Getting In On The Ground Floor
Ground Floor, by David Short, is a business-themed worker placement game with the overall goal to develop your business enough that you are able to expand and upgrade your corporate headquarters, by adding new floors to your building and upgrading existing office space. Along the way players take actions and acquire upgrades that allow them to gain additional time tokens, which are the game’s equivalent of workers, money, and information and translate these resources into those building upgrades that provide the victory points that determine the ultimate winner.
I have not seen the final components of the game, so I cannot comment on their particular quality. What I can comment about however is the game’s overall functionality and the effectiveness of the graphic design based on the previewed components and my interactions with them.
I find Ground Floor’s aesthetic to be generally pleasing, effectively conveying the game’s theme while also providing a clear presentation of game state. The main game board displays a series of skyscrapers, each of which has a set of interrelated action spaces. Most of these are rather generic, but some of them give an indication of the sort of actions that can be taken in them: consulting appears in a modern firm that is the sort of building you would expect a high powered consulting firm to be in, while the construction action is taken in a building that looks like it is under construction. Players’ personal boards look like a blueprint representation of the player’s eventual office space. Each of the action spaces, both on the main board and player’s personal boards is surrounded by a number of icons that are able to effectively convey what a space does without a need to reference the rulebook. In fact these icons are so clear that after the first game the only thing I needed to reference the rulebook for was to find out what a player’s starting information was. Everything else I needed to know was on the boards.
The tokens were less impressive, but not in a way that significantly reduced their functionality. The colors for some of the tokens are close enough that red-green color blind players (me!) may have difficulty telling them apart. They also lacked a certain style that was present in the other components, and where a minor drag on the overall presentation of the game, though this was minor. Hopefully the final version of the game will have more distinctive colors and more striking currency.
Probably the most visually impressive part of the game is the visual effect of the player’s building steadily growing throughout the game. Each player starts with a roof that indicates the type of business they have and as new floors are purchased, the roof rises up and the players place their new floor underneath it. While it is not quite as cool as say, having little skyscrapers growing off the table, it is still satisfying, and is far more functional than plastic or wooden skyscrapers.
On the whole I found the planned Tasty Minstrel components to be effective and visually pleasing. This is no surprise considering the physical quality of Belfort and Eminent Domain, but as someone who got a first edition copy of Homesteaders, I can say that I appreciate the amount of effort they have put into advancing the design of their products.
Ground Floor is divided into 9 rounds, each of which has three main phases: Income, Hiring, Schedule Business, and Conduct Business,. The game ends on the round where a player constructs their fifth floor or at the end of the ninth round, with the ultimate winner being the person who has the most victory points, gained mostly from building development and construction, but also from having the right combinations of money and influence. I have never actually seen the game last a full 9 rounds, and usually see the game end somewhere in the 7th or 8th round, though in my last play I saw it end in the 6th. This is significant because of how new tenant improvements and floors becomes available: a new set appears at the beginning of the 4th and 7th round. So it is possible, though unlikely, that you will never see the final big scoring victory point floors that appear during the third stage.
Income is largely self-explanatory, with players getting an amount of money based on the number of workers they have. Additionally, if players have constructed any improvements or floors that provide income every round, this is when they get it.
Hiring serves goes around the table and allows players to convert an equal amount of money and information into a new worker that both decreases their quantity of money income and increases the number of time tokens they get in the turn. At the beginning of the game this is very costly, and it will only become less costly during the right economic conditions, as workers flood the market. I particularly like this mechanic, both because it is thematic and because it allows people to gain additional placement tokens without necessarily disadvantaging those who do not get them during the early game. This cost makes it so players who do get time markers spend part of the early game simply recovering the information and money spent rather than positioning themselves to get a floor or other improvement.
The Schedule Business phase is essentially the placement phase, with the tokens used for placement (time) being generated by the workers that are accumulated during hiring. Ground Floor is in the Dominant Species/Age of Empires III mold of worker placement, with the main board having a series of different actions that can be taken by multiple people per turn. Consulting Firm allows you to convert some money to more information, Advertising Agency increases your popularity which determines turn order and gives a once per round marketing bonus, Warehouse allows the purchase of Supply cubes, Factory lets you convert Supply cubes, money, and information into money, and Construction Company lets you add to your building.
In addition to the main board, players also have personal boards that contain six possible actions. In contrast with the main board, each of these player board actions resolves instantly. Because of this, players frequently will alternate between main board and player board actions, using the player board actions to build up the resources required to take an expensive main board action or using them to delay while they see what other players do before they take the Advertising or Factory actions. The push and pull of this can be entertaining, and being able to successfully delay until you are sure that you can take an optimal main board action can be pretty satisfying.
Conduct Business is simply a resolution of the main board actions. Each of these actions is resolved after placement is done, with resolution order and dynamics varying based on that action. Consulting does not do anything until (maybe) the round after it is triggered, Advertising is resolved in last in/first out order, while Factory works in the opposite way. The three different ways that these are resolved result in some interesting dynamics, though the final two main board spots, Warehouse and Construction, are a little bit more straightforward as they both encourage players to get in first in order to get the best value or the best constructed item.
