Review – The Pursuit of Happiness

Returning readers may recall that I placed THE* Pursuit of Happiness from Stronghold Games as one of my Top 10 most anticipated games to be released at GenCon (ok, technically it was just the second printing that was released at GenCon, as the first tiny print run was released in late 2015, followed by a Kickstarter for this release). I’ve had the chance to play games with multiple groups and multiple player counts, so it’s time to ask the tough questions (especially since the game is slated for full release today): is it better than Life? Does it live up to my hype? Is it a good game?

The general concept of THE Pursuit of Happiness is to ask what if The Game of Life was a designer game, rather than a roll-and-move that isn’t going to get much play once children aren’t involved. THE Pursuit of Happiness is a worker placement game, where the “workers” are time (represented here by wooden hourglass markers). Over the course of the game, players lead a life from the teenage years through old age. They can get jobs, have relationships, engage in stimulating projects, or spend their cash on stuff and activities. Through all this, they will gain or lose stress, long-term health, short-term happiness (which dictates turn order and can provide some discounts), and long-term happiness. At the end (aka, when everyone has died), whoever has the most long-term happiness wins (there are a few life goals every game that grant extra happiness, but only 3-5 per goal).

There are four “currencies” in THE Pursuit of Happiness – money (duh), knowledge, creativity, and influence. A childhood card determines the particular combination of resources that each player starts with, as well as granting a special ability (usually a small enhancement when taking a particular action). Players can gain small amounts of these currencies by assigning to basic action spots. During the early years, players will have lots of time and usually not a lot of cash, so they focus on projects, such as directing a play or learning martial arts. Most projects involve multiple levels of success, with investments of time and resources paying off in more resources and other rewards. When more money comes, players can use it to pay for items and activities. Activities are initially one-shot rewards (although the player can later return to the activity if there is a higher level of it available), but higher-level items stick around (do you have a shelf of games, a wall of games, or a room of games in your board game collection?), giving the player a place to sink money into turn after turn, producing rewards without using actions.

PoHProjects

That’s important, because jobs soak up actions and produce money – successively higher-level jobs requiring more time and producing more money. A player with no job, or a lowly job, has 5-6 actions per turn, but no good way of generating serious money for items and activities (long-term happiness will need to be generated through projects). A player with a high-level job will only have 3 actions per turn left, but is generating a stack of cash that can be used to buy and upkeep nice things. It is possible to retire (letting the player draw a modest pension without using up any more actions), but since a player can only retire out of the highest level job, and there is only one of each of those in the deck for each kind of career (Science, Arts, Social), it’s hard to get a level 3 job and, therefore, hard to retire.

PoHActivities

Partners work somewhat similarly to jobs (note that each partner is double-sided, so the player can choose mechanically identical male or female versions). Initially, a partner is a one-shot action (going on a date). This can later be upgraded to being in a relationship, and then starting a family. But each higher level requires more time – investing one time every turn into a relationship (generating some resources and short-term happiness), or two time every turn into a family (generating long-term happiness).

PoHPartner

Note that there isn’t much direct player interaction in THE Pursuit of Happiness, because players do not block each other. Interaction is limited to the group projects and the possibility of snatching a job someone else wanted (or the one partner is who notably different from the rest). Players do (somewhat) block themselves, taking stress for assigning to the same action spot additional times in the same turn.

Trying to juggle too many jobs/partners/projects also causes stress, as does losing any of your stuff, or working overtime (to get more actions now). In the long run, too much stress affects long-term health, which can reduce the number of actions available. There are a few cards that improve long-term health, but they require a significant investment.

The overall structure of THE Pursuit of Happiness reflects some ‘realities’ of life well – work and family eat your time, leaving less for those hobbies you always meant to pursue (or for working on that tabletop gaming blog and podcast you have). The projects, items, and activities all have flavorful labels for each level, which are often quite funny (such as the variations on ‘just one more’ in the bar-hopping activity above, or the “creep” of dolls for the highest-level collection). Geeks will find plenty of geeky life options – including, of course, the board game collection. The overall structure of the game is built around the theme – this is not a game where the theme is “pasted on” to random mechanics.

THE Pursuit of Happiness is also solid as a game. Every turn brings new activity, item, and project options to analyze. The mechanics flow, with a solid balance between upkeep-heavy options (job, kids, etc.) and more action-driven options, although grabbing a high-level job right away and then spending lots of cash on expensive loot before retiring seems to be the easiest option (if you’re lucky enough to have that job show up and be able to pay for it). The childhood traits and life goals add further replayability, nudging the course of different games.

While there is a lot of flavor in the general structure of THE Pursuit of Happiness, and in the labels on the card, THE Pursuit of Happiness is, at its core, a resource-management game. Actions become one resource become another resource become victory points. Every five of a resource left over at the end of the game is worth a point (you’re leaving your insight and/or cash to your next of kin), so moves can be reduced to their point value per action spent. There are no random events. Each card does something slightly different, but many of them follow a lockstep format. This is especially the case with the jobs, which all pay the same and cost the same at a given level (just varying exactly which combination of resources is required), and the partners, who almost all deliver the same quantity of rewards when in a relationship and then the exact same rewards when raising a family. There is a function to this – it’s harder to make a tight, balanced resource management game with the more widely fluctuating rewards. But it takes a little of the spark out of the theme, and so it’s a con for me, because I latched onto THE Pursuit of Happiness because of the theme.

Is THE Pursuit of Happiness everything I was hoping it would be? It is not. Despite the richness of the theme and the embodiment of that theme in the broad strokes of the mechanics, the precise resource management underpinnings inject a dryness into the process that detracts from that theme. If you focus on the flavor text on the cards, there is variety in every life. But the mechanics of most lives play out in a fairly similar way, with different resources involved. Maybe the game would suffer on a purely mechanical level, but I think it would be more what I was looking for if there was more randomness and variance. It’s the difference, maybe, between randomly having a kid from time to time and seeing what happens, as compared to an automatic dose of long-term happiness every turn for ‘raising a family.’

However, whether the game is everything I was hoping it would be is a somewhat unfair standard, as I had really high hopes. And I was really focused on the theme, of a “gamer’s game” that had the same theme as The Game of Life (which I’d recently been playing with my 5yo), but with good mechanics. If you like the theme, but want a focus on Euro-style mechanics, the design decisions here will be positives to you. Ultimately, while THE Pursuit of Happiness may not be the great game I was hoping for, it is a good one.

* Just ask Buonocore.


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