Thursday, March 29, 2007

Game Dump

The past 2 weeks have been busier than usual. The good news is that some of that was playing games. Over 8 different sessions, I played a total of 21 games. I'm certainly not a quantity over quality kind of person, but if you can combine the two, even better.

I played another game of El Grande using my 2p variant. Clocking in at about 60 minutes, I have to say this variant gives a heck of a lot of enjoyment per unit of time--"gaming density" if you will.

On our normal gaming night at home, we played Cartagena, Tikal, and Carcassonne: The City--all with 3 players--followed by 2 games of Roma. The gaming density for all versions of Carcassonne is starting to feel on the low side. It's a great design, and fun to play, but somehow every game I play feels twice as long as it should. Perhaps it's a function of the extra time it takes when playing face-to-face. Tikal, on the other hand, is dense, even with occasional AP issues. Our first game of Roma was one of the degenerate types where one player just gets 2 Forums and gets perfect rolls for 3 rounds in a row. Our second game, however, was the best I'd ever played. It took over an hour. My opponent hovered around the 16-20 VP mark for a long time. He was able to keep 2 or 3 holes on my side most rounds, forcing me to shun my Forum for fear of an instant loss by attrition. It was a fascinating battle using and recycling many kinds of card combinations.

I finally got to experience Shogun, the reworked version of Wallenstein. It plays almost exactly the same except for the addition of bidding for turn order and special powers. I think the changes improve the game somewhat. They give you something else to use your gold for, and let you compete for the minor powers (+1 gold, +1 rice, +1 attack, +1 defense, and bonus army). The board is beautiful and double sided. The fact that it's an island makes the game feel a little more real, as well as allows for some longer sea connections. It has a similarity to Antike in that, although you are building a military force and conquering territory, you have to be mindful of the winning conditions so you don't get carried away doing the wrong things.

A few fillers--Catch Phrase, King Me!, and For Sale--carried 6 of us late into the night, to be ended with a fantastic session of Shadows Over Camelot. We were working together so well that, at the half way point, I was convinced there was no traitor. We carefully choreographed our movements and actions, playing on a knife's edge of losing outright. When we reached that vital moment when the last card needed to be played on the final quest, the player there got all pissed realizing she didn't have the "5". She had only gotten 3 hours of sleep the night before, so none of us thought much of it. However, on her next turn, she Accused another player who had shown absolutely no sign of being a traitor. Her identity was revealed! Fortunately for the knights, we only needed 3 more player turns to finish the game successfully. 9 White Swords. 11 Siege Engines.

On a lazy Sunday, we played Pheonix--one of Mary Ann's favorite new fillers. It's okay, but at 45-60 minutes for a 3-round game, it's a little too long for me. That night, I went to BSW to check out their latest addition: Venedig. I'll save my comments on this game for an upcoming podcast.

Our next game night at home was short. We played Jambo. It had been so long, we needed to refresh ourselves with the rules. I'm always interested in games that feel like Magic: The Gathering--which has worn out its welcome--without the collectibility or expansions. Next we played Medici vs Strozzi. I was worried Mary Ann would find this game a little too math heavy, but she loved it. For such a simple game, it's got a unique two-tiered force system at work that I will have to think about some more in order to describe.

For lack of a third on BSW, Linnaeus and I decided to try Bonaparte at Marengo on VASSAL and Skype. This game was the hit of the past 2 weeks for me. We had both previously read the rules at least once. Still, it has enough unusual, unexpected, and non-intuitive things that it is difficult to internalize. We had to stop after almost every action to see if we were playing properly. Our first game took 3 hours with the French winning by easily holding back the overly-passive Austrians. Our second game--with a better understanding of the rules and the tactics--ended with the French surrender at 6pm (morale 5-0) and took less than 2.5 hours. I think we can get it down to about 1.5 hours once we are more comfortable playing, but I don't see this game having long-term staying power. I'd prefer to play just once in a while to keep it fresh.

I just finished a game of Capitol on Ludoholic. I think it suffers quite a bit playing online. I came away not really liking it, but I'll certainly try it again face-to-face if the opportunity presents itself. That being said, the web implementation is decent.

Game night at the condo was lackluster once again. It took us over an hour to get started playing a 6-player game of Power Grid on the Benelux map. Even with this shortened version (only 14 cities), it took us over 3 hours to play. That left just enough time for a great 4p game of Ra. At the end of the first Epoch, I had the 2-3-5 Sun tiles. At the end of the second Epoch, I managed to upgrade these to the 2-3-6 Sun tiles. Even so, I ended the game with 6-7-10 and came in a distant second place.

