Gee Mr. Wizard, Physics is Fun!
One of the advantages of being notorious for collecting strange and eccentric games is that the games tend to find me. Every so often another collector will send me a URL or reference to an oddity that has escaped everyone's notice.
And dutifully, I have to go and buy it.
One email sent me to http://www.meanderonline.nl in the Netherlands to the makers of a really odd little tile laying game. Extremely abstract, huge (40cm x 40cm), cast in resin, and with rules in English.
And here is what showed up on my doorstep a couple months later—Meander:
What you have is a large wooden and resin frame containing 25 resin tiles, 10 steel bearings, and two board lifters. (Board lifters? The little red things nestled into the board.)
The gameplay is very, very simple. The tiles are mixed facedown, and players take turns placing tiles into the grid. One person plays East-West, and the other plays North-South. The object is to be able to make paths that move more of your balls across the board than your opponent.
There are 3 kinds of pieces:
Which, frankly, sound like a lot of other tile based connection games around. The difference here is that you use the board lifters to prop up the board for each player, and you physically allow the balls to roll to the bottom. And the physics involved allow for quite a bit more depth and planning than would immediately be apparent. Take a look at this example I set up on my board:
- The ball starts at the top and drops into the channel directly below it. The curve piece gives the ball enough acceleration so it sails right on past the drop into oblivion (which would trap the ball in a U section of track.
- But...the ball has lost its velocity by the time it gets to the second cross piece and drops into the hole.
- These switch pieces have a flat section that brakes the ball when it hits it. The ball will slow down drastically, and drop straight down through the cross to the left of the switch.
- The ball accelerates down through the U, picking up enough speed to carry it over the hump at 4.
- But not enough speed to allow it to make it over the hump at 5, (This is a good thing. Any time a ball hits the edge of the board, it will sail down the open edges into the no scoring pits on the bottom left and right.)
- And it sails back into the switch to drop down into the scoring position next to its friend.
The path the ball actually takes is not inherently obvious on first play of the game, but I was able to set up the above example without having to play with the layout much—just from the experience I've learned about playing the game.
The pieces allow for some very subtle tactics, and the oversized board and pieces add a wonderful element to the game. In some ways Meander reminds me of the very best of the Theta games. It is a great tactile presence, a simple and very elegant amount of strategy, it plays quickly (5-10 minutes tops), and has an incredibly high "toy factor."
(Side note: I am addicted to ball raceways and miniature roller coaster toys. Just having the pieces to play with was worth the purchase in my case. The fact that there is a rather nice and playable game involved is not only unusual, but has made me completely adore the game.)
There are a couple of downsides here. The first is that while the instruction book (In English) goes into massive details on strategies, variants for play, and examples, it completely avoids any practical advice on dealing with a game which uses actual physics to resolve its outcome. There are two cases we hit in play that we had to resolve with house rules:
When you release a ball, the manual claims that "A light touch sets the ball in motion." The baffles on the sides that channel a ball hitting the side all the way to the bottom, will also cause a ball to hop over into a channel other than the one directly below its starting place. And with a "heavy touch" you can always cause a ball to hop one channel to the left or right. Which seriously kills the strategic part of the game.
Watching the video sample game on the Meander website, the authors are somehow able to (even in rubber gloves) always touch the ball so that it goes directly down the correct channel. We use a spare finger to block the ball. This does not seem to change the outcome of dropping a ball, and works reliably.
The tiles themselves are incredibly well cast. (It appears that one of the authors works for a place that does precision casting.) But as the tiles have small spaces between them during play, the balls sometimes display erratic behavior. (There has to be space between the tiles otherwise getting them in and out of the frame would be nigh impossible.)
In the example I set up above, The tile at #7 had enough of a gap that the ball would occasionally hit the point of the switch tile, slowing the ball enough to keep it from clearing the U at #4. Sliding the tile a millimeter or two to line up with the tile above solved this problem, and then I was unable to reproduce the erratic behavior.
So to fix this, we allow a change rule, where someone can challenge an outcome, pack the tiles closer together, then declare the ball outcome to be best out of three drops. (Almost always, once you pack the tiles, the three drop results come out the same.)
Not bad, and a freakishly odd and addictive game. Before I wrote this review, I wanted to see if this was a game merely ideally suited to my quirky tastes, and so dragged the game to a small convention of about 30-40 gamers. Meander rarely seemed to make it back to its box, and several people asked me about acquiring copies.
Because it is a bit of a pain to order and expensive to ship directly from the Netherlands, I've sent missives off to a couple of the online retailers to see about stocking a few copies. While I have no earthly idea about what kind of arrangements they can make to bring in copies, I would expect a $60-$70 price tag. (The game is really heavy, being denser than wood.)
- Frank Branham