Boardgame Reviews

The Producer 1940-1944 Board Game Review – Box Office Flop?

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Designer: Manlio Zaninotti
Publisher: Apokalypse Inc
Players: 2-4

On paper The Producer 1940-144 manages to appeal to two very large parts of my personality; the side that loves board games, and the side that loves movies. You take on the role of somebody who has inherited a chunk of money, parcel of land and several scripts from a dead uncle and decides to make his or her fortune through the magic of the movies, hiring famous actors, building up your studio and competing in the Academy Awards. It should be perfect for me. But while appealing The Producer 1940-144 has some serious problems that stop it from being a truly great game.

The biggest problem is that the Producer has the absolutely worst rulebook I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The general layout is great, but translated from its original language to English it’s quite simply a mess from start to finish, with clunky sentences that look as though they’ve been fed into Google Translate without any respect for context, which only serves to make understanding the often contradictory rules even harder. There are so many things that get poorly explained or are left unanswered that insanity becomes a very real concern, while some rules just don’t seem to make sense and conflict with many of the cards included. Speaking of which quite a few of the cards don’t make sense, either. Eventually you can piece things together, but there are numerous rules that are simply broken at this point or that make no sense or certain things being called by different names or any number of other problems, which isn’t even to mention the countless spelling errors. It’s absolutely disgraceful that the rules were ever released in this state. An official FAQ was supposed to arrive earlier this month, but it has seemingly been delayed and the developers have gone largely silent. I was considering leaving this review until the FAQ was available simply to ensure I was getting the rules at least vaguely close to what they should be and therefore providing a reasonable description of how it plays, but frankly there’s been plenty of time for the FAQ to be released and potential customers need to know what they could be getting into. For the moment there’s a sort of unofficial FAQ that a brilliant member of Boardgamegeeks.com has put together based on the developer’s answers to some forum questions and very careful reading of the rules.

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Before we delve into this further, then, it’s important for you to know that there’s a genuinely great game to be found, albeit one that still has some design flaws aside from its own muddled rules that hamper it. Should the developers get an official FAQ sorted out and start printing revised rules and cards then the Producer would likely earn a solid recommendation from me. Until then read on to learn my slightly more complex feelings toward the game in its current state.

The game kicks off with each player being granted $2-million in funds and five randomly selected scripts to get them started on their path as filmmakers Along with that they also get dealt five cards from the deck of characters, made up of the actors, actresses and directors needed to create classic films like Casablanca, The Mark of Zorro and The Dictator,  and the player is free to keep as many of these as he or she wishes, providing they pay the hiring fee listed on the card or the cost of the script. They are also given their own playerboard where they’ll construct new buildings throughout the game that can provide extra advantages. The game itself is made up of a series of “years”, with each year culminating in the Academy Awards where players will put their movies, directors and cast up for Oscar’s in the hopes of bagging Victory Points. Along the way they’ll need to grab new scripts, hire directors and assemble a cast. All the scripts and directors are taken from real life, so players will be buying screenplays for movies like Casablanca, but perhaps getting Orson Welles to direct it, or Charlie Chaplin to both star and direct. Likewise actors and actresses are all real folks, so you could have Humphrey Bogart starring in a small, cheap horror movie. All of these actors, actresses and directors come with ratings for their start power, dramatic acting, comedic skills and character acting, plus occasionally special abilities.

Each player is dealt a hand of six Events cards per in-game year, with one card being played per player per turn so that by the end of a game year there will be none left in their hands. Events come in all manner of shapes and sizes, but basically boil down to those that provide a positive benefit for you or a negative for your opponents You may, for example, play a card that forces another player to immediately fire one of their actors or directors, whom you can then hire on the spot, a handy method of snatching a  star such as Henry Bogart and depriving the competition of a big name. Other cards, meanwhile, can be added to the storehouse section of your board and be played during movie production to add extra benefits, such as a lighting technician who helps draw a bigger audience via the power of making you movies look better. It’s even possible to trigger World War II, resulting in some potential audience members being lost but war movies gaining popularity as patriotism grows. Other cards, though, affect you negatively, perhaps forcing you to redub a movie at the cost of several hundred thousand dollars or having to discard a script due to writers block. Things are complicated slightly depending on the type of Event card; standard black cards can be played or discarded as you wish, though you’d rarely discard them since they typically offer benefits, but those that are underlined tend to be more powerful and therefore when played the player must skip the Producer phase, which we’ll talk about in a minute. Event cards with red text will always hurt you when played, but if you opt to simply discard them then you must skip the Producer phase as a penalty. Finally cards with underlined red text cannot be discarded and have to be played, regardless of their effect.

