Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mo' Money Mo' Problems

For-profit universities and colleges educate about 12% of the postsecondary population.  They attempt to appeal to potential students by highlighting how their school adapts to youhow school can fit around your schedule, and in general how returning to school can change your life, specifically your financial situation.. A for-profit university business model was essentially created in 1992, when the House Committee on Education created the 90-10 rule.  The 90-10 rule allowed students to receive federal student aid eligibility for the universities, if the education from the university is valuable enough that the student would be willing to pay up to 10% of the total cost of the education out of pocket.  Only veterans are exempt from the rule that prohibits students receiving more than 90% of financial student aid from the federal government.  But for profit universities have succeeded in the years immediately following the recession as more and more people were looking to go back to school or attend college for the first time.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy issued a press release stating that "low-income students-between the ages of 18 and 26 and whose total household income is near or below the poverty level-are more likely to be overrepresented at for-profit institutions and are underrepresented at public and private four year institutions."  Possibly even more troubling is that this has been a part of a trend, from "2000 to 2008, the percentage of low-income students enrolling in for-profits increased from 13 to 19 percent, while the percentage enrolling public four-year institutions declined from 20 percent to 15 percent."

There are two ways to look at this.  One is that you can believe what these institutions are saying.  For-profit universities and colleges have long stated that the reason for their colleges to exist is to allow those in the lower socioeconomic statuses to be able to create a way for them to move up to the middle class.  One of the ways that they claim they are doing this is to offer free GED courses at some of the universities.  This has taken place at a number of Everest College locations.  Everest College is a property of Corinthian Colleges, Inc., based in Santa Ana, California. The other way of looking at this is that they are trying to prey on those in the lowest socioeconomic status.  They do this by putting commercials on during times to attract those who are unemployed, by being on during Jerry Springer, Maury, and other daytime shows.  The commercials attempt to sell people on the idea that the lifestyle that they want is just a matter of choice of going to this college.  Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college and are simply unprepared for determining the difference between attending a for-profit university and a more rigorous educational institution.  It's easy to assume the worst in people instead of thinking the best.  But, for-profit universities and institutions might be even harder to assume the best.

A major for-profit university group puts a job listing through a staffing agency, encouraging people with customer service experience to apply.  But primarily, what they are looking for are people who have experience in sales.  The job is for a student services associate.  When these colleges/universities show their commercials, there is a 1-800 number listed to find out how you can begin your new career today.  This 1-800 number is connected to a call center.  These student services associates are the first points of contact for potential students.  Company documents for the for-profit university and the job listing reiterate the point that the job is primarily selling the school/product.  Despite the job title role, the primary role of the student services associate is to sell the product and to delay any answers to questions that potential students have, for the local institution.  Not surprisingly, this job role is listed as being in the marketing department.

Student service associates are trained to be a combination of salesperson and PBX Operator as the goal for each phone call is for the prospective student to visit the campus.  They do this by speaking to an admissions representative at the local campus or scheduling an appointment with the call center representative.  The trainer for one of the for-profit universities frequently mentions that besides buying a car and a home, education will be the most expensive purchase for these students and that people don't buy these expensive things by reading about it online or talking about it on the phone.  They have to come and experience it before they buy it.

Most of the money that for profit universities "earn" are from federal financial aid programs.  The share of federal funds going to for-profit universities doubled from 2001 to 2010 increasing from 12.2% to 24.8% from 2001 to 2010, according to a Senate report by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).  In terms of dollars, there was an increase of funds $5.4 billion to $32.2 billion during the same time period.  In 2010, the company college mentioned above received 81.9% of its revenue from federal financial aid programs.  The 30 companies that the Senate Education Committee examined received 79% of their total revenue from federal financial aid programs.  The Pell Grant program which is one of the largest federal programs to assist economically disadvantaged students has also increased the revenues for for-profit universities.  According to the Senate Education Committee's report, from 2001 to 2010, Pell Grant funds collected by for-profit universities increased from $1.4 billion to $8.8 billion.  The share of Pell Grants received by for-profit universities has also increased from 14 to 25 percent.  We're able to explain a small amount of of this increase as Congress increased the amount of Pell Grant funds available in the four years prior to 2010.  For the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 years, Congress allowed students who attended year-round school to receive two Pell Grants in an academic year.  Additionally, with the Great Recession, there has been an increase in the number of students eligible for Pell Grants attending for-profit universities.  In 2009, the company that I am using as the basis for this, allocated 9.1% of its revenue, $119.2 million to profit, and 22.5% of its revenue, $294.7 million to marketing.  All told, these companies that the Senate Education Committee investigated used 23% of its revenue to marketing in 2009, that is $3.7 billion.  

According to an internal document obtained during one of the lawsuits against them, the target demographic for these schools are "isolated, impatient individuals with low self-esteem, who have few people in their lives who care about them and who are stuck and unable to see and plan well for [the] future."  During the new hire training, student services associates are told by the marketing director that they intentionally put commercials and advertisements to target those who are poorer or unemployed.  This is not necessarily a problem, as colleges should be reaching out to these individuals.

The training for student services associates mostly consists of trying to overcome objections, giving non-answers, and keeping the prospective student on the phone long enough to complete the lead information. According to one job aide given to employees, student service associates are told that they cannot answer any questions.  An example from a company document about staying within the company's compliance while responding to the prospective student is found below:

Caller: How much does all of this cost?

