504 Diary: Opening Moves

504 game

The first thing I thought upon opening the 504 box was “oh, wow, that is a lot of stuff.” In games it seems there is a certain fascination with the amount of forest, minis, bricks, plutonium, etc that the publisher has thrown in during their latest bid for certain bankruptcy. Does all this stuff equate to a more exciting game experience or suggest a better overall game design? Doubtful. But, still, look at all this stuff!

504 seems to contain everything I will need to either play hundreds of games, prototype nearly anything, or start my own lumber yard.

Once my eyesight came back into focus and the ringing in my ears died down I began to take inventory. Meeple/Residents in a variety of colours: Check. Wooden carts: Check. Flat square wood pieces: Check. Dice: Check. Paper money: Check. Four thousand sheets of hexes to punch: Check. There’s probably more but my short term memory is a little patchy after I blacked out momentarily and struck my head on the box.

All this stuff, these beautiful components, are absolutely necessary, however, when one even begins to imagine 504 variations of this game. I mean, how is there not MORE stuff? This box arrived by post. It should have been delivered off of the back of a truck by several burly delivery people brandishing a forklift and sense of determination in their attempt to defy the laws of physics. The fact that the box is heavy enough to destroy my back but light enough to be supported, precariously, by my kitchen table, suggests that this game has exactly the right amount of stuff. And if that elegant display of science isn’t adequate to determine this, then I’m confident that the program Friedemann Friese wrote to playtest this mental Swiss watch is enough to certify this has exactly the right Stuff : Game ratio.

Now that I am fully conscious and can once again sort of remember the names of my four two children I can talk a bit about the rule books. This library is surprisingly less dense than I had anticipated. After returning the reading glasses I had preemptively ordered I had a chance to do some solid reading. But which of the two books to stare blankly at first?

I went with the staple bound one with “The Rules” on the front and left the terrifying ring-bound flippy-book on the table. I would deal with that monster in a moment if it promised not to sneak up and impatiently gnaw at my pantleg.

The first thing that made me laugh was the double page component breakdown, complete with a listing for what percentage of overall games each component is utilized in. This seemed like a devious joke. But shortly this information would prove valuable.

Next up is a two page breakdown of how to play the recommended first game – World 123: The World of Traveling Pioneers with a Bias for Individualism. Ok. This looks reasonable. I can do this. It’s a simple rule-set to what appears to be a relatively light pick up and deliver game. Also, it’s a clever way to get us to begin exploring the first module and variants.

Before we begin, though, let’s keep reading. The following two pages is a general rules overview. I have a suspicion that I will need to memorize these pages to make gameplay go quickly with each new variation.

It’s the next pages that really begin to blow my mind, though. The Introduction to The Book of Worlds. Left Page. And Right Page. It’s not that it’s terribly complicated, but that it is so well structured. After reading these pages I felt a little more optimistic about taking a cautious peek at the coil bound Book of Worlds. It doesn’t seem as distressingly complicated as I had imagined.

After the adrenaline has begun to drain from my overloaded brain I can see the remainder of the main rule book is composed of two page overviews/rules for each of the main nine modules. In other words, information for later.

With that settled I opened up The Book of Worlds and began to take it in. What appeared to be a pile of punchcards from a still-functional mainframe computer deep in the heart of Bremen, Germany is in fact the incredibly well thought out Book of Frightening Your Friends When They Come Over To Play. I’ve shown The Book to a bunch of people and all of them laugh nervously, shake their heads in disbelief and shuffle quickly to the nearest exit. “Come back!” I yell, “It will all be easier after the first play-through!” But they are gone.

So I turn to my son who has some experience with Friese games. He is a fan of all of the ones he has encountered. Power Grid, First Sparks, Friday, Landlord, Black Friday, Fauna, Megastar, these are the go-to games that we always enjoy. He is eight now, which means I need to learn the rules completely before we play so that his small attention span does not get caught by anything else, squirrel, during, tinfoil, gameplay. But he likes the gears, the art, the details of a Friese game. “Let’s play again” is a common reply when I ask him how he enjoyed it. There is something satisfying in feeling like you’ve conquered the information required to engage these games. These games make him feel older and more capable, particularly when he wins. These games teach him how to make touch choices and take risks. Sometimes he is a bureaucrat, sometimes he is the wildcard. I am certainly never bored gaming with him.

“Ready for 504?” I ask. No reply. He is curious, but he makes a weird sound that suggests “Are you mad? Have you even read the rules yet? Have you even begun to comprehend the laser cut gears of this new universe? There’s a snowball’s chance in a power plant that I’m playing this right now.”

My fears had been realized. My reliable gaming partner had finally bowed out. I turned to my wife. She laughed and kept looking at her phone. “I’ll play. Once you learn the rules.”

With that I separated and bagged the game parts. Red lights began flashing in sync with a loud buzzing noise. Immediately I worried that I was looking at a Caverna situation. Too many parts in too many bags equaling a low probability that the game will get regularly pulled off the shelf.

This is where the component overview came in handy. At a glance I could see what was used most frequently and began to formulate a plan. If I want to play this game all of the time, if I want to convince other people to play this game with me, it needs to be easy to take out and set up and not a visually overwhelming box of wooden rainbows. After a few moments I realized that this was a game designed for a plastic organization box. My son had one for LEGO bits and minifigures. I dumped that out and rushed back to the game. It fits in the box! It’s like 504 was designed to fit in a Power Grid sized box just for this reason. And the pieces fit in the container! Nearly everything goes in perfectly (except the coins). The organizer goes in the box, the cards and coins go on the side and all the hexes and paperwork rest on top. The box closes completely. It can be removed and set up at lightning speed. Please note that I am not certain about the exact speed of lightning or even precisely how gravity works.

504 game components

Once you look at it all organized it doesn’t even seem that overwhelming. There’s stuff for four players plus a fifth colour (orange) for some games. Also some red Residents and bits for military purposes. Considering what this game sets out to do, this is an incredibly reasonable amount of components. My breathing has returned to normal, the vein that pulses in forehead has subsided and I no longer have emergency services on hold.

Once I forcibly forget the lyrics to a bunch of songs (I love you Tom Waits, but “The Piano Has Been Drinking” is taking up valuable storage space) I will commit the rules to World 123 to memory. This game is going to happen. I haven’t been this excited about a game probably ever.

Next stop, The World of Restless Family Gamers on the Way to the Unknown.

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