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Again, we see problems stemming from the roughshod translation as there’s a love of problems with card text. Many of them, for example, can feel unclear as to whether they affect you or can be played on somebody else. There’s other stupid errors, too, like one card referencing the Hall of Fame, something which doesn’t exist in the game. What it’s actually supposed to mean is the Hollywood Boulevard, located on the main board. Generally speaking, however, the Event cards aren’t as muddled and frustrating as the actual rulebook.

Next comes the Producer phase where you can spend one of your six Producer tokens to take an action by placing it on a certain location on either the main board or your own player board. There’s a few different things you can do in a turn, so let’s go through them one by one. We start with Casting, where you can draw a combined total of five cards from the script and character decks, letting you get your hands on new movies to produce and the directors and actors required to make them. A player can snag up to three of these cards with the rest getting put into Hollywood Boulevard where they remain for the rest of the game. As for the actors and directors themselves their cards feature a few different stats, plus some text that either impacts the game or just provides some background information. Likewise script cards contain a list that details the director and actors that originally brought it to life all those years ago, plus a brief description of the movie itself, a star rating of it critical reception at release and any extra requirements needed to produce it.

That brings us to throwing a party, which lets you buy a script or hire an actor or director from Hollywood Boulevard for half the regular price, letting you grab big names for a fraction of the cost, the catch being that you can only acquire a single script or character using this method, unlike casting where you can get up to three cards provided you’ve got the cash for it.

Moving on you can opt to visit the Starlight Motel and hire someone to dig up some dirt on an opponent’s cast member, causing them to lose a star from their stats for the entire in-game year. Throwing a party also lets you negate these horrible press campaigns.

Meanwhile CBS Radio is your primary method for advertising, allowing you to assign an extra audience star to a movie you produce, and also giving you the chance to alter the potential audience by adding or removing tokens from the supply. If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about when I say audience tokens and starts then don’t worry, we’re slowly getting to that part. Just stick with me here.

If you suddenly need some extra cash to bolster your reserves then there’s two options, one legal and one very iffy. Firstly you can head over to the bank and mortgage your buildings for half of their value, with the starting buildings you already own having a value of $1-million. With a mortgage, though, you have to repay it at 10% per turn or you can pay it off entirely by spending a Producer token to visit the bank and handing over the cash. In an interesting design move a player with a mortgage cannot win the game, so make sure you’ve got that paid off before the final year of play. The other option for quick cash is to join the Mafia, earning you a cool $1-million. Only one player may visit this are per year. The downside is that being associated with the Mafia brings risks, as many Event cards are specifically for players who have opted for the legally questionable option. Some of these cards require you to do favors for the Mafia, others involve things like the FBI. It’s a fun idea, but during play I frequently found that myself and my friends would draw plenty of Mafia related cards that wound up being pointless because nobody had joined the “family”. The rules are also hazy on what should be done with these cards, because the way they read indicates you would have to discard them at the cost of a Producer action, which seems to be an unfair penalty for a player who simply got unlucky enough to draw one. Therefore we quickly ruled that these cards could just be played with no effect.