Associate: Cost is important to many of our students and we have trained professionals at the campus who can go over cost with you. Make sure when you go in for your tour that you ask to speak to ou r financial services department.
Most prospective students do not ask additional questions when this answer is given and even if more questions were asked, more non-answers would be given.  The student services associate's goal is to keep prospective students on the phone while they get your information.  They are, in fact, graded on their ability to get this information and their performance at the job depends on it.  Another internal document states that "if the prospective student's information is entered without any contact information it will be scored as a zero by quality."  The most important pieces of information to gather by these associates are the phone number and e-mail address.
To save you the trouble of having to call one of these institutions and have your contact information on file for them to call you an excessive amount (we'll get to that later), I will let you know what information is asked and how the associate attempts to keep you on the phone to get this information.
Most prospective students when they call have a program that they are most interested in and that is the first thing they say.  Associates are required to cross-sell to online courses, if they are offered online, as soon as the program is mentioned.  This is because, as the trainer of the company states, it is much cheaper for the company to run online classes and they can have more students in them.  If the college/university does not offer the program at all, for instance philosophy, they are also required to say that they don't offer that program. But associates are not allowed to list programs that they offer, only ones that are considered "core programs" and have been cleared by the company's legal team.  If it's related, even slightly, the associate is supposed to mention the field that it relates to. The examples on the company documents obtained by the author are Ultra Sound (associate is to mention the medical field), Web Design (computers), and Legal (Criminal Justice).  In 2010, the company was found to have a little over a third of its students enrolled online.  

The student services associate asks for the prospective student's name so that the information can properly be stored.  After receiving the name, most associates go onto the next screen, which will hold the information for the student's address.  This serves two purposes.  The first of which is to find out the closest campus location for the student.  The campus location is determined by a combination of the address and the program of interest. The second purpose is to have the student's information to mail them out information on the university group. Student service associates are encouraged to get the mailing address but if that is not possible, student service associates need the zip code to populate the school.  So, after the address and the program of interest, the school should populate.  But associates are told not to give out the school, just yet.  The best practices taught in training is to explain to the student that it takes a few moments to load up the school and to proceed with receiving the rest of the contact information from the student.

The associate tends to ask for the phone number, next.  At, at least one, prominent for-profit university group the phone number is captured by a caller id system and automatically populated into this lead generator tool.  If the student does not want to give out their phone number, the associate enters in a dummy phone number and selects it as the main contact.  The student believes that by not giving out their phone number they will not be inundated with phone calls asking them to attend this school.  One former employee of this university group does not believe this work.  As the former employee recalls an outbound phone campaign with the dummy phone number listed as an alternate contact.  Finally, after the phone number is collected, the student is asked to provide an e-mail address.

At this point, the prospective student is usually upset that the school that they originally asked for has not been given to them yet. But there's still two more questions to ask.  The first is to ask if they have served or are currently serving in the military.  Employees are led to believe that this question is asked to help veterans, but as we'll see below, this is used for fairly nefarious purposes.  The last question to finish out the phone call is to ask the highest level of education.  In order to qualify for federal financial aid, you have to, at least, have a high school diploma or GED.  As we saw above, this is very important to for-profit university groups.  After receiving all of that information and following the job aide to not answer any questions, the associate could now give out the information for the school to the prospective student.

But there are other requirements for the student services associate. The first of these requirements is that the associate is to deliver an experience to match up with the students' key items.  The idea is that the student associates need to sell the student on this particular for-profit university group.  Some of these experiences is financial aid/services, accelerated courses, small class sizes, hands on training, instructors with real-world experience, career services, ongoing counseling, and flexible schedules.  All of these are taken directly off a company document provided to student services associates.  But even these services/experiences are intentionally left vague and most of them will eventually be passed onto someone else at the campus.

One of the biggest questions students have about for-profit universities is about whether their education will even mean anything. Almost every student wants to know if the school is accredited.  From the job aide given to new hires, "it is absolutely imperative that you not attempt to answer the question [about accreditation] with a 'yes' or 'no' or to provide any information at all about what type of accreditation our schools have." (Emphasis mine).  New hires are told that when accreditation is mentioned in a phone call, the call is automatically listened to for quality purposes.  The job aide for new hires tells them to deflect the answer by saying the following:

Accreditation is important to many of our students, so I'm going to try to get you in touch with a campus so they can answer all of your questions for you.

The boards that are responsible for accrediting these for-profit colleges, very often, have members or are chaired by people who also serve in cushy executive positions.  In the case of Corinthian Colleges, the chair of one of two boards that accredits the universities serves as the executive vice president of operations.

If the student asks a point blank question, such as, is there a campus in my area and they give the state, it is the responsibility of the associate to still ask for the contact information before they answer this question.  It should be noted that these associates are given the information where campuses are located.  The easiest way to do this, as a best practice that associates are trained in, is to explain that the company opens campuses up all the time and this way we have the information, in case one is to open up.  Another way is to offer online classes.  But the point remains the same; students are seen as leads, and not students.

