This week at the club, I played Lords of Vegas, which was new to me, Mike and Anna, though I think Andy had played before.
Lords of Vegas is, at its thematic heart, a betting game. The players take on the roles of casino moguls on the Strip, building, remodelling and taking over casinos in an attempt to make the most money and score the most prestige, which is basically a VP system and will win or lose you the game. As VP systems go, this one has a neat twist, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Firstly, let’s look at how the game works.
The board is divided into six areas representing city blocks. These are further divided into a varying number of ‘lots’ and each has an assigned value represented by the printed face of a 6-sided die.
There is a deck of cards with one card for each lot on the board, and each card also has the name of a casino chain on it. It should be stated that the casino and the lot bear no actual relation, and the lot is not tied to a particular chain. The lot is a space allocated to the player who turns the card, whilst the casino simply denotes the chain which will pay out on the current player’s turn. There is one card for each lot on the board, and each has one of the six casino chains marked on its front. There are eight cards per chain (I believe), therefore as cards come out and are placed on their chains, the likelihood that the chain will pay out again decreases. However, the odds are further randomised by the fact that not all cards will come out. The deck is shuffled and then split 75%-25%. An End Game card is placed on top of the 25% deck (can’t remember if this is then shuffled to give a further randomisation of the end point, or if it’s a guaranteed end after 75% of the deck has been played out), and the 75% deck is then placed on top. The cards below the End Game card will not appear, so the number of cards per casino which turn up will vary with each game.
To start, two cards are turned over for each player and the lot on the face is allocated to that player. The card is then placed on the chain row for its casino so that everyone can assess the odds of future payouts.
After this first round, each player will have two lots on which to build if they so choose. Unbuilt lots pay the owner $1m on each player’s turn.
At the start of a player’s turn, they first turn over a card from the deck. They then put a marker on the lot they’ve acquired and everyone collects cash for their lots. The casino chain represented on the card face then pays out. We’ll come back to how this works, but first, let’s assume the player wants to build.
Each lot is marked with a purchase price which the owner can pay. They then build a new casino, or extend one which they control (they can build more if they have the cash). A casino is represented by all linked tiles of the same colour, regardless of the die colour occupying that space. A chain is all tiles of one colour, which may be separated by block or may simply not yet connect by lot. Control is a simple mechanism in that, as stated previously, each lot has a die number on it. When someone builds a new casino, they place a casino tile matching their chosen chain, and place a die of their colour at its centre with the uppermost face showing the value shown on the lot (and repeated on the lot card). The highest die value controls the casino. Other players may place connecting tiles of the same colour and, if their highest die is greater in value than that of the current owner, then they take control.
All players with dice in a casino will get money when the casino pays out, but only the controlling player will be given points. The amount of money you receive is equal, in millions, to the total number of pips on your dice in that chain.
Players who have a stake in a particular casino can choose to wrestle for control by paying millions equal to the total number of die pips for all players in the contested casino (not the chain, just that particular casino). They then re-roll all dice for the casino with the highest number gaining control. It’s easy to see how having fewer dice than other players in a casino is a disadvantage as the odds are always with the percentage.
There is also the opportunity to remodel, which is a strong tactical action which can see casinos rapidly expand, or be aggressively taken over. And if you’re ever short of money to achieve what you want, you can always lay bets off against your opponents. All bets must be accepted, although players can choose to have the bank take half the risk, which means the bank also shares any gains.
I mentioned earlier that the VP system is innovative, though the innovation is simple: there is a ‘brake’ (or ‘break’, I’m not sure if it’s a gambling term, but the idea of a braking system suits) which kicks in when players achieve a certain number of points. As stated, points are scored by the controller of a casino, but this might suggest a strategy of building small, single lot casinos in order to maintain control. The game prevents this by requiring a minimum of two points to be scored once a certain level is reached, or the player scores none - and hence the brake. Later, a casino must score three points minimum in order to score at all; then four and five, and so on up to nine ( though anyone achieving this automatically wins the game).
The problem for me with Lords of Vegas is that it pretty much perfectly fits its theme. I am not a gambler and I have never understood the pleasure it gives people. Like anyone, I understand that, even for someone skilled, the odds are always with the house. I have therefore never been able to comprehend why people put their money at such risk. Yes, there is the opportunity, on occasion, to “win big”, but the plain fact is that, for anyone disposed to this kind of pursuit, the house is going to get you. At some point, you’re going to lose big, too. And therein lies the rub: my grandfather was a horse-racing fanatic, and a great studier of form. When the Grand National rolled around, he would lay bets for the whole family and we’d all sit around to watch and see who won. He would get the return of his stake and whomever backed the winning horse got to keep the rest. I tell you this because the chance to win never seemed likely to me, and I did not find it exciting. If you lay a bet for me and the horse loses, my response is: “Well, of course. What did you expect?” Professional pundits can’t predict with any measure of reliability, so how is some kid supposed to name a horse from a list?
So, as a thematic game, Lords of Vegas is certainly one of the most successful I’ve ever come across. Everything, from the die placement and rolling to the lot acquisition and payout, is a gamble. It works. It’s about assessing odds, taking risks and going all out for a big win…
… But if that’s not your bag, then it also works against it. It is a clever mix of mechanisms, yes, but exploiting those mechanisms, in the end, had nothing to do with my winning. I had some good and bad rolls, as did everyone else, but the spread of good rolls favoured me on this occasion. Yes, I mitigated that with some shrewd building which meant the odds were with me for control for most of my builds, but Andy’s choices were a lot better than mine, and Mike was very aggressive, but unlucky, whilst Anna had the other two seeming to gang up against her.
And so I feel I won the game on Wednesday because I understood that the odds were irrelevant; that the only way to win was to take big risks, so I routinely spent as much as I could afford and would have done so more often if I’d had the cash available. And because I was so reckless, I really felt I had nothing invested in the game at all because I am not a gambler. And if you don’t feel invested, then the risk isn’t really a risk, it’s just randomness. Perhaps, for someone who feels the thrill of putting bets on, this may evoke something of that essence. For me, we might as well have each rolled a die and decided the winner on that.
Lords of Vegas: so very good, yet so very dull.