On the same day that I decided to add more possibilities to our 6p game nights by reading the rules to Struggle of Empires and finally punching all the counter sheets (I had to make a new insert) to my year-old virgin copy, I was contacted by a fellow BGG'er to see if I wanted to join a group to play it online. So far, there are 13 of us from various time zones with various preferences for live vs PBEM play. My preference is, of course, live play. It's difficult to get 6 or so people to schedule several hours all at the same time, but I'm willing to try in order to play a game of this kind.

Bonaparte at Marengo image by Lord_Prussian

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Game Night at the Condo

Yet another vague 6-player start, followed by a veto of I'm the Boss by me, and we were off playing Cluzzle. I have nothing against the game, but it's always a bad sign to start off a game night with a filler or a party game. I tend to choose the hardest thing on my card so it's unguessable in the first round no matter how good a job I do. I chose "park" and built a bench and a tree. The bench was just a 3-sided blob, and the tree looked like a mushroom cloud, but it was guessed in round 3. After about 45 minutes, we were only about half way through, and 2 more players arrived, so we called it quits.

Next came Factory Fun, the first time for 3 of us in this 4-player game. The game is nicely designed--physically and play-wise. The optimization of your machines, tanks, and pipes is quite an interesting puzzle, though perhaps it would be more fun as a web flash game. I disliked the part of the game where you have to quickly choose which machine to grab. Sure, you can make a partially-informed guess as to what you need, but the coupling of quick-draw intuition followed by careful mental calculation makes for an uneven tempo. I think I would prefer bidding for the tiles, so I could decide what I really needed and how badly I wanted it. But, of course, that would take away the "Fun" and who wants to play "Factory". That being said, it's good enough to give it another chance.

At this point, I think everyone was ready for something meatier. I managed to get Perikles on the table and setup once again. Would we actually play this time? Sort of. It was the first time for everyone, but I managed to teach it with almost no peeks at the manual. I decided that rather than teaching every detail of the entire game up front that we would play each phase one at a time and I would explain just enough to get through it. Still, it took 30 minutes to get started. I went all out to get Sparta, hoping to grab one other city if possible, but it didn't happen. Another player got Athens and Corinth, but had to deal with 4 battles this turn while I had only 1.

I chose the player to my left to start the round placing military units so I could go last. This was a miscalculation. Because of the distribution of 1- and 2-shard tiles, the player to my left actually played last. I defended Sparta in its single battle, and attacked 2 other cities. There were no allied units played. My defense was unchallenged--only netting me 2 cubes--but my 2 attacks failed. Sparta lost 4 major units in the first round. I quite liked the simple CRT combat system with the single or double staged battles. There's just enough randomness that you never know what's going to happen, and the game is always different.

After 2 hours, we decided that we didn't have time to finish the game, so called it quits. I didn't get a good read on the other players. I think they were somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity. I really liked far. I'll have to play a full game to be able to judge the inter-round continuity, which Perikles has in spades. Winning leaders lose support--possibly all of it. Defeated forces lose units, which may or may not be under your control again in the next round. Based on players' influence and past leaders (statues) in the cities, players may have conflicting attitudes about each city. This is definitely one sweet and juicy treat.

I closed the night out by teaching PÜNCT. I find that I prefer ZÈRTZ more and more because of the faster play.

Perikles image by toulouse

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Game Night

Mary Ann proposed Keythedral, Carolus Magnus, and Alhambra. I chose Keythedral. There are 2 minor problems in this otherwise excellent game. One is that the rigid starting layout of the field tiles and cottages makes for a less interesting repetition of rounds. This is mitigated somewhat by the changes in starting player, the changes in resources needed over time, the upgrading of cottages to houses, and the ability to build fences. Still, I wish players could somehow modify the layout over time (aside from the special rule that allows you to move a house if it gets cut off by fences).

We decided to throw in the expansion tiles to make the endgame more interesting. This mitigates the second problem. The resources needed to complete the 12 tiles in the basic game are mostly iron, stained glass, and gold. All of these resources must be acquired by trading for them in the market. This means that the placement of workers degenerates from wanting specific resources, to just trying to get the most resources. The expansion tiles correct this problem by having, for example, 6 water, or 2 iron and a Law Card.

For our second game, I proposed Mexica, Tikal, and Attika. Mary Ann chose Tikal, which she had never played before. This was the first time I had played my copy; I wasn't even sure if I had punched it yet. This is one of those games where the insert looks very well designed, but that is completely inappropriate for travel.
Having played Mexica a few times before, Mary Ann picked up the gist of Tikal very quickly. Surprisingly, there were no real gotcha plays other than a mildly annoying volcano she played adjacent to my first camp during the B phase. I treat all games that I am teaching as practice, so I wasn't going for the throat. That being said--and I am making no excuses--I was taught a good lesson.