Part of the reason student services associates are asked to make sure they get the contact information is so that the aggressive outbound calling campaign can begin.  Outbound dialing to prospective students is very aggressive.  Reports from one for-profit university group indicate that they only call leads that have been in the system for over 90 days without enrolling in the school.  Other university groups contact the prospective student almost immediately after filling out the interested in attending school information.  Some university
groups claim that they are not buying/selling students' information and they may be telling the truth.  Other university groups do, seem at least, to buy/sell student information.  Prospective students have told me that they have signed up for information regarding one school and had a totally different school contact them.  Anyway, prospective students are bombarded with phone calls.  There are not exact figures provided by the company in the company documents that have been obtained by A More Perfect Union.  I have seen students contact more than 5 times in a given day.  I have also seen the same name pop up through the dialing process every day.  I'm not asking you to trust my memory but if you know of someone who signed up to receive information on a for-profit university, for the most part, they will agree with me.

Associates go through a quick training process to prepare for outbound dialing.  The training is fairly narrow and is designed to overcome objection.  The main goal of the training is for the associate to either instill fear to the prospective student or to try to stump the student so they agree to the transfer to the school.  Again, the associate is told that they cannot answer any question but encourage the student to accept the transfer to the school. 

Not surprisingly, for-profit university groups' executives are paid much more than leaders at public and non-profit colleges and universities.  The CEO's of for-profit universities studied by the Senate Education Committee earned on average $7.3 million in fiscal year 2009.  The highest paid public college president in 2011 was Gordon Gee, who made about $2 million.  This is about 3.5 times less than the AVERAGE CEO of a for-profit university group.

Some companies, in order to stay within the 90/10 rule, have raised tuition.  These companies have been fairly upfront about it.  At least to students. Well, once they're already enrolled.  The script for student services associate is found above, but that's nothing compared to admissions representatives who are actually at the campus.  Admissions representatives are asked to deflect questions of cost by using the following script obtained by the Senate Education Committee:

"The cost of the program will vary depending on several factors.  Is your question really how much is it going to cost you in out of pocket dollars?  In order for me to answer the question, first we would have to determine the right program for you.  Second, we would have to determine what time-frame you expect to complete the program; and finally the Student Finance office would determine the types of financial assistance you may be eligible for.  Could you tell me why you are asking about the cost?"

To help pay for the recruiting and high executive compensation, for-profit universities charge more for their classes than a comparable traditional four-year institution.  The medical assistant program at one of the universities costs about $22,000 compared to$1.650 at a community college in the same city.  An associate's degree in paralegal studies costs just over $41,000 compared to just over $2,000 at a nearby community college.  A bachelor's degree in business costs over $80,000 compared to $55,000 at a local 4 year university.  In part because of these high costs, it is nearly impossible for people enrolled in these for-profit universities to live the prosperous lives that they imagined, when they picked up the phone to call to improve their lives.

Because of these high costs, almost every student who attends a for-profit university takes out loans, 98% of students enrolled in a two-year program and 96% of students enrolled in a four-year program.  The Senate Education Committee found that among the 30 for-profit university groups that they examined, the average withdrawal rate was 54%.  Meaning that over half the students who enrolled in a for-profit university withdraws before finishing their program.  Nearly two-thirds of students enrolled in one of the major for-profit university groups' associates program withdrew before completing their program.  The median student withdrew after just over 120 days.  But certificate programs, such as medical assistant is another major draw for for-profit universities.  Nearly 40% of students enrolled in certificate programs at a for-profit university will withdraw before they have completed the program.  Many of them doing so within 100 days of enrolling.  

Because of the high withdrawal rate for students prior to completing their program, students attending for-profit colleges are much more likely to default on their student loans.  The Department of Education tracks and reports the number of students who default on student loans.  A default on student loans means that the student has not made a payment in 360 days within 3 years of entering repayment.  About 22 percent of students who attend for-profit colleges default on their student loans.  About 9% of students who attended public or non-profit colleges defaulted on student loans.  Students who attend for-profit colleges default three times more than students who attend non-profit or public colleges.  Almost half of all student loan debt in the United States is held by students who attended for-profit universities.  Beginning this year, any school will lose federal financial aid eligibility if its default rate exceeds 40% in a single year, or if the default rate is higher than 30% for each of the most recent three years.  If this had been in place in 2011, Corinthian Colleges would have lost federal financial aid eligibility.  

For-profit universities have been trying aggressive strategies to make sure that their students default within the window that would penalize them.  The strategy is to place students who are facing these problems into temporary deferments or forbearances. But this is not in the best interest of the students.  As the Senate Education Committee notes in their report, "during forbearance of Federal loans, as well as deferment of unsubsidized loans, interest still accrues.  The additional interest accrued during the period of forbearance is added to the principal loan balance at the end of the forbearance, with the result that interest then accrues on an even larger balance.  Thus, some students will end up paying much more over the life of their loan after forbearance or deferment."

The most money that a for-profit university group spent per student on instruction in 2009 was Corinthian Colleges, who spent $3,969 per student.  By comparison, they also spent $2,465 on marketing per student, and $998 on profit per student.  Public and non-profit 4-year colleges spend a lot more per student on instruction.  Community colleges spend about the same as for-profit institutions but they offer tuition at a much lower cost.  University of California at Los Angeles spent $30,331 per student on instruction.  The University of Southern California spent $35,920 per student on instruction.  Orange Coast College spent $3,272 per student on instruction.  In 2010, one major for-profit university had one student services staffer (i.e. tutor) for every 160 students.  Meanwhile, there was one recruiter for every 40 students.  Guess we know where the priorities are.

