Published on May 1st, 2013 | by Across the Board Games Staff
The Audacity of Friese
By Raj Giri
“You remember that Holly Hunter movie ‘Copycat’?” – No one ever
Friedmann Friese is a German designer best known for designing the widely heralded Power Grid. He is also well known for his comically outlandish ego, an almost Colbertesque mockery of designers with genuine narcissism. His latest game, Copycat, has his picture on the front in the Shepard Fairey style made famous in those Obama “Hope” posters. The theme is loosely based on running a political campaign, and the front of the game board even co-opts an Obama slogan: “Yes we play!”
The irreverant metahumor surrounding Copycat is uniquely transparent, from the name itself to the ludicrously self-effacing description on the game box. The story goes that Friese looked at the top 10 list on Board Game Geek and realized he did not like any of those games except his own Power Grid. But, who was he to argue with the opinions of millions of tabletop players worldwide? In order to understand why these mechanics are beloved, Friese decided to take several games and form his own Frankenstein monster. Whereas in Power Grid Friese combines disparate mechanics into a gaming casserole, in Copycat Friese combines entire games into a cornucopia.
Copycat uses deck-building (Dominion), worker placement with additional actions available each round (Agricola), and a card market queue (Through the Ages). He did receive blessing from those games’ designers, Vaccarino, Rosenberg, and Chvatil, to copy their mechanics. There are also some less obvious influences: a bonus point element for action spaces not selected each round (Puerto Rico), simultaneously revealing a card (like 7 Wonders but without card drafting), and to top it all off, a score track with an intentional misprint between “90” and “95” (original German version of Ticket to Ride). The first time through Copycat feels like a Girl Talk album, where gamers are playing “spot the reference.”
Copycat is distributed in the US by Rio Grande Games, a well-known company that also distributes most other Friese games as well as household names like Dominion and Carcasonne, and yet inexplicably still uses an AOL email address. The production values are serviceable at best. The box’s size belies the surprising dearth of components. Included are a bag of meeples in four colors, 114 cards, and a game board listed in the contents as “huge game board.” To be fair, it is rather big, if not overly so. Around the board is a standard score track as well as a turn order track.
The cards include four extra action spaces that vary with the number of players, 11 round cards that are used each game, four summary cards, 40 starting deck cards (for four players, 10 cards each), and the rest are used in the market and can be purchased during the course of the game.The board is laid out very much like Agricola, with a number of fixed action spaces (called “offices”) and some additional fixed action spaces for three or four players. Additionally, there is a market of available cards to purchase at the bottom of the board and a stack of cards next to it with increasingly useful cards. The cards contain simple but often confusing iconography common to many Euro games, and the art is like the final project in a class called “How to Draw Comics the Ikea Instruction Manual Way.”
The market cards are randomized in sections based on their identity, I, II, III, or IV. All the “I” cards are shuffled, placed on top of a shuffled stack of II cards, and so on. The last two to four cards at the bottom of the market are the “V” cards, which are doctorates and serve as an end game condition. The market is populated with the first 11 cards from the top of that stack. The round cards are shuffled similarly in sections. Each player then receives the equivalent of seven coppers and three estates to start with (as in Dominion), as well as three workers.
Copycat is played over a maximum of 11 rounds, though it can end sooner. Each round consists of four phases:
- turn order determination
- worker placement
- purchasing cards/scoring points
- clean-up and discard.
The market cards and action spaces come in five types: yellow (money), green (victory points), blue (card cycling), purple (worker collection/placement), and gray (usually some sort of combination/engine-accelerating element, such as copying another card or reserving cards). Blue and purple cards are used in the worker placement phase, yellow and green cards are used in the buying/scoring phase, and gray cards can be used in either, depending on their ability. You play as many cards as you want, as long as they are in your hand and can be played during that phase.
In the turn order phase, each player draws five cards from their deck, then everyone simultaneously places a card face-down of their choice. Each card in the game has a number indicating its value for turn order, ranging from nine to 18 in the starting hands but going up in value as the market progresses. The cards are simultaneously revealed by all players. The turn order from first to last is determined by the highest number on the revealed cards down to lowest. The card used in this phase is discarded separately, as it can never be shuffled or redrawn again this round. The players are thus caught between saving a valuable card for use that round in exchange for lousy turn position, or vice versa.
Next is the worker placement phase. Players go in turn order and place one of their their three workers on the board. Players can play any blue or purple cards during this phase, as many as they wish, but much like in Dominion where you start with no action cards, in Copycat you start with no blue or purple cards. On the board are several blue action spaces, and when you place a worker on these you immediately use it. So, if you take the +2 cards space, you immediately draw two cards. If you have a “+2 cards” card in your hand, you could place a worker on the space, draw two cards, play the “+2 cards” from your hand and draw two more cards. Players continue placing their workers until they are out. If you place on a “1 VP” space, you get a VP that round, and if you place on the “1 Coin” space you get an extra coin to purchase something that round.