After the first 2 scoring rounds, we were exactly tied at 56. After the third scoring round she was ahead by 11 points. In the final scoring round, I played to maximize my score. This was a huge mistake. By doing this, I ignored the fact that I was leaving some of the larger temples vulnerable. For example, by trying to score a 7 and a 2, I allowed her to take control of the 7 on her turn. If I had given up the 2 and beefed up the 7, I would have scored 2 points less and denied her the 7. This is such a basic move that I'm certain I considered this in all my online plays.

The good news is that Tikal was a hit. Next time I will add Java to my proposed games.

Tikal image by garyjames

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Game Night at the Condo

This was the second week in a row where the number of players and indecision resulted in a somewhat disappointing set of games.

Two new games for me this week: UR and Beowulf. Both were okay, but I didn't come away with any good or bad thoughts. I think they will both need to be played again to form any sort of opinion. In UR, our game finished without players interacting at all. It made me think we were playing wrong, no matter how certain I was that I had the rules right. Beowulf just seemed overly random--definitely not the kind of game my Geek Buddies would rave about...but they do.

The night ended with 2 games of Subbuteo, and a great game of Zertz.

Games I want to play on game nights. Why do they come out so infrequently?

Taj Mahal
El Grande
Railroad Tycoon
Princes of Florence
Struggle of Empires
Louis XIV

Beowulf image by itiswon

Monday, March 05, 2007

War of the Ring

A surprise call late Saturday night by Mike opened the possibility of playing War of the Ring on Sunday. I quickly erased everything on my busy schedule (actually I had nothing else to do whatsoever) and wrote in WAR OF THE RING with a thick, black magic marker. I stared at the words in awe as if Death himself had spoken them.

Sunday morning, we spent about 90 minutes setting up the game and going over the rules. We weren't sure that we would be able to finish in one day, so we setup the game on his beautiful Subbuteo table. This gave us plenty of room for all the extra stuff, and allowed us to stand at the table as we planned our evil--and I suppose good--plots.

We weren't in any particular rush, ate a bit, and stopped a few times to lookup rules and check the FAQ. With all that, my first game played in about 6 hours. Just to be extra geeky, Mike downloaded the LotR soundtrack on his laptop and we listened to that while playing.

The Game

War of the Ring is basically a simple wargame with some alternate victory conditions. It is not card-driven as BGG suggests. Cards modify game states, affect combat, and create events. Your choices are driven by die rolls. At the start of each round, both players roll a number of dice. At the beginning of the game, this is 7 for the Shadow player and 4 for the Free People player, and can be increased up to 10 and 6 respectively.

One result of a die roll is an Army action, which lets you move 2 Armies or make a single attack into an adjacent region. Combat is simple. Both the attacker and defender roll a die for each Unit (Elite or Regular) present up to a maximum of 5 dice. For each friendly Leader (Leader figure, Companion, Minion, Nazgul) present, a player may re-roll a die. Rolls of 5-6 are hits. Each hit removes a Regular Unit or reduces an Elite Unit to a Regular Unit.

This process is repeated until the attacker decides to stop, the defender is eliminated, or the defender chooses to retreat. Before each set of die rolls, each player may play one card to affect the current round of combat. There are defensive benefits to being in a Stronghold, a City, or a Fortification. The Shadow wins if it can take 10 points worth of regions. The Free People win with only 4. Strongholds are worth 2, and Cities are worth 1.

Getting new Units onto the board is done using a Muster die roll. You can only do this in friendly regions with Strongholds, Cities, or Towns, and only if the Nation in question is "At War". This status is obtained by moving a counter for each nation along a political track. Muster rolls, special card events, and being attacked are the normal ways to bring a nation closer to it.

The Fellowship itself starts in Rivendell and moves across the map in secret. Each time you use a die roll to move them, you advance a counter that shows how far away from your last known location you are, but not where. Each time you are revealed by the Shadow player's action (or choose to reveal yourself), you must place the Fellowship figure on a region no more spaces away from its last known position than the counter indicates. This is similar to an old space wargame from 1972 called 4000 AD.

The Shadow player can set aside a number of dice (rather than roll them) for The Hunt. Each time the Fellowship moves, a number of normal d6's is rolled equal to the number of Hunt dice. Any 6's rolled means the Fellowship has been found, and a tile is drawn from a bag to indicate how much Corruption is taken. If the Fellowship reaches 12 Corruption, they succumb to The Ring and lose the game. There are a couple of unpleasant ways to prevent being found.