For profit university groups routinely mislead prospective students about how the students will fare once they leave the school.  One major for-profit university has 1 career counselor for every 145 students and that is one of the best rates out of all of the for-profit university groups studied by the Senate Education Committee.  One for-profit university group was found to inflate the numbers for every program by 37%.  In 2010, the same for-profit university group falsified employment records of 288 graduates over four years.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) attempted an undercover investigation to see the practices of for-profit colleges firsthand.  They attempted to enroll at 15 of the for-profit university groups.  12 GAO employees successfully enrolled. While attending class, all of the enrolled students began to perform in a "substandard" level.  At three of the schools, the instructors acted consistent with the policies and standards of the school.  One student received points for assignments that they did not complete and ended up passing the class.  The full report can be found here.  

One college never acknowledged one student's request to withdraw before ultimately expelling the student for failure to attend.  This may be a violation of federal regulations that state that a college needs to use the date that a student attempts to start the withdrawal process as the date of withdrawal.  Federal laws and regulations require that students who have federal loans be given exit counseling about the risk of default among other things.  Three of the students involved in the investigation never received their exit interviews.

Military students at for-profit universities are highly sought after.  This is because they are exempt from the 90/10 rule.  Even better for these schools, is that money for military veterans counts on the 10 side of the 90/10 rule.  One for-profit university group produced a 56 page strategy document to help recruit new military students.  The first objective for this strategy was to increase military enrollment fourfold in two years.  They advocated for spending $30 million on marketing in key military publications and key military installations.  Another for-profit university group stated that the most important targets for them was the 800,000 military spouses who were authorized a one-time entitlement of $6,000.  The memo stated that they should reach out to these spouses "at the military bases with various career fairs, direct communications, and visibility with the Office of Military Families in Washington would be very important."   

In August of 2009, the post 9/11 GI Bill was implemented.  Veterans who serve 90 days or more in active duty after September 10, 2001, are eligible for up to 36 months of educational benefits.  Veterans can transfer this credit to their spouse or their children. The Department of Defense expanded aid available to active duty soldiers through the tuition assistance program.  This program provides up to $4,500 a year to a soldier's classes.  In 2009, Congress also created the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts designed to help military spouses by giving them up to $4,000 over three years.  Because of this, military recruiting was amped up by the for-profit education sector.

One for-profit university group created a training manual specifically designed to target U.S. soldiers, to "utilize fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the sales process."

One military recruiter told The New York Times "there is such pressure to simply enroll more vets- we knew that most of them would drop out after the first session."

One military man in charge of education and development at a military base explained that these schools prey on marines, calling all day and night.  They take advantage of the fact that the nobody in the marines' families attended college.  

Senator Harkin called these practices disgraceful.  He noted that "out of the $640 million in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that flowed to for-profit schools in 2009-10, $439 million went to 15 publicly traded companies.  This amount is equal to 69 percent of the military money flowing to for-profit schools, and 25 percent of all Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.  Eight of the ten top recipients of VA dollars see more than half of their associate degree students they enroll drop out within one year.  At some of the schools, more than 60 percent of military veterans default on their student loans for for-profit universities.

Military veterans are actively recruited to attend these schools, as opposed to public four or two year institutions.  If a military veteran puts in their information for a non-profit institution, they're unlikely to get calls and e-mails back.  But if they do it for a for-profit institution, then recruiters will call them everyday until they sign up to attend the classes.  These types of tactics certainly seem predatory.  Especially when you consider the fact that, for the most part, credits received from these institutions do not transfer because the schools are not rigorous enough or even are accredited.  Military veterans who expect the GI Bill to help further their education face predatory tactics from for-profit institutions and wind up in debt pursuing a dream that will not in all likelihood, come true.

For-profit universities serve an integral part of our society, today, unfortunately. People who are poor, who underperformed in high school, former convicts, etc. need to be able to find a job. We place an increased importance on being properly educated to have the job but we don't explain to people how to properly pursue this education.  State government budgets are increasingly slashed because government spending is ridiculed in the public eye.  With the budgets being slashed, public four year universities are having to go through drastic reductions in staff to maintain their budget sheet.  Community and junior colleges, places that have traditionally been there to help the poor and underserved, are seeing their budgets decrease in dramatic fashion.  It's no wonder that we see the rise of for-profit colleges and universities.  It's no wonder that we see these colleges thrive in economic recessions, charging exorbitant tuition for a diploma, certificate, degree that is ultimately worth about as much as the paper it's printed on.  But I'm not here to hate the player, but hate the game.  Junior colleges and community colleges need to ramp up their recruiting efforts.  States need to recognize this as a problem and fund junior and community colleges.  Ultimately, these people will see that this education can be done better for a much lower cost.  People who graduate from community and junior colleges make more money than those who graduate from these for-profit institutions.  People need to be made aware of this, instead of having thousands of commercials for ITT Technical Institute and University of Phoenix on for every commercial break.  But, oh well. I can't be too mad at for-profit colleges as they are just taking advantage of a system that has seriously betrayed those who need it most.  Instead of laughing off the commercials for Kaplan or any other of these colleges, we need to address the systemic problems and help those who need it most. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Quick hits - some short thoughts on mostly Hillary and 2016

Can we stop referring to how candidates are doing in national polls?  We don't have national elections.  We have 50 individual statewide elections.  We especially don't have a national primary.  We have a primary system that is heavily focused on the early states.  No audience needs to know how Hillary Clinton will do against Ben Carson in a national poll.  It will give the impression of a fairly close election (because at the end of the day, the popular vote will be fairly close).

Fox News continues to be terrible, even in its online version.  In a recent post similar to this one, they stated that a recent poll shows Clinton in the lead for the general election.  This implied that she was not leading beforehand, yet every poll that has been released about the 2016 general election has shown her in the lead.

As a side note to that statement they said that there was a pollster questioning the validity of this recent poll.  Who is the pollster, Karl Rove?  The unskewed guy?  Seriously, what happened to him?  Anyway, literally every poll has shown her in the lead.  Are they questioning the validity of every poll?  This is going to be a fun election if Fox News doesn't believe in polling, again.

Fox News questions whether scandal will EVER stick to the Clintons. Yes, it's not like Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment or anything.  Or has had multiple questions about Benghazi (even though there's not a scandal) or her e-mail server (yet silence on whether Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice should turn over e-mails but I digress).

Fox News and other right-wing news outlets will claim that Hillary Clinton is flip-flopping on her stances about super PACs or dark money in politics.  Ahh yes, the charges of hypocrisy on someone seen as liberal.  We've never seen this before.  Unfortunately for Republicans, despite her stance that we should get rid of dark money in politics she has to get elected to be able to get rid of the money.  Unfortunately for all of us, the only way to get elected, especially as President, is to embrace this money.  But if we're really looking for hypocrisy maybe we could try on actual policy and legislation.  That would be journalism, though, so screw that.

I bout a few new board games to play including Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game, a game I've wanted for nearly a year.  I haven't got it to the table, yet.  I shall soon.  The other games are Arcana (a deckbuilding game) and Pixel Lincoln (also a deckbuilding game).

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Rand Paul - 2016 Iowa Caucus

In 2008, Ron Paul ran for the Republican nomination for President.  Despite the seeming popularity of his libertarian ideals, "dovish" foreign policy, and a grassroots movement he received 10% in the Iowa caucus finishing just behind eventual nominee John McCain and ahead of America's mayor Rudy Giuliani.  Undaunted by his failure to woo over Republican primary voters, Paul ran again in 2012.  Promises came fast and furious that this was the year that libertarianism was really popular and that his stance on drone strikes would be nice opposition to Barack Obama and Paul rebounded all the way up to 21% in Iowa.  He placed third behind Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.  The New York Times yet again promised us that this is the year that libertarianism was popular and yet again we have a Paul running for President.  This time it's his son, Rand.

I've written at length about Rand's libertarian streak or lack thereof and his contradictory stance on drone strikes so I won't rehash them here.  Does Rand stand a chance in Iowa?  He has pretty strong favorability numbers among Iowa Republicans with a net favorability of +25 comparing favorably to the second tier of candidates (pretty much everyone but Scott Walker) which in includes Ben Carson (+29), Ted Cruz (+30), Mike Huckabee (+34), Rick Perry (+29), and Marco Rubio (+33).  Despite his strong favorability, he does not seem to make much headway when brought up against the other candidates.

When Iowa Republicans were asked who their first choice would be among the candidates, Paul was at 10%.  He is tied with Mike Huckabee and about the same as Jeb Bush (12%) and Marco Rubio (13%).  Even when pressed to name their second choice, Paul got 9%.  That puts him ahead of Rick Perry, Ben Carson, and Chris Christie.  Unfortunately for him, it's difficult to see how Paul forms a coalition to be able to secure the primary.

Paul derives much of his support from Iowa Republicans who are most concerned with having the most conservative Republican be the nominee.  50% of his supporters believe this to be the case.  Walker, Perry, and Cruz supporters are the only ones with higher percentages among their supporters.  Paul is seen as not as conservative as Walker, Perry, or Cruz.  Paul is also seen as not having the best shot at winning the general election.  Those who believe it is most important to find a candidate who has the best chance of beating a Democrat lean towards other candidates.  Paul is polling worse than every other candidate beside Cruz among this important portion of the Iowa caucus voters.

Among the TEA Partiers in Iowa, Paul does not even poll that well.  He finished fourth behind Cruz, Perry, and Carson and just ahead of Huckabee and Walker.  He doesn't do that well outside of the TEA Party either garnering support from less percentage of the non-TEA Partiers as every candidate except Perry and Cruz.  If he tries to gain support from those outside of the TEA Party he will slip with them and throw more votes to Carson or Cruz (both are high percentage 2nd choices for Paul supporters).  That is his biggest shot to win the primary is to try to show himself as the moderate who has the best chance of being elected in the general election against the Clinton machine.  He is the second choice for a plurality of the dwindling Chris Christie team and does fairly well among Jeb Bush supporters.  Unfortunately for Paul, Huckabee is also a popular 2nd choice for Jeb Bush.

The more likely scenario is that Paul tries to reach out to the religious right to form his coalition.  He is a popular 2nd choice option among Huckabee and Carson supporters.  To do so, Paul will need to show that he is the better choice not just against Huckabee but against Walker (best of luck there, sit).  Luckily enough for Rand is that if he can convince voters that he is the better choice between himself and Huckabee is that he can try to siphon off support from Carson.  The worst part for Rand is that Ted Cruz is already trying this strategy.  Cruz is also the second choice among a number of Rand supporters.  This could get ugly.  Or it could just get really interesting.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Short game reviews

Agricola – Number of players: 2-4
Time: 45-60 minutes for two players
Synopsis: This is a worker placement game where you take turns placing your family over 14 rounds.  You try to build your farms and buildings to score the most victory points.  You can only take as many actions as you have members in your family. If you don’t expand your family, you will be able to take 28 actions. 
Why it should be ranked higher: By serious boardgamers, including the voters at BoardGameGeek, this game is ranked very high.  There’s heavy strategy involved and since you have a limited number of actions every move has increased significance.
Why it should be ranked lower: Mostly because I’m a sore loser.  I don’t think I’ve won this game since we bought it.  Beyond that, I haven’t developed a strategy for this game and I end up spending most of my time worrying ab out feeding my family which is a criticism Keith Law has of the game, as well.

Coloretto- Number of players: 2-5
Time 15 minutes
Synopsis: The game is simple enough.  You try to match up your chameleons of three different colors .  During your turn you either place a card in the card row or take all the cards in a card row.  Try not to collect more than 3 colors otherwise you will score negative points at the same rate you gain them.
Why it should be ranked higher: It’s pretty tough to be ranked higher.  The price to fun ratio for this game is off the charts.  The game is so simple to teach.  This is easily our most taught game that we own.  We generally teach this game after showing how to play one or two rounds.  As my brother said after he played his first game, “I can’t believe a game this simple was so much fun.”  Trying to screw over your opponents lends itself enough strategy to make the game easily replayable. 
Why it should be ranked lower: The simplicity of the game may turn off some people, especially hardcore gamers.  The two player version of the game is not as much fun but still more fun and competitive than many other games, as with more people but those are really only the negatives, as far as I can tell.

Morels- Number of players: 2
Time: ~30 minutes
Synopsis: Your goal at the end of the game is to end up with the most points (surprise, surprise).  You do this by cooking up three or more mushrooms.  You receive more points for cooking up rarer mushrooms or adding butter or, weirdly, apple cider to your mushrooms.  You can sell your mushrooms to get foraging sticks to move up in the card queue to get a card that you really want or need.  During your turn you take a mushroom from the forest, cook up your mushrooms, or sell them for foraging sticks.
Why it should be ranked higher: We got this game for Christmas and have played it pretty consistently since then.  The Destroying Angel card helps prevent your opponent from getting too many of the cards that they want but it also affects you.  If you’re paying attention to what cards your opponent takes, you have a chance to block them and develop a strategy.  Sometimes the strategy takes a long time for it to develop which allows pleasure delayers to take additional pleasure in the game.
Why it should be ranked lower:  Even with the added foraging sticks to help move your way up in the queue, it is ridiculously difficult to get the rarest mushrooms, Morels or Shitakes.  In all the games that we have played, neither of us has been able to cook up Morels by the end of the game.  It is even difficult to be able to use your cider or butter, although I have been able to use both cider and butter to cook up 9 Honey Fungus).   

Eight Minute Empire – Number of players: 2-4
Time: 15-20 minutes
Synopsis: During your turn, you use your coins to purchase a card from the shared card row.  The cad gives you a resource and allows you to place an army, place a city, or move an army.  You receive points at the end of the game for regions you control (the most armies + cities in any one region) as well as a point for each continent that you control, meaning that you control the most regions on that continent.  You also receive points for your resources based on the scarcity of the resources.  These points are exponential. 
Why it should be ranked higher: Like the game implies, it is a short game with heavy strategy.  Using the coins to purchase cards from the card row allow you to actually buy the cards you most want and give you an option to prioritize your strategy.  The game is very easy to learn.  I think we learned the game and played it within 30 minutes.
Why it should be ranked lower: The biggest negative of the game is that it does not have a lot of replayability.  We play the game every once in a while but we don’t get this game out as much as others on this list.  The game has a two player variant but it is much more fun with more than two players so you could knock it down a bit. 

Mr. Jack- Number of players: 2
Time: 20-30 minutes
Synopsis: One player is Jack the Ripper and the other player is the inspector trying to catch Jack the Ripper.  At the beginning of the game, the player who is Jack draws a suspect card.  At the beginning of each turn, there is a selection of four witness cards and those are the four witnesses that can be moved during the players’ turns.  At the end of each turn, Jack has to answer if his suspect token has a witness meaning somebody next to him or next to a light.  If there is a witness all of the tokens that do not have witnesses are flipped over and vice versa.  The game continues for a set number of turn, if the inspector catches Jack the Ripper, or if Jack the Ripper escapes.
Why it should be ranked higher: The game itself is very simple, but like chess, every move has insanely high stakes.   Trying to maximize your chances to either escape or catch Jack means that you have to think a few moves ahead but not an inordinate amount of moves ahead like chess.  I think it’s a nice compromise between the two. 
Why it should be lower: This is probably the most stressful game that we own.   We usually play two games back to back real quick so we each have a game as the inspector/Jack.  Each move in the game requires a lot of thought and stress