By placing a Producer Token on the construction tile of your player board you can purchase a new building, granting different bonuses depending on what is chosen. Putting up more studios increases the amount of movies you can make in a year, for example. You could also create an Editing Room to earn an advantage in the Awards at the end of the year, or perhaps an Orchestra which increases the critical reception of produced movies. Many of these buildings are requirements for making certain movies, too. Sadly, though, building them often doesn’t feel like it’s entirely worth it, as scripts that call for their creation generally aren’t any better than those that don’t and their effects on the game feel less than impactful at times. The most interesting of the bunch are theme sets, of which there are just four. A player can build one and only one of these sets, but they can hire it out to other players.  There’s some big imbalances, however, as out of the fifty scripts included in the game only twelve movies actually require theme sets, making the $1-million investment needed to build them seem rather high when it’s generally far easier to produce a different film. Furthermore out of the twelve movies that require themed sets in their production, four of them are military while only two of them call for the swashbuckling set, while noir and westerns have three scripts apiece. This meant that players were naturally more inclined to opt for the military set when possible in order to get the most use out of it. It also meant that the chances of another player ever bothering to rent a set were pretty small, as once again it generally made more sense to make a movie that had no special requirements since they typically do just as well at the box office. The Special Effects, Make-up and Orchestra buildings, meanwhile, all had four scripts apiece that called for their construction.

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Of course the draw of the entire game is actually producing a movie, done by plonking a Producer token down on one of your studios. The prospect of putting together a cast and crew and shooting a movie is incredibly exciting, especially to people like myself who love films, but the process in this game takes a complex idea and boils it down to a pretty dull set of mechanics that feel thematically weak. To produce a movie you simply plonk a script, director, lead actor and actress and up to three supporting cast on the table. Each script has a list of the movie’s original cast, and by matching those with your casting choices you can increase your odds of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at the end of the year, but you’re free to cast whomever you want for any given script.  You can opt to produce a B-movie by simply not having one of those requirements, so you could toss together a horror movie without a director or a drama with no supporting cast, for example. However, major stars won’t agree to star in a B-movie and no actor, actress or director in the movie can be nominated for the Academy Award ceremony, nor can a B-movie be put up for Best Picture. B-movies also have their critical reception rating reduced. In other words B-movies can’t earn Victory Points, so their primary existence is let players grab a small cash boost. The problem is I  rarely saw anybody bother with B-movies unless they had a spare studio left and a few random character cards. It was rare anybody found themselves in a situation where producing a B-movie felt worthwhile. On the opposite end of the scale players can produce a Kollosal movie, which I’m still not sure is a deliberate spelling or just one of many mistakes within the rules. A Kollosal requires three stages to create, making it a considerable endeavour. The rewards, though, are worth it as the potential audience is increased massively through the fact that the audience rating on a script doubles and the player can cast as many people as they want to star in the movie, giving it exponentially more drawing power. In regular movie productions no actor or actress with a Star rating of three will agree to play in supporting roles, but in a Kollosal that rule gets thrown out of the window. Regardless of whether you’re creating a regular flick, a cheesy B-movie or a Kollosal production, though, it all feels the same; you toss together some cards, and that’s it. It’s an anticlimax to acquiring those celebrities and big-name directors.

Once a movie has been produced you move onto calculating how much money it makes using a clumsy system that makes no sense given the game’s theme. First you add  the Audience stars listed on the script to the total gold stars on your cast, indicating how much drawing power their name has. The total indicates how many audience tokens you need to randomly draw from the pile. Here’s where things start to go awry, though; you then need to look at the color of the drawn tokens, and assign them to the movie by matching them to the colored stars on the script’s audience rating and the cast’s stats. Dark blue tokens, for example, represent adult males while red represents adult females, and light blue and pink stand for teenage boys and teenage girls respectively. Green tokens indicate children while white are for the elderly, and gold tokens are simply fans drawn to the movies by the allure of their favorite celebrities. For each star you can assign a matching token, representing people who came and saw the movie. In addition each type of audience partner can bring one chaperone or partner, so an adult male can take along his wife or girlfriend and vice versa, while a child takes along an elderly guardian and so on. By adding together a script’s critical reception rating and the director’s skill rating you can draw extra audience tokens up to the amount of tokens you could not successfully assign. Once you’re done every token that you’ve managed to match up earns you $200,000. Confused? Understandably so. It’s not exactly elegant.

