Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Azathoth in the Corner Pocket

Despite my dislike of so much that is Arkham Horror, I am compelled to play. Tonight we sent Mandy, Mary, and Joe up against Azathoth. His power is that the game ends immediately if he awakens. No chance to fight him.

We got unbelievably lucky with our rolls, encounters, and Mythos cards. Mary kept her Blessing for almost the entire game, and acquired a Retainer that netted her $12. Joe acquired as many Clue Tokens as the other 2 characters put together. Mandy and Mary met at the Curiositie Shoppe to exchange items and to buy something useful. They each found an Elder Sign! We had 4 gates sealed in no time. The only really bad Mythos card required a character to discard 3 spells to cancel it, which we already had.

After the 5th gate was sealed, we all ended up gate diving simultaneously. Joe had an encounter that closed the gate but made him Lost in Time and Space--so no seal was placed. Mandy was next to emerge from the Other Worlds, making an easy roll to close, and sealing the 6th gate.

At no point did the game take on that "out of control" feeling I've felt every other time I've played. I think the 3 characters complemented each other well, and that we got fairly lucky. I think we may just try these same 3 characters again next time with a different Ancient One to see how things go.

Arkham Horror image by Nodens77

New 10's

I recently snapped all my BGG game ratings to whole numbers. I can still look at any 2 identically-rated games and say which I like better than the other, but I now believe that grouping them serves a better purpose. Rather than look at my 10's, then my 9.75's, then my 9.5's, etc., I can now look at my 10's, then my 9's, etc. It's easier to examine a single larger group for a game to play or to bring to game nights.

This snapping process vaulted a number of games to the honorable 10 spot. In alphabetical order, they are now:

Age of Steam: Not perfect, but really really good. I love the interplay of actions, the competition for goods, cities, and connections, and the share system. I'm not a fan of having to issue shares only at the start of each turn, of the incongruous complexities of town connections, nor of the random selection and random usefulness of the goods production mechanisms. And yes, even with all that, it's still a 10. I'm also looking forward to the Wallace/Mayfair game--whatever it ends up being called. Getting rid of the score/production boards, and being able to issue shares any time should be nice.

El Grande: Raw area influence with the exceptionally fun twists of the "bidding" cards and the Castillo. Some say it's too chaotic with 5, and not competitive enough with 3. I don't mind either number, but I do think 4 is the sweet spot for this game.

Goa: A great game with 2, 3, and 4. The auction system (players choose what to auction spatially, and pay each other during the auction) is inspired.

Liberté: Subtle and complex game of indirect area influence. You don't know which faction is going to win during any given turn. As the situation become more and more clear, players jockey to be on the winning team or to change the victor. Resolving ties is half the fun. The constant threat of the two alternate victory conditions if the other half.

Maharaja: Palace Building in India: A game of controlled chaos and constantly adjusting plans. Players must choose their two actions secretly and simultaneously, but they don't have to choose exactly how to implement those action until it's their turn. Turn order can change during the round. The order of city visits can change during the game.

Princes of Florence: Every time I play this game, it keeps getting better. The player interaction seems almost non-existent the first few plays, then subtle, then overwhelming. It has a basic auction/action system like Goa, but is otherwise completely different. Every time I think I am doing well, the better players blow me away in the final round.

Ra: One of the best twists on the auction mechanic ever designed. Players choose when to invoke an auction, but can only bid using a small and fixed set of Sun tiles. The Sun tile that wins the bid is put into the mix for the next auction. Won Sun tiles are kept for use in the next epoch, and also factor into the scoring at the end. This is simply the best closed-system auction game.

Taj Mahal: Unlike Maharaja, the sequence of "visits" is fixed. What is "unknown" is the cards, but even those can be mostly tracked if you can remember who drew what. Points are mostly gained through the collection of goods and by spatially connecting palaces on the board. Each round is effectively a simultaneous auction for 6 different rewards.