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small- Number of players: 2
Time: 30-45 minutes
Synopsis: The two player version of Agricola focuses, as you can imagine, on acquiring farms and having a lot of animals.  It still follows the same basic outline of Agricola meaning that it’s still a worker placement game with a set amount of rounds in the game.  Unlike the original Agricola, you don’t have to feed your family.  Your main goals are to have as many animals as possible, which you can house by building fenced-in pastures, stalls, stables, and feeding troughs.  But you only have so much room in your farm so you do need to expand and fill up, as quickly as possible.
Why it should be higher: Like Agricola, the game requires you to think through your turn each time with a low luck factor.  There is the storage building which gives you points for your resources at the end of the game but even with that building, you don’t win every time that you have this building.  Despite the heavy strategy, it’s not very hard to learn how to play and the game length is just about perfect whereas the original Agricola game, you feel like the end of the game comes up way too quickly.
Why it should be lower:  My biggest complaint about the game is that you essentially have to choose between being able to complete buildings and hoarding animals.  This shouldn’t really be a problem but more of a strategy aspect but still.  I’m a complainer.   In the original game, there are just not that many options for the buildings , which of course is sold separately in expansions.
Are the expansions worth it?  We purchased the expansion More Creatures Big and Small which adds more buildings to the game.  The buildings add more strategy and complexity to the game and even crack me up with some of the buildings, such as the insemination center.  If you begin to get tired of the same strategy in the original game, I’d recommend purchasing the expansion.

Zooloretto- Number of players: 2-4
Time: 30 minutes
Synopsis: The game is another take on Coloretto.  Instead of matching chameleons you are trying to move animals into your zoo.  You also have different attractions that you can put in the zoos to try to earn extra points at the end.  During your turn, you can expand your zoo, put a tile in the tile row, or take a tile row.
Why it should be ranked higher: It’s one of the easier games to learn and to play but still provides a lot of strategy and thought during your turn. You can expand the game to add more animals to the base game which should it make more challenging and fun than Coloretto. We’ve only played the two player variant of this game so it’s possible that with more than two players, the game will be more fun, if it’s anything like Coloretto.  The two player variant works fine, though.  You also get additional actions if you don’t like what is in the tile row.
Why it should rank lower: For some reason, the game doesn’t grab my attention like the others above it.  It’s one of the few games on the list that we don’t own so it’s difficult to really determine how many times we would play it compared to the rest of our games.  

Game review: Through the Ages

Through the Ages
This is probably the most challenging and stressful game that I own.  It is also one of the most rewarding and fun games.  The biggest problem is the length of the game (about 90 minutes per player).  The current price on Amazon is $70 which is too rich for my blood. I believe that we purchased this game for approximately $50. 

Number of players: 2-4
Style of game: Worker placement and civilization building
Set-up time: approximately 10 minutes
Playtime: 90 minutes per player (3 hours for 2 players, 4.5 hours for 3 players, etc.)
End game/counting points/clean-up: 5 minutes
Complexity (1-10): 10
Category: Non-essential, good addition for heavy strategy

This game is definitely not for everybody.  The sheer amount of time that you have to devote to this game is staggering.  If it wasn’t for nice California weather, my girlfriend and I would have never been able to get through this game.  Our first game probably took anywhere from 5-8 hours.  After that, our game time went down to three hours.  We’ve played this game 1.3 times since our baby was born (we had to quit the second time we tried to play due to lack of brainpower).  Why does it take this long?

You are trying to build a civilization complete with wonders, technologies, leaders, government, and military.  During a couple sections of the game, you even start colonies.  Your goal is to end with the most culture points (victory points).  You start from near biblical times and work your way up to modern times. 

During your turn, you are limited to a set number of actions determined mainly by your government.  Your leaders, wonders, and technologies can influence the number of actions but mainly it is your type of government.  You work your way from despotism all the way through fascism, communism, and democracy.  During your turn, you can take cards from the card rows, play cards from your hands, or place workers to help gain resources.  Then you have your military actions where you can build up your military, play military cards, or draw an even card.  Each turn for each person consists of at least 6 actions that are pretty stressful.  As you advance your government, you gain more actions, which in turn makes the game longer.  There is a small dig at communism insofar as that it costs you happiness when you switch to communism.

The leader cards that you get change your strategy throughout the game.  They can make it easier to get new workers or give you extra military strength.  Once you get to different ages, the leaders get more powerful and give you various bonuses.  My girlfriend employs the William Shakespeare strategy where she uses him as the leader and gets extra culture points per turn for each of her theatres and other cultural buildings.  She nearly maxes out the amount of culture points you earn per turn in the middle of the game.  This has been hard to counteract outside of taking the William Shakespeare card before she can.

Your wonders give you culture points, happiness, extra actions and are just generally used as bonus cards.  They cost resources and actions to build but are generally worth it. In the two player game, the military strength advantage is not nearly as important as it was when we played with three players.  The military advantage is mainly used for colonizing which gives you extra resources, victory points, or population.  In the three player game, there is an option to declare war.  Like the rules say, you can’t win merely by having the largest military but you can lose merely by having the weakest. 

There’s a lot of moving parts to this game which provides for a lot of strategy.  It reminds me a lot of playing Age of Empires on the computer except with a board game.  It starts off slow while you are building your resources and your initial civilization but by the time you get through your 1st age, you can see it really take shape.  Because of the time that it takes to play this game, you won’t find yourself playing this game back to back and because of the mental exhaustion it takes, you probably couldn’t even if you had the time.  Once you have played it a few times, you begin developing your own strategy to try to win the game.  After a few more, you are ready to counteract other people’s strategies.  Since the game is scored with culture points which are added at the end of the game and are added turn by turn, a three hour game can turn into a one or two point game.  There is nothing more depressing than seeing your civilization lose by 1 point after a three hour affair.  It’s a great game if you can afford both he price and the time.  If you don’t play the game consistently enough (at least once a month) you may find that you forget how to play just based on how many rules and moving parts there are to every turn.

