Ground Floor

I played Ground Floor for the first time last night, with 5 players.  It took forever-- at least 4 hours.  At that length, I need to be having a thoroughly engrossing game experience.  There are very few games that I think justify that length: Through the Ages and Die Macher are the only ones that come to mind (though admittedly, I'm biased towards the shorter end of the spectrum). Ground Floor is not in their league.  This is a game that desperately needs to come in at-or-below the 90 minute mark.

Quick overview: This is a worker placement game where you have two parallel currencies (money and "information") to manage.  Everyone starts with the titular ground floor of their own corporate skyscraper, allowing them to take various actions that gain currencies inefficiently but immediately and at no currency cost.  Players can also spend currency to send workers (abstracted as "time" rather than people, but don't let that fool you) to one of the subsystems on the central board, where they can obtain currencies more efficiently, but delayed until later.  Players can also compete for turn order here, or build additional floors of their building.  Floors will remind you of buildings in Puerto Rico, in that each confers victory points and either a special ability or an end-game bonus.  Each floor a player builds is more expensive than the last, so you need more currency as the game progresses.  When someone builds their fifth floor, or after nine game turns, the game ends.

Artistically, the game is gorgeous.  The blueprint motif is thematic, and the thick cardboard tiles are cut at an angle to match the oblique blueprint perspective on players' mats.  It's a top-notch job production-wise.

Mechanically, everything works.  There's tension in how the currencies interact.  You gain money and information in different ways, so you can't just focus on one angle.  Being first in the turn order grants priority in selling goods, choosing building upgrades, and picking a popularity bonus each turn, so ignoring it is perilous.  All the upgrades and floors are useful.  It all hangs together.

So where's the problem?  Two places.  First, this is what Brian Bankler has called a fixed fun game:

More players means less fun.  Usually, it's because you sit around during other players' turns. So the game takes the same amount of time, but you get to do less. The fun dilutes.

Having more players in Ground Floor does not make the proceedings more interesting.  Some areas of the game may be more competitive, but that competition does not ratchet up the tension or enjoyment appreciably-- certainly not enough to compensate for the extra playing / waiting time.

The second problem is with workers.  You start with four, and get new ones in batches of three.  Some actions require multiple workers to perform, but the vast majority of these don't come into play until at least turn 5.  By that time, most players will have at least ten workers, which means ten times around the table to get them all into play.  This slows the pace of the game waaaaaaaay down.  I can't think of any other worker placement games that ramp up your worker supply so aggressively, and Ground Floor shows why that's such a bad idea.

Overstaying its welcome aside, my other problem with Ground Floor is that it fails to rise above its theme.  Copycat is a similar game of worker placement with a similarly dry theme, but the game engages on a mechanical level.  Turns move quickly, giving me a sense of progression as my deck morphs and more powerful cards appear for purchase.  There's a palpable sense of things ramping up and reaching a crescendo, and the game propels itself forward.  Ground Floor plods in comparison.  Each turn feels very much like the one before it, and each of the individual mechanics feels small and unremarkable.  Compare this to Trajan, a game with at least as many subsystems but all of them more interesting than those in Ground Floor (Trajan's problem is that these subsystems are too disjointed and the resulting game feels too long as a result, but the subsystems operate at a higher level than in Ground Floor and some, like the mancala wheel, are clever enough to warrant revisiting in another game).

I could be convinced to try the game again with three players, but I would be doing so with a nail on the coffin lid and my hammer poised to drive it home.  I don't see any future with the game for me.  These days, a game has to offer something new to keep my attention.  It has to fill a vacant niche in my collection, or displace something already there.  It has to be bionic-- better, stronger, faster.  Ground Floor falls six million dollars short.


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