When I was a kid, The Game of LIFE was one of my favorite board games. As I grew older, I played The Sims obsessively on the computer. (Maybe “played” isn’t the right word. I tortured and abused my Sims, but I’m sure that says nothing about my personality.) Anyway, I’ve always loved the idea of creating an alternate life for myself and seeing how various gambles, choices, and bouts of stupidity play out. Will I end up rich and famous, or old, bitter and, well, dead? Or somewhere in between, trapped in an average middle class existence? (Wait… That wouldn’t be an alternate life.)
Since getting back into board gaming, I’ve been on the lookout for a solid life-simulation game that offers more depth than LIFE, yet still retains some of the excitement of seeing what trouble you might get into next. CV was a solid entry into this genre. Could The Pursuit of Happiness be my next ticket to a beautiful board gaming life? Let’s see.
How It Plays
The Pursuit of Happiness is a worker placement game that has you taking jobs, getting involved in projects/hobbies, engaging (and disengaging) in relationships, having a family, and participating in crass consumerism, all in an effort to create the happiest, best life for yourself before you drop dead.
Since you’re going to begin the game as a teenager, you get to skip all the boring stuff that comes before that. During setup, you pick the condensed version of your childhood by choosing between two randomly drawn childhood trait cards. The trait you choose grants you some starting resources and a special ability that you can use as many times as you want during the game.
Life goal cards are also randomly drawn and placed near the board. These give players something to aim for during their lifetimes. While completing a life goal isn’t mandatory (you can slack off and play Halo your whole life, after all), doing so gives you bonus points at the end of the game.
Now that you’re a teen with potential goals, you’re ready to play. The game is played over a series of rounds with each round consisting of three phases: Upkeep, Action, and End of Round. Ideally, you’ll get to play through your teen years, adulthood, and old age before you die. However, it is possible to die young, just like in real life.
The upkeep phase is simply where you deal with all of the aspects of your life. You advance the round marker (which is really aging you, but this is such a neutral way to think of it, I’m going to start calling my birthdays “advancing the round marker” from now on), discard and replace cards from the board, pay any costs for your items, jobs, and partners, and deal with your stress.
Stress is important in The Pursuit of Happiness. You want to keep it either neutral or in the positive zone. If you take on too much stress, it will kill you. Stress is gained from jobs, projects, and partners and is reduced by resting (an action), relaxing (a benefit from certain cards), or pursuing healthy projects like jogging. Aside from killing you, stress also affects the number of workers you have available to live your life. If your stress level is good, you may gain workers. If it’s in the negative and killing you, you lose workers. So keep your stress in check!
Once your life is under control, you move on to the action phase where you change it all up again. Here you will place one of your workers on an action space on the board or on a card in your tableau. There’s nothing stopping you from taking the same action more than once in a round but if you do this, you will add one to your stress total. Myopic focus on one aspect of your life is stressful, after all. You can also take the same action as another player. Unlike many worker placement games, nothing stops you from occupying the same spot as someone else.
There are many available action choices and they all have different rules, requirements, and rewards, so I won’t go into each one in detail. However, the actions available on the board include study, play, interact, take a temp job, take on a project, spend money to buy stuff, get a “real job,” start a relationship, put in overtime, or rest. Card actions are generally some form of upgrade or progress on something you’ve already started. You can get promoted, advance a project, upgrade an item, or advance your relationships, for example.
While you’re doing your actions, you need to keep an eye on the already mentioned important stress track, as well as the short term happiness (STH) track. Short term happiness is affected (positively and negatively) by various cards and actions and it determines three things in the game. First, the player with the highest STH at the end of a round is the start player for the next round. Second, having high STH can reduce your cost for taking or advancing projects. (If your STH is in the negative, you’ll have to pay more for these actions.) Third, you can “cash in” some of your STH to discard the available cards on the board (projects, partners, jobs, and items) and replace them with new ones, hopefully getting something more useful.
During the action phase you also have the option of getting rid of any cards you have in front of you (i.e., dumping your partner, quitting your job, dumping your stuff, or quitting a project). As in real life, however, there is a penalty for divesting yourself of troublesome life elements: You’ll have to take on one stress for every card you discard.