Vinci: A civilization-style game where players "buy" their developments using victory points. Over the course of the game, your civilizations will decline and new ones will appear. Choosing when to decline, what new developments to "buy", and where to start on the board are all important. Declined civilizations keep scoring points for you until they are overrun.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bob Day

At LobsterTrap I was invited to a local-ish game group that meets once a month. I couldn't make it in November, but I decided to make the 90-minute trek yesterday. The trip down seemed much shorter thanks to NPR's great program Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. It's amazing how different the world is in the morning. Still not worth getting up for though.

There were about 12-14 people over the course of the 11-hour event playing lots of different kinds of games. There was always a game starting that I was interested in.

We started with Traumfabrik, a game I've been wanting to try forever. It was about as good as I expected it to be. I love the fact that all the "money" in the game just moves back and forth among the players. If you pay a huge price for a lot, you are giving all the other players a big temporary advantage. If you are short on cash, you just need to wait through a couple of auctions to accumulate more--and hope those auctions are for things you don't really need. It's too light for a game night staple, but a good filler.

Next up was Amyitis. I've been tentative on this one since I disliked Yspahan so much. I think it is a winner. It almost feels like an Alea/Feld economy game, but has the expected Ystari style. You can harvest plants, irrigate the gardens, buy camels, and occupy temples. But there is also some good interaction. Players compete for actions of increasing costs, for space in the temples (pushing each other out), and for limited sets of special cards (gardeners, bankers, caravans, etc). The one aspect of the game that's not quite right is the caravan board. If you take an action there, you move the camel around clockwise. You can only move it so far based on which caravan card you have and how many camels you are willing to spend. If the previous player moves the camel past the space you wanted, then you might be screwed. But this may be just a side affect. It makes that portion of the game seem half random, half chaotic. It's not enough to scare me away, just enough to bug me. I think I want this game.

I played 2 games of Race for the Galaxy. Yes, it has been compared to San Juan by everyone, and they are right for the most part. The fact that everyone chooses their roles simultaneously helps to make the game move faster. But this is one of its downfalls for me. What it does is to turn a game where I am watching what everyone does into a game where I mostly ignore everyone else. The other problem is that there are enough card interactions that it feels like the game is over before you can create and profit from anything unless you get some combinations that work well together. If the game somehow lasted 2 hours, you could see the long-term fruits of your efforts. Like Galaxy Trucker, I see why people really like it, but it's not for me.

Another game on my radar was Cutthroat Caverns. Unfortunately, it's rules and design seemed like something from Fantasy Flight Games: ambiguous and chrome-filled. There are too many cards and creature powers that interact with each other. There are too many unclear rules. The game should be fast and furious, yet the mechanics make it slow and plodding. Having to deal out initiative cards every damned round is ridiculous.

I wasn't too keen on playing Flying Carpet, but a new game is often a better choice than an old one when you have the opportunity. Players must fly their carpets over buildings and through the clouds to reach the destination. All movement is performed using cards drawn from a deck showing various horizontal and vertical components (eg 2 up, 1 forward). If you get up high enough, the wind pushes you forward an extra 1 or 2 spaces. It was ok, just nothing special. This could be a pretty decent kid's game.

Mordred was another game on my radar. It played exactly as I had expected from the rules. What I didn't know was how much of a mathematical or psychological balance would be achieved between the players and the Mordred pieces during play. Both of these aspects seemed to play out quite well. If Mordred is winning, players farther along the Mordred track want to correct this by either building as much as they can, or by attacking Mordred to move themselves back. If Arthur is winning, players farther back on the Mordred track want to correct this by adding more Mordred pieces. The game is designed so that if you go all out to accomplish any single goal that you actually undo yourself. Brilliant. The game could really use a VP track where players also keep track of total buildings and Mordred pieces. Every single turn in the later half of the game starts with each player counting up everything anyways. The fact that everything (collecting money, attacking, defending) is done using dice keeps this game from being very meaty, but it might fit in the heavy filler space along with Ra. The jury is still out.

Gipsy King was a surprisingly good filler. You score points for having majorities around ponds with fish in them (in a way like Carcassonne H&G), but much more points from chains of connected pieces using the popular triangular sequence (eg 1, 3, 6, 10, 15...). The skill in this game is knowing when to pass. Really, that's it. If you pass, you go first on the next pond. If everyone passes, the last player gets to place pieces in all the rest of the spaces. You play one round in increasing numerical order, then a second round in decreasing numerical order. In the second round you can place 2 pieces on the same location two times. Very good game for a 20-minute filler.