What’s weird is how the game depicts the way in which members of the audience are drawn toward the film; adult males correspond to the dark blue stars on an actor’s card that represent his or her dramatic acting skills, while women are drawn in by the red stars that correspond to character acting, and children are lured by comedic acting displayed as green stars. Teenagers, meanwhile, only become interested in a film via a script’s audience stars or certain Event cards because no characters have matching stars. It creates a very odd, rigid idea of how a potential audience is drawn toward a movie. Why are adult males only interested in dramatic acting, especially when the film itself is a comedy that’s geared toward children? Indeed, there’s a massive gulf between a script’s audience stars, which the rules describe as indicating the type of potential audience being targeted, and the actual people who watch the movie. In almost every instance I’d produce a horror film with audience stars that clearly show it being aimed at teenagers, and wind up with an audience full of adults and young children because the stars listed on character cards vastly outnumber those on the scripts. Or I’d produce a comedy aimed at young children, and again find the audience made up of adult males. Assigned tokens are not added back to the audience pile, a smart way of representing a dwindling market as those who have already paid to see a film won’t see a second one that year, but there’s no way to actually target a specific type of person. You may, for example, have noted that because your opponent’s produced several films ahead of you they’ve taken most of the adult portion of the market away and decide to therefore produce a film aimed at the teen demographic instead. Except you can’t. You may purchase a script that’s aimed at teens and use Event cards to bolster its appeal to them, but even then it still winds up drawing the wrong audience.

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Both thematically and mechanically producing a movie and calculating its success is dull and clumsy. As a producer I want more control in targeting movies to specific demographics. As it stands everything I made drew in adults, regardless of the script or the audience I actually wanted to focus on.

Once everyone has run out of Event cards the game enters its final phase of the year, the Academy Awards, the primary method of earning Victory Points. The first award is for Best Picture, and this won by the player who produces a movie that uses directors, actors and actresses which match the ones written on the script and are therefore historically accurate. On the one hand it’s a thematically interesting choice, because really it’s not exactly the best movie that wins so much as the movie that was most historically accurate, but on the other hand this method encourages players to more carefully choose their scripts and characters, especially since you get bonus Victory Points for every matching character, points that are doubled if the produced movie is a Kollosal. I’ve seen several play beautifully where they seemingly lag behind for most of the game, building studios and hiring a crew and cast, only for them to unleash a single Kollosal movie that matches up three or four characters, earning them a large quantity of points in one fell swoop. Having done this a few times I feel safe in saying it’s in that moment The Producer is at its best, when everything just comes together.

The awards for Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Leading Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress are all handled in a more complex manner. For Best Director each person puts forth one  director from one of their produced movies, and then based on that director’s directing skill, as represented by black stars, they draw an equal amount of Even cards which can have small Oscar statues printed on the bottom right. They can then spend their Oscar Vote tokens to help boost that director’s chances. These tokens are earned through certain Event cards, by spending a producer at the CBS Radio or by having spare producers at the end of the Operational Stage where you were hiring people, creating movies and so forth. These Tokens represent the backstage politics that go on at awards, how votes can be bought and people persuaded and suchlike. Finally the director’s stars, the Oscar tokens and the Oscar’s on Event cards are all tallied up and the director with the most wins, earning the player a few Victory Points in the process. The awards for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress are all handled in the same manner, except that they must use whatever acting rating matches the genre of film, so a lead actor in a drama must use his skill in dramatic acting, while an actress in a comedy would go by the green stars on her card that represent her comedic skills. Like calculating the audience for a movie it feels like a somewhat convoluted system, but it does work reasonably well. The element of luck does mean that it’s not always the “best” people who win in each category which is thematically quite true – we’re all aware of how the Oscars have a lot of backstage politics at work that can leave deserving people high and dry.

Once the Awards are wrapped up a new year begins with any audience tokens being put back in the container etc. Every year also begins with a maintenance phase where players have to pay the upkeep for buildings, and renew their contracts with actors and directors by paying the indicated amount of cash.

As for claiming victory there’s a few other things to take into consideration. Constructing new buildings earns Victory Points as well, but one of the potential biggest earner is the Diversified Production Achievement which grants Victory Points based on how many different genres of movie each player has produced over the course of the game. If you manage to create five different genres of movie, for example, you’ll snag 11 points. There’s also optional rules that grant points to the player with the most money, and to the one with the most diverse cast. Honestly it’s worth including at least the monetary rule by default as it makes producing multiple films per year a more persuasive option.