Play continues through the rounds until everyone is dead. (In the game, not literally. The game doesn’t take that long to play.) You then pass your inheritance on to your heirs, gaining one long term happiness point for every five resources of the same type and every five money that you died with. If you achieved any of the life goals, you gain the respective bonus points indicated on the card. Only one player may achieve each goal, so if multiple players achieve a life goal, no one gets the bonus. The winner is the player with the most long term happiness points.
It’s a Beautiful Life or Same as It Ever Was?
So, does this game fulfill my personal quest for a good life simulation board game? In many ways, yes. Let’s start with the theme. As expected, I loved the theme. I also found it to be very well executed. The actions all make sense within the theme of building a life. You get jobs. You get promoted. You buy stuff. You have relationships and families. You get old. Just like in real life, some of these things will make you happy and some will take away your happiness. Some choices will stress you out, moving you closer to the grave. Some choices will stress you out yet, weirdly, still make you really happy. And, of course, there are things you just need to do because it’s the right or necessary thing.
This thematic integration has the added benefit of making the game easy to explain and understand, even for people who don’t have a ton of familiarity with hobby games. I won’t say that it’s a gateway game because while a total newbie could grasp it, some familiarity with gaming concepts will make the learning easier. It is, however, a great first or second worker placement game. The fact that you are not prevented from taking the same action as another player makes it more forgiving than games that force you to take only empty spots. Also, the connections between your actions, the life you’re building, and the impacts on stress, short term happiness, and resource loss or gain are easy to understand. It’s not abstract.
Allow me to linger on theme just a bit more to address one more point. The thing I like the most about this game is the same thing I always enjoyed about The Game of LIFE: The tabletop conversation and stories that arise as the game moves along. It’s fun to narrate the things that go right and moan over those that go horribly wrong. After the game is over, you get to sit around for a few minutes reliving your “life.” If the social aspect of gaming is important to you, you’ll probably appreciate The Pursuit of Happiness.
Some people will consider this to be a limitation of the game as it can feel more like an “experience” than a game, especially once you’re really familiar with it. Yes, you can play hard core and treat the game as an exercise in point maximization and resource conversion. And that’s perfectly fine. However, in my opinion, that sucks a lot of the fun out of it. Some euros are made to be played that way, but this one is more about the fun and the stories.
Don’t let all this table talk, fun, and relatively simple to understand gameplay lull you into thinking that there’s nothing to think about or that this game is pure fluff. There is some meat on the bone, here. As with real life, there is a lot of tension between what you want to do and what you need to do. Or what you can do.
You have a set number of workers that can pursue your happiness. The happier and less stressed you are, the more you can accomplish. The unhappier and more stressed you are, the fewer workers you have and the less you can accomplish. However, it’s not as simple as saying, “Well, I’ll just avoid stress.” Like real life, stress in the game is unavoidable and sometimes even necessary. Sometimes you have to endure short term stress for long term gains in happiness. Unfortunately, the gamble sometimes spirals out of control and the stress just piles on, killing you. The game feels kind of like trying to balance a seesaw. When your actions tip the balance against you, you have to scramble to rebalance it.
Some people feel that the fact that you can occupy the same spaces as other players weakens the game when compared to worker placement games that prevent players from taking occupied spots. I don’t find this to be the case because while you can (theoretically) do any action, the stress track keeps you from doing anything you want. You can’t take the same action more than once per turn without incurring stress. You can’t take on all the projects, jobs or partners you want, either, without incurring stress.
The restrictions imposed on players in this game aren’t as arbitrary as saying “He already did that this turn, so you can’t.” Instead, the restrictions are very thematic. In life, you can’t have five jobs without stressing yourself out. You can’t have three boy- or girl-friends without killing yourself (or going broke). You can’t spend all of your time on one project without becoming a one-dimensional and unhappy person. In many ways, the restrictions in this game feel more challenging than the worker placement games that force you into specific choices. In a world where you can do anything you want, what do you do? What’s most important right now?