Und Tschüss! is a strange Martin Wallace card game. It was ok, but there are much better card games that take the same amount of time.

I closed the session with Cold War: CIA vs KGB. I love this game, and this play of it was exceptional. We had some great combos happening. By the half-way mark, we had both lost our Master Spies. This eliminates a lot of the bluffing potential, but the Assassin's still did their jobs. At 80 points, I could have used Olympic Games to get my Master Spy back, but that would have jeopardized my win if a 20 Objective card appeared. I enjoy the press-your-luck aspect of the Group card play, the Group/Agent bluffing, and the psychology of the Agent selection and usage.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Arkham Waning

Tonight's 3-player session of Arkham Horror may well be one of its final plays. Although I lack experience with the distributions of encounters at the Arkham and Other World locations, I finally feel like I have a handle on the game mechanics themselves. And it's not pretty.

My main problem is that, when I play a game, the one thing that is absolutely necessary is that I have choices, and that those choices prompt appropriate results. This doesn't mean that I always get what I want or what I expected. But it does require that my choices matter. So let's look at Arkham Horror from this point of view.

There are 3 ways to win: seal 6 gates, close all gates and have gate trophies equal to the number of players, or defeat the Ancient One. Let's assume the first option is the easiest.

Sealing Gates

How do you seal a gate? One, you need to get to a gate. This requires moving around the board, and potentially fighting or evading monsters (see Monsters). Two, you need to survive 2 or more turns in the Other World associated with the gate (see Encounters). Three, you need to close and seal the gate (make a Fight/Lore check, then discard 5 Clue Tokens), or use an Elder Sign (see Items).

If you don't have an Elder Sign and fail your roll to close the gate, then you need to stay there and try again next turn. If you leave the location, you lose your opportunity and must make the entire trip again. If a monster that you cannot evade or fight happens to show up (perhaps a Hound of Tindalos), you are out of luck.


At the start of each turn, each player may adjust their skill settings to varying degrees. The encounters in the game often have you make skill checks based on skill settings that you could not have predicted before the encounter. Skills appear in 3 pairs of values running in opposite directions. So, for example, if you increase your Lore, you are decreasing your Luck. Going into an encounter, you never know if you will need either of these to be high. Finding a happy medium, say 2/2, if often bad because many of the rolls are at -2.


Most monsters move randomly. They can block your entrance/exit to/from a location, and can enter your space to force you to deal with them. Combat requires 2 skills: Will and Fight, which are on the same scale running in opposite directions.


With few exceptions you can never just go buy what you want. You might be able to draw an item and keep it, or draw 3 items and buy one at its face value if you have the money.

The Big Problem

With all this in mind, here's the big problem that seems to occur in every game I've played. I thought it was maybe just bad luck or inexperience the first few times, but it seems that this "problem" is by design.

You are standing in your current location. You have no money, no Clue Tokens, no Elder Sign, and insufficient weapons/items to fight anything on the board with any better odds than needing to roll a 5 or 6 on a single die. The best place to get money is the Newspaper, but that is blocked by a monster. So you go to the best location to get a weapon. You have an encounter there (draw a card) and have to make a random roll against a random skill, fail, lose 1 Stamina, and gain nothing.

More gates open. More monsters pour onto the board. You are still in the same situation, so you just sit there turn after turn just hoping you will get something useful before the store closes. Before that happens, some other random event forces you to fight or move. So you abandon the current plan to get a weapon and start wandering around to various places, just because you can get to them, hoping something good will eventually happen.

You might get 1 good encounter of every 4 you have. But if you really just need something specific like a physical weapon, it may take more turns that the game itself just to get one.

I have yet to feel that I was able to make even the simplest short-term plan and have it work. I've certainly had good luck, but that's got nothing to do with my choices. I enjoy the narrative of the game, but I want to be a more active participant in it.