration in learning this game (even though I read the rules about 20 times) caused many headaches and my friends lost interest... but we managed to have fun in the end.
So, after all that, this ended up being very interesting game that we'll probably try again.
Just don't expect to play this game correctly the first time and make sure you play a few 'Learning Rounds' before you actually play a real game.
Bus is one of two full-size box games released by Splotter at Essen 1999, along with Roads and Boats. Through the game, players use a limited set of actions to build a road network in an attempt to deliver passengers to their desired destinations. The mechanisms employed in this basic concept are quite original and lead to a contemplative and close game play. While Bus has some peculiarities, it is one of the better games released last year and is definitely worth a play if you've not had the chance to try it.
The great-looking board shows the city plan with a series of intersecting streets, locations for buildings to be constructed, and two train terminals. At setup, each player gets one bus, places two buildings and places the first two sections of their road network in 'Settlers' fashion. After passengers are set on each of the four center corner intersections, the game begins with the first set of actions.
The idea of the game is to move passengers from where they are to where they want to be. Where they want to be is determined by the time of day; in the day, they are at work, in the evening at the pub, and at home overnight. Each building (work, pub, and home) is built at intersections, so if a passenger is delivered to a pub when it is evening, the player that carried them gets one point. Since the clock rotates from home to work to pub continually, every successfully moved passenger starts the next round on the previous time's building. Our pub passenger next turn would want to go home, so the bus that carries him to a 'home' building gets another point.
The Action Board, a separate strip from the main board, is the heart of the game mechanic and includes seven options. You only have 21 actions to use during the whole game, however, and must use at least 2 per turn, limiting the flexibility. Colored cubes represent the 21 actions that each player is given at the start, although the first is used in the setup to place a bus in the parking lot (one of the seven actions available on the board.) No actions are taken until everyone places each action cube that they plan to use for that round, beginning with the start player and only choosing one action at a time until everyone else has the chance to place. While you must choose at least two actions, you can choose as many as you'd like up to your limit of cubes. In practicality, you will use three actions once in a while and rarely find use for four in a single round. Once everyone has placed, the actions are executed in the manner that they are laid out on the Action Board, left to right. This has real implications, as you will see.
Some of the actions can be chosen by multiple players, while others, once chosen, are closed for the rest of that round. Three of the actions are limited by a concept called the "maximum number of buses". This is simply the most buses owned by any single player, and it limits the number of players that can choose the action and the number of buildings that can be constructed, passengers that can enter the city, and roads that can be built. Importantly, this limit decrements for each player after the first to choose the action. For example, if Dave has three buses in his fleet and this is more than any other player, only three players can build buildings. The first player to choose the action builds three, the next builds two, and the last builds only one. The same is true for road construction and new passengers, although sometimes the first player to place gets to move first and sometimes last for the chosen action because of the left to right rule.
Understanding each action is key. Here they are in order from left to right on the Action Board as they are executed:
How these actions are used determines the speed, flow, and scoring opportunities in the game. The mechanic works well most of the time, although smart play usually results in very low scores as people try to block scoring opportunities for others if they will not disproportionately benefit. This is the first weakness in the game: it is too heavy for its theme. Studious gamers will spend a lot of time analyzing their action placement and implementation, creating a serious mood for what otherwise could be a strategic yet faster moving process.
The good points of the game clearly outweigh the weak, however. There are real choices in the action phase, although typically building roads and running buses will take precedent. Being locked out of first place, or in fifth place in a five-player game, can be the difference between scoring multiple points or nothing at all. This brings up the second flaw in the game: very low scoring with four or five players. The world loves soccer except for the US, so maybe it's my national bias that makes me cringe a bit at a high score of seven after a two-hour play. That said, the game is clearly exciting and keeps everyone interested due to the constant changing road networks, passenger flows, building constructions, and scoring potentials.
The last issue that raises some question is the clock. As mentioned before, choosing to stop time effectively freezes out many possible plays since the location preference doesn't change. Speaking with Gerard Mulder at the Gathering of Friends, he told me of a discussion whereby instead of stopping the clock the player would advance two spaces instead of one, ensuring that people could move but possibly not where most had planned. I'm eager to try this idea as it makes sense and may make the clock play both more strategic and less frustrating.
The production value of Bus can't be overlooked. The board shows a city nicely populated with buildings and fixtures all named after other games ("Axis and Alloys Wreckers" is a personal favorite,) and a scoring track made of islets named after other games. All of the other Splotter titles appear, of course. The naming has nothing to do with the game, but makes for a very nice appearance and generates a lot of smiles when people first realize what they're looking at. While only a limited number were produced, Splotter has promised to have more available for this year's Essen so those interested should be able to find a copy soon. Get one for yourself, and get on the Bus!