Why it should be ranked higher:  Through the Ages is heavy on the strategy and very low on luck.  This is typically a type of game that I would love.  The civilization building aspect of the game is well-developed.  With all of the moving parts in the game, no two games are going to be the same and you can change your strategy on the fly.  At the end of the game, it really feels like the best player actually won the game.

Why it should be ranked lower: Time, time, and time.  In all honesty, I’m not sure when the next time I will be able to play this game, again.  It’s mentally draining to play this game.  As much as I like this game, I don’t have three hours to spend where I can play this game without neglecting my daughter.  It also is pro-capitalism with its forced unhappiness with communism.

Game Review: Trains

One of the board games that I bought on sort of a whim, recently, after just a little bit of research was the board game Trains.  Amazon had the game at $30 which is an excellent price point for this type of game. 

Number of players: 2-4
Style of game: Deck-building and tile placing
Set-up time:  3-5 minutes
Playtime: 45 minutes for 2 players
End game/counting points: 5 minutes
Complexity (1-10): 5 (average)
Category: Non-essential, good addition

How to play: Like most deck-building games, there is a common set of cards that are used that everyone can purchase and there is a common set of cards that you always play. In this game, there are eight cards that are used every game and then eight random cards are added to the game, as well.  The eight cards that are used every game are the treasure cards (Express Train and Limited Express train), the victory cards (Apartments, Tower, and Skyscraper), the basic action cards (Lay Rails and Station Expansion) and the filler card (Waste).  

At the start of the game, you receive 10 cards, 7 normal trains (worth 1 coin each), 2 Lay Rails cards, and 1 Station Expansion.  Additionally, you place one railroad tile on the board where you want to start your rails.  You can start anywhere on the board except in the remote locations or in the sea.  Throughout the course of the game, to lay a rail token, you will need to lay them adjacent to one of your existing rail tokens so it is slightly important where you place your starting rail token.
Your turn contains a lot more options than traditional deck-building games, i.e. Dominion.  It is almost completely based off of what cards that you have in your hand.  You can play cards from your hand, lay rails, insert a station expansion, buy cards from the supply, or pass.  To lay rails, you must have a lay rails card or a green card to be able to play.  In order to play a lay rails card, you do have to gain a waste card from the supply.  This fills as a filler card that clutters up your deck.  The other green cards that allow you to lay rails help mitigate the costs associated with laying rails.  A station expansion card allows you to build a station expansion in a city.  This is important because at the end of the game, you score points based on having station expansions and a rail token in the city.  Buying cards from the supply is pretty self-explanatory.  Unlike Dominion and other similar deck-building games, you are not limited to just one buy but can buy as many cards from the supply as you can afford.  The same goes for the number of actions you take.  It is completely based off of the cards you have in your hand.  This can be freeing for some who felt that Dominion stifles your turns a bit.

Passing during your turn allows you to return all of the “Waste” cards to the waste supply deck and ends your turn.  This helps to clean up your deck a little bit so that you don’t consistently have waste taking up space in your hand.

The game goes around in turns until all of the station expansion tiles have been placed, all of a single player’s rail tiles have been placed, or 4 card piles from the supply have been depleted.  At the end of the game, you add up your points with the victory cards (yellow cards), your rails to remote locations (the point total is the number in the star), and your city expansions (1 city expansion is 2 points, 2 city expansions is 4 points, and 3 city expansions is 8 points).  The highest point total wins. 
Review/strategy: To start, I’m a big fan of deck building games.  Dominion is probably my favorite game.  I do like the added strategy of laying rails as part of a deck-building style game.  Unlike in Dominion, where your focus is trying to buy as many victory cards as possible, in Trains you have to combine adding victory cards with laying rails and station expansion to maximize your total number of points.  This changes your strategy a little bit so that you need to buy “Lay Rails” cards and “Station Expansion” cards so that you can lay your rails and create station expansions in the cities.  There is a balancing act of trying to buy enough of those cards to perform the necessary actions, the cards that will help you purchase more cards, and the victory cards that makes the game challenging and fun.

Unfortunately, for me, I am not very good at this game. My girlfriend has beaten me pretty soundly each time we have played (I think 4-5 times so far).  Her strategy, for the most part, has been to focus on buying cards that will help her purchase more cards (but not focusing as much on currency cards) at the beginning and trying to load up on victory cards later in the game.  While she does lay rails, her strategy has been to go to cities where I already have expanded my stations and place her rails there to split the points with me.  Typically, at the end of the game I score much more than her when we add up the points for the city expansions and remote regions.  However, she does so much better than me with the victory cards that she ends up winning decisively.  So, there’s my warning: don’t ignore the victory cards!

The game itself is easy to learn and the rules are clearly written.  It probably took about 15 minutes to learn how to play and we played our first game within an hour.  Some portions of the rules are not clearly written but are pretty easy to figure out as you play.  With an eight month old baby, we’ve definitely gravitated to easier to learn games and have started to slightly overrate games that are simpler to learn.  The only real complaints about the game that I can think of are the rail tiles are just circular tokens instead of trains (very petty) and that the inside of the box is not set up Dominion style where the cards can be set easily in the box with little work.

I haven’t played the game enough to be able to rate this game with any certainty, as I do with the other games on the list, but it is still a good addition to anyone who owns the essential games that I list.