Monday, July 21, 2008

Navia Dratp, a twisted and sad saga of marketing madness

Metamorphosis is a fascinating chess-like abstract strategy game.

Players earn points by moving pawns forward, capturing opposing pieces and through some other piece-specific means. They can spend those points to metamorphose non-pawn pieces to more powerful versions or, in some cases, give the metamorphosed piece some new power.

The game has multiple ways to win: Capturing the opposing King, accumulating 60 points so the King can be metamorphosed into an Emperor or passing the king all the way across the board.

Described such, this probably sounds like a fairly easy-to-learn game that has the potential for some interesting and intricate game play. It could easily be themed, too, with wizards and dragons, insects, dream creatures, sci fi or even something whimsical.

Unfortunately BanDai, in the grip of some corporate madness, obscured this clever little strategy game under an overbearing weight of obscure and unpronounceable terms, bizarre figure art and collectible figures .

For those who wade through all that, there the reward of an intriguing game. And indeed, the game has recorded several hundred plays on BGG, which is a respectable number, exceeding all but a handful of wargames for example.

The game is Navia Dratp, and its name provides the first evidence of what was wrong with the marketing approach. If you're going to make up a name, why not make up one that people will know how to pronounce? Instead they include a silent "T' (it's Nah-Vee-ah Drahp) for know discernible reason.

Instead of calling the game's currency something obvious and easily understood such as points, or gold or jewels or whatever, they are called "Gyullas."

The game pieces bear names like Kapinah, Kapinahs (!?) Tanhoiser and Sungyullas.

And so on.

While marketing the game as a "collectible" game the maker left most of the pieces a very dark unpainted grey. In the initial offering only a small portion of the pieces were fully painted premium pieces. The second wave included one painted piece per booster, which was an improvement, albeit and inadequate one.

The sculpts are interesting in their own way, but too idiosyncratic to really draw the players in. There's an "anime" feel to the lot, but the most anime style pieces are the Navia (king) pieces,m which are rendered bizarrely as cute girls and some of their guard pieces. Most of the other pieces are more like something out of a horror movie. All that might have made some sense, except the background story for the Navia Dratp universe is very sketchy without enough information provided to really make sense of things.

Few games so professionally produced by a major company have been mismarketed so badly. Would the game have failed anyway? Perhaps. DreamBlade, which had a much more coherent marketing effort for a game that was also very interesting and well produced still didn't manage to do well enough to achieve breakthrough. (Although by boardgame standards it did rather well.)

But whatever chance Navia Dratp may have had was overwhelmed by the way it was presented.

Despite it all, however, there's an interesting game that's well worth playing. The multiple victory conditions, in particular, is a nice Eastern style touch that provides opportunities for misdirection and strategy. The interaction between pieces can lead to some unexpected combos that can tax the mind quite enjoyably. They also provide a universe of possibilities that would be unsolvable for a computer intelligence.

Ironically, the game's official demise may be good from a player's point of view. The base set and one expansion that were produced provide more than enough different pieces while stabilizing the game. Each player only needs seven pieces, so the five dozen or so available are sufficient. None of the pieces are overpowered, and indeed, most of the pieces are strictly limited in movement abilities, so there's little chance that a player will win because of the army he drafted instead of the cleverness of his play.

Navia Dratp ought to live on for quite a while as a small niche product that appeals to certain tastes.

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