On my first few attempts at playing the game I recruited a friend to come round, enjoy some beers and see who could produce the best movies. Putting the clumsy rules aside we noticed some major problems; across the standard two-year playing time neither of us were struggling for money, nor were big name actors and directors with fantastic stats hard to come by, and thus we were both quickly producing huge movies which in turn gave us lots of money again to go hunting for even more great characters. It didn’t feel like we were competing with each other, so much as just tossing out films and hoping for the best. Sure, we’d focus on trying to match actors and directors up with the correct films to snag that award, but when it came to every other award we both had amazing casts, so most of the time the winner came down to luck.

Amazingly, though, a lot of The Producer’s problems are solved via two methods. Firstly ditch the standard game and employ the Long Game optional rule located in the rulebook. Here the standard game length goes from a mere two rounds to playing a total of four rounds, stretching the playtime from 1940-1944. In this mode starting cash is reduced by half to $1000,000 and each player gets five event cards and five Producer tokens rather that six. What this does is create a far better sense of progression for players as the starting cash stops people from acquiring impressive actors and buildings at an astonishing rate and thus lessens the chances of huge, incredibly successful movies being filmed within the first turn or even two. You start with a much smaller roster of actors and actresses and produce modest movies to begin with before slowly acquiring bigger names, building up your studio and moving into the creation of Kollosal or multiple films in a year. In fact, I don’t understand why this isn’t the default setup for the game with the shorter version being option. Hell, the name of the game is The Producer 1940-1944, so why does the standard setup only run until 1942?

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The other way to improve the Producer is to play with a full complement of four players. With the smaller starting budget of the long game and four players sitting around the table many of my earlier complaints vanish; suddenly great actors and actresses are in short supply, forcing players to battle it out over who they want, cursing as their opponents sign the one actor or director they really needed to be in with a chance of snagging Best Picture. Likewise scripts became a point of contention as you want to snap up the screenplays that match your current cast or that can make use of your theme set. It quickly became a house rule that you could buy out a character’s contract from another player provided you could both come to an agreeable deal, thus some sneaky negotiation soon became a staple of our games, making them much more enjoyable. Furthermore with the lower starting budget and longer game length the gameplay became more thoughtful, especially since money was generally harder to come by, although I never once saw a situation where a movie wasn’t very profitable or even turned out to be a financial ruin. We kept waiting for one of us to produce a movie that left the player financially crippled, thus perhaps forcing them to visit the bank or become a Mafia associate, two options that were otherwise largely ignored because money, though it was still harder to come by than playing with two people, was still relatively easy to get. Sadly that never happened.

Still, not all of my complaints suddenly vanished. I still find the method of calculating audience for a move to be both clumsy and thematically weak, and of course that rulebook is still an atrocity. It’s not a hugely skill-based game, either, so much of the time it doesn’t feel like you’re making particularly interesting or challenging decisions.

Before we finish up we do have to talk about the general quality of the product, which is quite good. The cards all have that slight plastic-feeling finish which doesn’t scream quality in the same way that textured card stock does, but they typically look rather nice, although the character cards are a little flat and lifeless. The custom artwork seen on the board is lovely, and I’m a fan of the overall box design. The tokens are rather dull but at least they are made of good card. Finally the paper money is a good touch.

I genuinely wanted to adore The Producer. It’s theme is just such a fantastic idea, one that could be expanded upon into more modern movies, directors and actors, though I’m sure the licensing would be a pain in the butt. I’ve spent nearly 5,000 words attempting to dissect and understand it and convey my conflicting emotions to you, but no game should arrive with a rulebook this badly translated, a book that will leave so many people infuriated and struggling to muster up the will to even attempt to play the game. That’s a shame because there is something great in here, although even once the rules have been sorted out it’s still somewhat lacking. I’d love to have seen them go further with the theme so that you have more options open and more things to consider when making movies. Working out the audience and box office takings for movies feels unpolished, awkward and thematically weak, while the acting of producing the movies themselves is somewhat anticlimactic.|

In the end, then, The Producer, despite my own desire to love it, isn’t worth buying.  If the developers manage to get themselves sorted out and produce a quality rulebook that clearly explains how the game works and you enjoy movies then it’ll be worth your time, although still quite heavily flawed. For the moment, however, maybe you should just sit down and watch Casablanca again.

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