The third phase is the purchasing and scoring points phase. This phase is similar to the buy phase of Dominion, with the notable exception that you have to put a worker on a “buy” space on the board to have a buy action. It is not automatic. Players play the rest of their cards, count their money, then buy cards from the market. Here is the Through the Ages element. The cards have a fixed price, and cards towards the right end of the market have an additional +1 or +2 modifier to their price. The cards increase in price and value as the game progresses.
The cards vary in ability. For example, there are cards that give additional money, cards that give you temporary workers, cards that let you copy another card, and cards that just generate a lot of victory points. The V cards at the bottom of the deck are “doctorate cards.” These cost nothing, but when you buy them you use any money you have available that round and score that many victory points. It is easy to generate 15-20 coins by this stage of the game.
Additionally, there are eight red cards, similar to “curses” in Dominion except that they merely clog your deck. You do not purchase these; instead, when you buy a card you also take ALL red cards to the left of it in the market. There are only a few spaces and cards that let you trash other cards, so obtaining the red cards can greatly affect your game. Thematically, the red cards are toilet paper rolls with some reference to factors having no use in a political campaign, such as a “high school diploma” or a “driver’s license.” It might be best to ignore the joke.
After a player finishes buying cards (or not buying) cards, they score points based on victory point cards in their hand and victory point spaces occupied on the board. If a player has a worker on the 1 VP space on the board and two “1 VP” cards in their hand, they would immediately score three points.
The final phase is clean-up and discard. Players discard their unused cards. All unused spaces on the board get a wooden “VP” token that serves as a bonus VP should you place a worker there the next round, similar to the coin bonus element in Puerto Rico. Lastly, one to three of the unpurchased cards in the leftmost spaces in the market are discarded. The rest of the market cards slide left to fill the cheapest spaces, and additional cards are drawn from the stack to fill out the rest of the market. A new round card is placed on the board, and the next round begins.
The game ends when one of three events occurs: one player reaches 95 points, the last “doctorate” card is purchased, or at the end of the eleventh round. In each case, the entire round is played out to completion. The player with the most VPs wins; there are no end-of-game scoring opportunities.
One of the surprising aspects of Copycat is the viability of multiple victory paths.The game is about engine generation, but unlike Dominion the goal of the engine can be very different depending on the players’ strategies. Broadly, these can be divided into either scoring as many points each round as possible by buying high-VP cards, or by generating lots of money to be used when buying the doctorate cards. One of your opponents will be trying to end the game quickly by getting to 95 before the doctorates are available, one of your opponents might be buying the high-coin generation cards to be used for those doctorates, and another opponent might try to get the cards that let them draw their whole deck each round or get several workers so they can take the spaces with the extra wooden VP tokens. I have tried each with varying success.
Your strategy is heavily influenced by the finite market for cards, and if your opponents purchase that +3 draw card you need, you might need to adjust your tunnel vision. Additionally, jockeying for position is quite important, especially when the “trash two cards” action space becomes available. The interaction is indirect in that classic Euro way, but Copycat definitely does not feel like multiplayer solitaire.That being said, Copycat is predictably less tight and tense with less than four players, much like Agricola.
A single play of Copycat should take an hour to 90 minutes if players are familiar with Dominion-style deckbuilding and any worker placement game. Like Agricola there can be some analysis paralysis, and the entire deck-building mechanic can frustrate more traditional Euro-style gamers.
Copycat borrows a page from video games and, incidentally, Friese’s big release in 2012 First Sparks with the inclusion of a sheet of “achievements.” So if you are great at the game, you might be the only person whose name is on the victory achievements list. Also included are some dubious distinctions such as “only player with less than 95 points.” All games should include these, it is an amusing way to record your latest playthrough.
Of all the deck-building type games out there, Copycat is unique from its history to its mechanics. The limited set of cards means that repeated plays do not vary considerably, but the order that they arrive in the market does affect what strategy players wish to pursue as well as the order the red cards arrive. To date I have played this four times, and I am not tired of it yet, though a simple card expansion would benefit the game tremendously.
Copycat is an easy game to explain, but while it does an admirable job of marrying the disparate mechanics it would hard to say that this game serves as a vital member of anyone’s gaming library.The most endearing part of Copycat is the unique attempt to assemble a new game from existing art. A game of Copycat could, in a sense, be viewed as performance art. It takes a fussy Euro genre and tries to invert the process. Instead of designing mechanics to run a game, why not design a game that runs the mechanics?