Gaming Unplugged: Vegas Showdown

May 9, 2010

A while back I wrote about The Princes of Florence, which combined an auction mechanic with building arrangement and other aspects to create what remains one of the top favorites of my local play group. While Princes is a deep game with varied strategies, it can be a bit much for newer players to grasp all at once. Fortunately, a game exists which can serve as a gateway to the advanced strategy of Princes while also being a very solid game on its own merits: Vegas Showdown, published in 2005 by the Avalon Hill brand of Wizards of the Coast (itself a subsidiary of Hasbro).

As might be inferred from its title, Vegas Showdown pits players against each other in a competition to see who can build the most famous Las Vegas hotel/casino. Each player begins with a barren floor plan and a stack of poker chips that represents their cash; on their floor plan is a chart for tracking their revenue and population, the lower of which will represent that player’s income for each turn. Increasing these aspects from their starting values of five and eight (respectively, so you get $5 on the first turn) will obviously be crucial to success in the game, but the trick is either doing so in a balanced manner or else working around the fact that favoring one over the other will cause you some financial issues as the game progresses. Of course, the resources to accomplish this task aren’t free… or uncontested.

The auction board contains three types of basic tiles (slots, resteraunts, and lounges) and three “premier tile” spaces that are initially filled with one from each tile size (1×1, 1×2, and 2×2); a fourth space is used only with four or five players. Each space has a bidding track that represents the minimum value to purchase that tile and the current bid, and a second bidding track for slots opens up if there are five players; premier spaces have two tracks, one outlined with red circles and another that occupies the spaces between those values.

Each round consists of five steps. 1) Reduce the prices on premier tiles by sliding a marker down to the next red-circled space (this step is skipped on the first round of the game). If doing so would reduce the price to below three (the lowest-valued space) then that tile is instead removed from the game. 2) Replenish any empty premier spaces (including the fourth space on the first round of a four/five-player game) by drawing one card per space; each card has a special action that will change the rules for the current round in any manner of ways. The symbol on the card indicates the size of tile to be placed on the auction board, and each tile has an icon that tells you its initial starting price. If ever a tile would be placed from a stack that has been exhausted, the game ends immediately. 3) Players earn income as noted above or as the card(s) for the round dictate. 4) Bidding. 5) Placement. The “dealer” (start player) token is passed to the right at the end of each round.

Bidding is accomplished by placing your bidding marker on the track of the tile you wish to purchase on the price you want to pay for it, starting with the round’s “dealer”. Once everyone has placed their bid markers, anyone who has been outbid picks theirs up and can place it anywhere else on the board. This process repeats until nobody is being outbid, at which point the auctions are over and the tiles purchased. Money is pubic information in this game, so using that knowledge to pre-emptively outbid someone is often a key strategy.  Finally, two “free” options are also available: publicity (gain one fame and optionally place one previously-unplayed tile from your supply to your board) and renovate (pick up 0-2 tiles from your board to your supply and place 0-2 tiles from your supply to your board); these options can be chosen by any number of players, and are your only choices if you can not afford anything at its current price.

Once purchased, you can place your tile on your floor plan, but there are restrictions. Each floor plan has two doors: one in the yellow-shaded “casino” area and the other in the blue-shaded “hotel” area; tiles that match those colors must be able to trace a path to their respective entrance. Green tiles can be connected to either entrance.  Although they don’t necessarily have to be placed within their respective areas, there is a bonus at the end of the game if you’ve managed to completely fill one or both of your,  two sections with the appropriately-colored tiles (green tiles can count for either section); additionally, there is another (smaller) bonus if you can connect your two entrances. Further complicating your plans is the fact that certain tiles cannot be placed unless you already have a prerequisite tile; for example, “Fancy Slots” can’t be placed unless you have a basic slots tile, and you can’t place the high-income “Dragon Room” unless you already have at least one “Fancy Slots”. They don’t have to be connected to those prerequisite tiles (with one exception, which says so), they just need to be present somewhere in your plan. If you can’t place the tile immediately you can save it in your supply to place later via the Publicity or Renovate actions. This can be a risky proposition, as you are effectively sacrificing two turns to place the tile (one just to buy it and one just to place it), but it can pay off if you can grab a powerful tile for cheap relatively early on. Each tile is worth a certain amount of revenue, population, and/or fame that you will earn once placed (and that you lose if you should pick it up via the Renovate action without replacing it). In addition to the possibility of ending in Step Two of each round, the game will also end if a player manages to completely fill his entire floor plan, although this is uncommon with more than three players.

Once the game has ended, bonus fame points are awarded via various criteria. In addition to the tile-placement bonuses mentioned earlier, extra points can be won for having the highest revenue and/or population (with points for 2nd and 3rd as well), for every full $10 left over at the end of the game, and for being able to create diamond patterns by careful placement of certain premier tiles. Whoever has the most fame wins, with remaining cash as a tie-breaker.

One of the neatest aspects of Vegas Showdown is how it plays differently with different numbers of players. Three players (the minimum) is a slower game, with fewer premier tiles and less competition overall, while five players not only has an additional premier tile but the basic slot tiles (the primary source of increasing revenue) are consumed twice as fast! Four players is probably the most difficult, as not having access to the second slots track makes for some harsh competition in the early stages of the game. Session times also necessarily vary, but rarely break an hour as everything is essentially simultaneous other than the bidding.

Overall, Vegas Showdown is a great gateway-level game on par with Ticket to Ride, Ra, and Carcassonne that is enjoyable at any level of experience. If you can’t find a physical copy to play (Avalon Hill titles can be scarce these days), Vegas Showdown is also available for online play at for less than $10. 

Image by GamerChris