Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Friedemann Friese


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Whenever I hear the German term "Spielesammlung" (=games compendium) I remember my early childhood afternoons which I spent together with my grandfather. My father was off to work while my mother worked in my grandfather's mom-and-pop grocery store, and so my grandfather spent the time with me playing games. Apart from Monopoly and some children's games, his household featured one big box containing a games compendium, and this was composed of other all-time classics like Don't Worry, Chess, Checkers, Pick-up Sticks, Yatzhee etc.. Mind you, we are talking about the 1970ies here, and this kind of games collection was quite typical for many a household, since the evolution of modern boardgames as we know them today still was decades away. Nonetheless, these games offered some moderate gaming fun, and due to no real alternatives the games were played by us quite often.

I have often asked myself how a "Spielesammlung" would look like in our present time. It might contain a collection of Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders etc., but one of the factors on which a classic games compendium is built is the versatility of the playing materials, often allowing the use of some of the contained materials in more than one game. So, a collection of modern all-time favourites would not really qualify as a "games compendium", but instead the concept would require some kind of modules.

Some years ago Friedemann Friese has released Fremde Federn, a game which has been designed on the basis of playing mechanisms imported from half a dozen successful other titles like Agricola or Through the Ages. The concept was quite interesting, since Friedemann proved that a totally new product could be designed by "borrowing" other playing mechanisms, and it also showed that Friedemann already was experimenting with the idea of combining different kinds of mechanisms. With this basis, Friedemann was the natural candidate for the creation of a modern age games compendium, and with his new creation 504 he has not just created 504 games in in one box, but he has actually given us 504 worlds to explore!

Building on a total of 9 different modules, 504 allows the players to create exactly this number of different games by using all possible combinations of 3 of these modules (9 times 8 times 7 = 504!). In its core, all 504 games/worlds included in the game use a modular gameboard of different landscapes on which the players can act, but the setup, the different types of available actions and the winning conditions are determined by the three modules which the players have decided to use for their game. The available modules can be roughly categorized as follows:

  1. Transportation: Moving goods to satisfy demands, or moving meeples quicker in order to act at their final destination.
  2. Race: All about speed! Getting somewhere or something first will create the biggest benefits.
  3. Privileges: Individual improvements of the players' abilities, allowing them to perform actions with increased efficiency.
  4. Military:No coexistence but confrontation. Players now will battle for possession of all landscapes.
  5. Exploration: Most of the gameboard will be hidden, waiting to be explored during the game.
  6. Roads: Increasing a player's movement efficiency, the most advanced empire is identified by the best road network.>/li>
  7. Majorities:Players vie to control more landscapes of each type than their competitors.
  8. Production: Now resources must be produced before they can be sold, and the players need to build production facilities in order to gain access to goods.
  9. Shares: Not just one colour per player, but all different playing colours are seen as companies into which the players can invest in order to gain control by becoming majority shareholders.>/li>

It may sound unbelievable, but it is possible to combine any three of these nine modules into a new game, and the most important resource for playing the game successful is the so-called "Book of Worlds". Close to a stroke of genius, this book is split into three sections of nine cards each, and so the players will be able to open the book in a way to display the rules and functions for each of their three chosen modules. This way all essential rules will be visible, and even the general turn structure, income and other extras are easily accessible.

However, I will give some additional kudos to Friedemann because the different modules do not only work together, but he actually was able to take into account a priority ranking for each of the modules, so that the rules for a module slightly differ in respect to its use either as primary, secondary or tertiary module. The primary module always is used to decide about the game's end and the victory conditions, the secondary module has a strong impact on the players' income, and the third module always adds additional gaming flavor by adding variable aspects. As a result, each different combination of modules really guarantees a quite unique game.

However, the variability of 504 certainly comes at its own price, and with so many possible combinations it could be expected that the general rulebook for the game certainly would be more difficult to read than any "normal" rulebook. Indeed, the general rules of the game and the rules for each module are initially difficult to grasp. Friedemann and his team have done their best in writing a structured and concise set of rules with examples, a turn structure and a starting world, but it still takes a bit of time to get a grasp for the different references and module combinations which must be taken into account when reading the rules. Coloured markings make it easy to identify which parts should be read and which parts can be skipped, but the combinations of modules and priorities still can make you a bit dizzy on first contact with 504. However, this is partly mitigated by the usefulness of the already mentioned "Book of Worlds" which proves to be an invaluable playing aid once the general playing principles have been understood.

But how does the game play? If you check out the initial combination of modules 1, 2 and 3, you will get to play a world named "The world of the travelling trailblazers with a liking for individualism". In this game you will combine transportation, racing and privileges, resulting in the players travelling around with their trading carts, trying to be the first to found new settlements and to deliver goods to cities. The players can purchase different kinds of improvements (the privileges), allowing them faster travel, bigger transportation capacities etc., and everything is run on an income which is generated from the delivery of goods. In the end, the game is won by the player who has collected most victory points by the delivery of goods.

In the combinations I playtested, the game runs smoothly and the players get a quite easy grasp of all playing principles, and this observation probably will not really change much with other worlds because it is always just three of the modules which will be used at the same time. Concerning the game's entertainment value, from my perspective 504 will appeal most to serious hobbyists, since the whole games compendium derives a lot of its attractiveness by the fact that players are challenged to discover and adjust strategies for each new combination of modules. This target group of players will appreciate the level of abstractness which was necessary to allow a smooth combination of the different modules, whereas "normal" family gamers might be put off by exactly the same level of abstractness.

At this point it must also be mentioned that a lot of the playing material included in 504 needs to be quite versatile in order to be used in all different worlds, and even though all components are nicely designed the general look of each world is more or less similar, regardless of the fact whether you have travelling trailblazers, militaristic explorers or productive investors. In this context once gamers with a big games collection may get more playing fun out of 504, because they will be able to resort to playing materials from other games to "pimp up" each world they will play. If 504 should be successful, I am certain that 2F-SPIELE will release an upgrade pack with additional playing materials to replace the generic meeples and square city tokens, but until then I can well imagine the use of tanks and industrial complexes from one game, or trucks and towns from another.

After 3.5 years of development, Friedemann once again has come up with an absolutely unique playing concept. The modular rules system employed in 504 is far more sophisticated than some of the self-proclaimed "sandbox" games which have appeared in recent years. To my mind the invitation to players to experiment with rules and mechanisms in order to improve a game often is a rather blatant way to say "sorry, but we couldn't really finish the game before its release", but any fear of such an effect is absolutely unnecessary when dealing with 504. All rules and mechanisms have been finetuned by Friedemann to create a rather harmonious final product, and gamers really should feel encouraged to take part in this outstanding gaming experiment.

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Copyright & copy; 2015 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany