Why 504 isn’t as complicated as you think.
One my favourite boardgames at the moment is a bit of an anomaly as I’ve not experienced 95% of it. 504 is Friedeman Friese’s attempt to create 504 different boardgames in one box using the same components. The game contains 9 different modules of rules of which players select 3 and make a game out the 504 possible games available. These modules tend to be fairy generic game ideas such as ‘Pick up and Deliver’, ‘Military’, Majorities’ to name just a few. The order of the modules you choose also has an effect on how the game is played, world 123 will be a different game to world 231 despite using the same three modules.
The game has been criticised on line for infathomable legal speak rules. It can feel that there are many ‘if this module is in effect do this rule unless it’s in a different position do something different. To potentially add to the confusion there is a book of worlds. A flip book in which you select what modules you want, in what position and in theory you get the rules, although slightly abridged.
A final criticism, before I try to convince you how simple it is, I’ve heard is that because its a new game each time. Players are having to learn a whole set of rules from scratch. I dont agree with that statement for reasons I shall come to.
I guess this can look pretty intimidating which is a shame as 504 isn’t a complicated game. The games it creates are generally fairly simple euro style games. So why does this game seem to have such a steep learning curve? I’m thinking that most people are taught how to play games by someone who already knows. It extrememly rare that I see a gaming group all sit around a new game and read through several pages of rules to people in the hope everyone understands whats going on. Unless you’ve an encylopedic brain of every possible rule you may well be looking up rules before every game.
You can find many a thread on BoardGameGeek is session reports of people reporting how the game wasnt fun and dragged out only for someone to point out they made a small rule error they made. Had they played by the correct rules they would have had a much better game.
This is definitly how I felt my first few games. It was a friend’s copy and we bashed through world our first worlds. we got through first game with out to much issue that we noted but our second game was full of errors. We missed out a key rule that residents turn into settlements when they move onto tiles without a settlemet of that player. As far as rules go a vital one. The whole game felt broken and it was our fault for this being the case.
However the game isn’t the beaucratic nightmare of rules clauses it may well be coming across as. I promise and hope to demonstrate that the basic game isn't that complicated at all.
After these early experiences I downloaded the rules to read them and tried to see what sense I could make of it. Thankfully the rules come with printed rules for world 123, a suggested first game I’ve still not played! I read though these and thought this game sounds very simple. Once you filter out theme, set up and pictures the basic rules work out less than a side of A4. Reading that I got a better idea of how this was fitting together and something dawned on me. This was not 504 different games, as its marketed. 504 is one game with many different varient rules.
Let me try and explain using a well known boardgame franchise with many expansions, Carcassonne. Carcassonne has a few basic rules that happen every single game. You draw a tile, you play the tile, you might put a playing piece on it, you might then score points. If I play a game with expansions such as Inns and Cathedrals and the next game I play with The Flyers and The Count? What if next game i play with Wheel Of Fortune and add the Siege tiles? Am I playing a totally different game? I dont think so as the fundamental game is still there.
The example can be used same goes for another Franchise like Ticket To Ride. The rules are simple do one of three actions ‘take cards, build routes or take tickets’. Now the Europe map if Ticket To Ride has rules for Tunnels and Ferries? Could I add Tunnels to the USA map and make an entirely new game? I’m sure I could do this if I wished but it wouldnt be an entirely new game. just the same game with rules taken from a different module. If the shares rules from the Pensylvania map was added to the Swiss map is it a totally different game where you need to learn every rules from scratch? Again I’d argue not as the fundamental flow of the game is still there. This is another reason I think 504 has confused people. They are so focused of learning all the different rules and varients first that learning the simple fundamental flow of every game has been skipped.
With this idea in mind I shall now present how to play every single varient of 504 in a few simple steps!
On a players turn they :-
- Buy things with their money
- Do things with their pieces on the board
- Earn money depending on what they have done on the board.
The game ends when the end game condition is met and players will have done things to score points. the highest score wins.
That is genuinely (mostly) it! Thats the heavily abridged rules for every single game of 504. I find if you think of the game in just those key bits of how the games flows it becomes considerably easy to learn. You take the rules you need from each module and hang it it onto those pegs and all it all seems so much simpler. I will pick a few example worlds to explain. Lets take world 137. This is Pick up and Diliver for majority of points, the Privilidges module provide the income and a few bonus points for Majorities.
So the (abridged) rules go…..
- Players may buy privileges which are auctioned. Players may then buy upgrades to their truck and more residents.
- Players moved residents around the board and then use their truck to collect and deliver good to cities that demand them. Players may then buy factories in cities they have settled in.
- Players earn money for factories they have built and some of there privileges. Players earning the most will be taxed on earnings. The turn order next turn goes from highest income to lowest.
The game ends when a certain number of goods have been delivered collectiviely. Players score points for goods they have delivered and also some bonus points if they settled more of a terrain type than other players.
Another example to prove my point. lets take world 245. A world of racing, military and exploration.
- Players may spend money to buy new residents.
2. Players use their residents to explore and settle new lands whilst also attacking the lands of there neighbours.
3. Players earn money depending on the size of their empire.
The game ends when a player has visited a certain number of cities. At the end of the round the player who visited the most cities is the winner.
A final example to ram the point home (and use all modules at least once), world 968. Shares, Roads, Production
- Players spend money buying shares in companies. The majority share holders in companies become presidents and take that companies turns. Presidents spend money to buy residents. Residents are limited by number of plants a company owns.
- The president uses the residents to build plants and roads.
- The companies earn money from the road network. Players earn money if the president decided to pay dividends. Share prices are affected in various ways.
The game ends after 5 rounds. players cash in all shares and the richest player is the winner.
I’m hoping none of those game sound that complicated. They can all be simply explained using a few lines and they all fit the abridged 504 rules. So to help make 504 simpler to understand and teach I’m suggesting not to focus on what makes every game different but that makes every game the same. The rules for buying more residents and putting them on the board are the same for all games with residents (thats almost all of them). The rules for moving residents only have two possibilities (in a hurry or not in a hurry). Once these basic ideas on how the game works are in place attaching the rules for other modules becomes so much simpler. As I said before these are not 504 games where you have to learn everything from scratch each time. Before long you’ll find you have no problem teaching any of the worlds even if you haven’t played that specific combination of modules before.