It took some time, but curiosity and a love of challenge eventually defeated the passive opposition to trying 504 in our house. What was the immediate reaction to our first game? Frustration? Disappointment? No, mild obsession. My son and I played a few games of the recommended training wheels variation, World 123: The World of Traveling Pioneers with a Bias to Individualism. It’s a pick-up and deliver game, a great choice to introduce players to the potentially intimidating worlds of 504. It eases you through the components and set-up, has you become familiar with a lot of what you see in the box, makes you really love the large hex shaped tiles. World 123 makes it all seem so accessible, which is a big barrier to some people approaching a game that appears so imposingly conceptual. On paper 504 sounds like the cross between a Rubik’s Cube and a programmer’s dare.
The challenge for the designer was to decide on an inviting and light initial game that could be easily written up in the main rulebook (in addition to the three-part Book of Worlds configuration) and which would not freak new players out. The other challenge was in picking something that had enough fun and sophistication built in that it wouldn’t disappoint or bore experienced gamers who came to 504 looking for something excitingly difficult.
Does World 123 meet this design challenge? As a 2 player, it wasn’t that compelling (to be fair, the 8 year old enjoyed it quite a bit even as a 2 player). It was, however, a nice entrance point into the greater world building exercise we had embarked on. This choice allowed the game to emphasize that it truly is a game of vastness, where hard economic games and light competitive plays can co-exist. And if such polar extremes can present themselves from within the same box then anything is possible, right? Ultimately, 504 is a game of possibilities and world World 123 helps illustrate on pole.
What impressed me, though, was that the seemingly open canvas of 504 had triggered inspiration – when I woke up the next morning my son was already awake and had created his own world, one where he instinctively used the boat. The rulebook reminds us that the boat is currently used in 0% of all worlds. The idea of providing a game component that is not going to be used is both funny and also a beautiful gesture to invite players to do exactly as my son had. To be fair, his was not a version of 504 that would make the final cut at most tables, but it was exactly the kind of response I had hoped a game like this would trigger – it had inspired and enabled my son to play with game design.
The invitation to create also had irretrievably pulled him into 504. Now that he understands the possibilities of the game, admires its openness and had made the game his, it is no longer a game to be intimidated by. It is a game to be loved and cherished like a big bin of LEGO that you will never part with.
We played a few games of World 123 before deciding to move on to World 456: The World of Combative Explorers with Connections. What a name. My son was itching to crush me in combat and explore this new world.
Again, though, my rule learning brain lashed out. The visually overwhelming “rules by exclusion” and “rules by priority” process was tiring. Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully Nick Johnson had saved us by creating 504rules. This beautiful and necessary site strips away the unnecessary rules for any particular world and figures out the priorities for you. It peeled away a lot of the pain in the process for me, someone who loves rules but hates learning them.
With tablet beside us we forged ahead with World 456, emboldened with a renewed sense of gaming confidence (which, as confidences go, is somewhere below the ability to lift a car off an injured person yet above the power to quickly and safely lick envelopes without slicing your tongue in half).
We played World 456 with 2 players, which again isn’t probably the optimal number. This world probably shines at 3-4 players, where the decisions impact other players and the game feels less insular. Still, my son really enjoyed the road building and exploring. He did not, surprisingly, like the combat that much. The roads are a nice way to build up your territory and suddenly unleash a lot of residents/combatants. Or, if you are me, they are a good way to lose as your opponent rushes in and conquers your capital when you’ve gone and over-reached yourself.
I was initially unsure of how the income would affect the game, but it works well to throttle growth and expansion. It forces decision making. That’s one of the best parts of 504 – being curious about how a certain mechanic or variable is going to impact gameplay. That process of discovery and learning is the satisfying rush game junkies crave.
This fun second step led us to try the next three modules. We headed over to World 789 : The World of the Mightiest Businessmen by External Financing (I love these absurd titles, they sound like the world’s strangest documentary series). While we want to try and play all the variations in Top I and Top II positions eventually, we figured we would round out our first run-through by touching on each module, even lightly.
World 789 was a lot of fun and the added economic elements brought the game closer into the sphere of what we think about when we imagine Friedemann Friese games. My son didn’t initially like the addition of Module 9, Stocks, which didn’t alter his gameplay or strategy. But we also didn’t get to the endgame yet in this one, where this would be more relevant, because we played a few rules wrong and pulled the plug early. I could see how Module 9 would add an extra little something that affects your decisions. This is how I’m assuming the third module (Top III) in each game will work, which is fine by me.
This brings us to an important lesson we learned about 504. When we sit down to attempt a new variation we will probably play a partial game, assume we played several rules incorrectly, attempt to sort it out, and immediately reset for a second match without being frustrated. 504 is a process, one that is bound to be filled with mistakes and learning, and that is as it should be.
In time, once we remember the basic rules and have encountered each module a few times, the mistakes will become fewer and gameplay will improve. Set-up time will shrink (it already has dramatically), and we will finally no longer be visiting 504 on Student Visas but will be proud citizens who pay taxes and complain about elections.
Has 504 met my expectations? I don’t know. I do feel like any expectations I had were unwarranted and bound to be unrealistic. The game has proved itself lighter and less intimidating than I expected, though no less enjoyable. A game like this inhabits a different space: it will likely be too intimidating for many new gamers, yet it comes up against the impossible hopes and demands of experienced players who expect a lot. Will it end up disappointing us in the long run? I very much doubt it. I see so much potential and the game mechanics are too highly polished to break apart on us. There is some simplicity that creeps in, where the gears sometimes feel a little too big. Either this is an illusion due to my ever-shifting perspective on the games of Friedemann Friese or it is a reality necessitated by making all of the 504 variations play nicely together. Perhaps too many small gears would have broken this game. Regardless, once we master gameplay a little more I do hope it becomes a go-to game that we can pull off and easily jump into with any gaming group. For us, though, this is probably a dozen games away. There is still a lot to learn and internalize. This is not a bad thing. I look forward to playing a lot more, which is exactly what one hopes for in a game.
I think the highest compliment one can give 504 is to keep playing, continuing to explore its many worlds, never settling down but constantly seeking out its intricacies and hidden riches. Our family is going to be kept busy with 504 for a long time yet.
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