Another criticism of the game is that there aren’t many ways to reduce your stress. Again, I feel that this is thematic. Stress in real life isn’t that easy to get rid of. You can’t just say, “I’m not stressed” and have everything be fine. That reality shows up in the game with very few ways to get rid of stress. More specifically, many people criticize the “heart” projects. There are certain project cards (they have hearts on them) in the game that allow you to move into a whole new (better) segment of the stress track, instead of just moving one space within the segment you already occupy. This significantly reduces your stress and can even make the difference between living and dying in a given round. Plus, you’ll get an extra worker next round.
The perceived “trouble” here is that there are very few of these cards in the game. Many people say that it’s unfair that not everyone will have the opportunity to receive the benefit of these cards. What often gets overlooked is that these cards aren’t a free pass to better health. These projects cost more to complete and take longer to finish. In the time it takes you to complete a heart project, it’s possible that your opponent has completed two other projects. You’re also going to have to forego other actions in order to complete that project. Is it all worth it? Maybe, maybe not. These cards are like big carrots that tempt you to chase them, but it may be better for you to resist and chase something else.
Thematically, we all know that this is how life works. If I commit to jogging or eating healthy, it’s going to take a long time to see those benefits. And those benefits are going to come at the expense of other things that might also make me happy. (What do you mean that I have to give up fried Twinkies and marathon video gaming sessions on the couch to be healthier?) Whether or not to go for the heart projects is another decision point in the game and needs to be part of your overall strategy, not viewed as some sort of free pass or Hail Mary that will save you. Personally, I think the whole stress mechanic is genius when viewed through the thematic lens of the game.
The Pursuit of Happiness is a very replayable game. You can create many different “lives” and have all kinds of experiences. The cards and goals come out differently for each game. The childhood trait that you get gives you a different ability each game. Plus, there’s quite a bit to think about during each game as you try to achieve the balance that will give you the happiest life.
However, it isn’t the sort of game that’s deep enough to keep hard core gamers coming back for more over and over again. Hard core gamers will likely find it too simple and lacking in a variety of strategic options for long-term engagement. While things happen differently each game, they don’t happen differently enough to provide a ton of strategies that you can test out over many games. It’s not a brain burner and it’s best played as a lighthearted game for a light mental challenge and a fun experience once in a while.
Along with the “experience” aspect, which you may find to be either a positive or a negative, another potential problem with the game is the length. It can run upwards of ninety minutes, especially if you play with the AP prone or players who want to maximize every aspect of the game. If everyone wants to play that way, fine, but it may really begin to drag for the ones who just want to play for fun.
Even if everyone is playing for fun, the length can feel a little long for what the game is. CV suffered from the same problem. Even LIFE used to feel a bit long and that was nothing more than spin and move, with no AP to speak of. I guess there’s just some mismatch between a game that attempts to cover an entire lifetime, yet which seeks to retain an element of lightheartedness and fun. The fun makes it feel light and like it should end sooner than it does, yet the need to cover decades means you must play many rounds. The perfect life simulation game would find a way to overcome that. (Designers, take note.)
One final note: I backed the Kicstarter and there was a lot of dislike for the artwork in the comments of the campaign. Yes, it’s cartoony and clipart-ish, especially on the board. But it’s also very colorful and fun. The people on the cards are funny to look at. Art is always a matter of taste, but I really like it in this game. It evokes a very happy vibe. Plus, it leaves enough room for me to input my own interpretation of my “life” on to it. Had they used actual photos or realistic art, it would have felt more like I was playing those people’s lives instead of building my own. So I like it. You may not.
The Pursuit of Happiness hits most of the things I want in a life simulation game and I find it slightly better than CV, simply because you’re more in control of your life and there is more strategy to the game. CV is a dice game and The Pursuit of Happiness doesn’t have that same level of randomness. The Pursuit of Happiness is an enjoyable affair that, while not quite light enough to be a gateway game, is a good game for those looking for a next step up, a fun experience, or a first worker placement game. You won’t find it to be a deep brain burner, but the variety of lives and experiences you can create should keep you busy for many plays. Plus, there’s a lot of value in the social aspect of the game and that’s what I enjoy the most. It’s not a perfect life, but I like it a lot.