When you get down to the most basic level Ground Floor is a pretty standard resource conversion worker placement game. The majority of the game is spent building up your cash and information on hand to the point where you can purchase building improvements. These building improvements, represented by remodeling your original office space, tenant improvements, and new floors, almost always provided either additional sources of income or special powers that allow for the reduction of costs, creating a mild snowball effect. However, the sheer expense of these improvements, particularly the most effective ones, is such that any snowball effect is limited. You will get a benefit from them, but the cost/benefit ratio is small enough that player decisions are much more likely to determine a player’s success then being the first person to get access to the benefits of a building improvement.
The differences between the resolution of main board actions and player board actions creates an interesting dynamic as players are forced to decide between the frequently marginal benefits available on their personal board and the larger, and more contested locations on the main board. While it may initially seem obvious to go for main board benefits all of the time, this is not always possible. The natural flow of money and information will frequently leave you with minor shortfalls that force you to take a personal board action to get the resources you need to get a main board action. On the minus side, this deflates a little bit of the tension out of the game as you spend time focusing on placing workers on an area that other players are unable to access. However, it can also create interesting races as players scramble to get the resources to take valuable action spaces they expect will fill up.
These multiplayer interactions can also create traps for players who misjudge what the others are up to. For example, the Consulting Firm spaces allow you to trade money for information, but only if another player takes the same spot on the following turn. In the games I’ve played, this generally leads to a pretty steady stream of information gain, as you can usually trust that another player will need to use the same spot after you. However, sometimes the stream dries up, because of a collective shift in priorities as players either have collected enough information for the time being, find a way to get it from upgrades on their personal boards, or simply run out of money to invest in consulting. When this happens, usually at least once per game, the last, or last few, players in the chain pays dearly for their misperceptions, and take a big loss on an action they expected to provide needed resources.
Similarly, Factory has the potential for players to fatally compromise their position, but this one is driven as much by the Economic Forecast deck as it is by the herd mentality of the playing group. Luckily, players do have some look ahead as they are able to see whether the next turn will be a Boom, Standard, a Recession, or a Depression, with each different economic condition having a corresponding range of potential available customers. Even during a Recession or Depression you may still see players crowding into the Factory space because they are desperate enough for money, and money NOW, that they are willing to take the risk of a reduced or delayed payoff, or even a loss on their investment. The more players take the available spots, the worse the odds become for all of them; this can be a delicious sight for players who are not involved, but a tense bit of brinksmanship for those in the fray.
These moments of destructive brinkmanship and how to properly analyze and take advantage of them are probably what I enjoy most about Ground Floor, and for that reason I think the best player counts for the game are the higher ones, as these events are most likely to occur when there are a larger number of competing interests on the main board. Lower numbers of players result in a game that is progressively looser and in my mind less entertaining. The game does provide some scaling in the form of available floors and improvements, and these are relevant because certain floors are better than the others, but this tightness appears to be minimal compared to the reduced impact on the brinkmanship dynamic on the main board.
This is not to say that there is not anything else in the game that is cool. I find the whole system for competing for turn order at the Advertising Agency spaces to be pretty entertaining, as it involves a bit of the brinkmanship mentions above, but unfortunately turn order does not share the importance of time, money, and information, which reduces the overall stakes and thus my enjoyment of it. Similarly, I like how the economic conditions determine the cost to hire workers, and how that is separated into its own turn-order-driven phase, which still requires an investment of placement tokens by thematically tying it to the whole idea of hiring and training new employees
If Ground Floor suffers from anything it is the narrowness of its strategic focus. While locations you purchase do provide benefits, and there are some that will shape how much you favor particular locations on the main board, few of them really open the game up to any sort of strategic diversity. Instead the items that do provide variation merely provide minor shifts in the cost benefit analysis. For example, one of the better floor purchases allows you to go onto the construction space by spending 4 workers rather than 1 worker, 4 information, and 4 money. Another excellent one allows you to get a good with one worker instead of the two or three required by the more widely available player board locations or the one worker plus money or information for the main board location. These are effective but they do not provide different ways to play the game. This would not be so bad if the parts of the game’s dynamics that I found interesting were more central to game play, but these play second fiddle to efficiently managing the game’s resources. This is fine but I wish the balance of the game was more focused on the brinkmanship rather then what is, to me, a less interesting part of the game. As a result I find it difficult to justify playing Ground Floor over the other resource conversion worker placement games I enjoy; there are just too many strong entries in the field for me to play one that is not outstanding.
I have enjoyed my plays of Ground Floor and I can see how certain people, particularly those who have not become jaded in the ways of resource conversion worker placement games, will find that this one has a lot to offer. As it is I consider the game to be good but not great. I think most Eurogame fans would be quite satisfied with the game, but those people who are only looking for only the very best or most unique worker placement games should probably stay away.