And, of course, despite the miltary situation, the Free People win if The Ring is destroyed.

The Design and Theme

This is really quite a nice piece of work. The map, the units, the actions, the events, and the choices are all evocative of the story. You can choose to follow similar paths and plots, or make your own. If Sauron concentrates all his will on finding The Ring (ie uses his dice mostly for The Hunt), then he sacrifices many military options, and vice versa.

I am a little confused about the Fellowship movement. I don't see why you would ever take any path but the one through Moria. Since nothing can interact with you at all (other than Corruption), why would you ever take a longer route? Perhaps I missed a rule or some nuance in my first play.

That being said, I found myself almost ignoring the Fellowship, reacting more to my opponent's military moves. In fact, in that regard, it had an almost Twilight Struggle feel to it.

The physical design is a big issue. The image above shows the actual set I played with. Each nation's pieces have been spray-painted the same color as their map border. This is crucial to effective play, and even with that, there are some difficulties.

Some of the map locations are way too small for the number of pieces that would be typically placed in them. Cities, Towns, and Forts are poorly differentiated and don't stand out enough on the board. There are also many other size issues, like information counters and text on cards.

In one section of the rules, it implies that all Strongholds, Cities, Towns, and Fortifications are Settlements. Then in another it says, "Fortifications or Settlements", while in another it says, "Stronghold or Settlement". The good news is that this is one of the few ambiguities.

Rules: A-
Physical Design: B
Play: B+ (very tentative)

War of the Ring image by msherwoo

Weekend Gaming

This past weekend was another exquisite non-stop romp of gaming goodness. It always amazes me how much gaming can happen when almost none was planned. I think some people think it's too much of a waste of time to specifically plan for it, but end up enjoying themselves so much once they start that they want more. Of course, we geeks already know this, and make no attempt to hide it.

Despite feeling like I'm climbing to the second plateau in Zertz, I did lose one of my three games to Mary Ann. I think I had fallen into a pattern of plays. It's a good thing she's there keeping me on my toes. We also played 4-player games of O Zoo le Mio and Carcassonne. The latter is seriously starting to lose its luster for me with non-gamers; it's only fun when everyone is really playing a solid game.

I kicked some serious ass in 3-player Manila. Evaluating the worth of the Harbor Master is still problematic. If another player is interested in roughly the same good as you, then it's much better to let them have it. Compare this to Ra, where you always know the exact worth of each lot to all players.

We also played two games of Antike--one 3-player and one 2-player. In the first game, I was the Germanic Tribes and made the mistake of spreading to the east and west in order to get ports on both sides. This resulted in me having two small fleets that couldn't support each other, all for only 1 VP (7 seas). Rome took advantage of my sprawl and cut me in two. In the second game, I was Rome and Greece. I used the Greek fleets to keep the Phoenecians at bay while the Greek armies and Rome pressed hard on the Germanic Tribes. We both reached 8 VP's on the same turn, but I won the race to 9.

I also played my first game of War of the Ring, but I'll save that for my next post, since I have so much to say.

Antike image by garyjames

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Metagamers

In case you haven't heard elsewhere, Mark Haberman, Jay Little, and I have started The Metagamers--a podcast by board gamers, for board gamers.

The first two episodes are up. The first one is a little rough. We were still working through some audio recording issues, and trying to decide how best to structure the show and ourselves. We decided to go with a slightly less scripted format for episode two. We think it's an improvement. Note that we were trying to record a few shows before going public, so either some of the "news" is not really news any more or much more information has become available.

We hope everyone enjoys the show. Please post comments, feedback, and questions to the podcast website (above) or to the show's master geeklist.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Game Night at the Condo

After getting all excited about game night, it ended up being rather luke-warm for me. We started with 5 players, but expected a 6th, so we started with a filler. Sigh. Once we had 6, we fell into the trap of choosing something none of us would have chosen individually. Next time I will demand we play Railroad Tycoon, Antike, or split into two groups of 3.

Not a bad game. Just not something to start a game night with. It's just a little too long for game so light. The good news is that I finally won a game with 91 gold.

I own this, but it's in the pile of games I'm not interested in playing again. Perhaps it's just from a few bad experiences, but I just don't see the game here. The only way to win is to get the shareholder bonuses, or to guess very early and buy a ton of stock in a company that's going to worth much more in the future. Either way it seems to come down to what tiles you draw. On turn 2 I knew I would come in last. There was absolutely nothing I could do the entire game to get a shareholder bonus, nor to even start a corporation. This game is now solidly in the "never play again" pile.

Wyatt Earp
A nice twist on Rummy. Rather than rushing to "go out", players use melds to increase their stake in an attempt to bring in the 7 wanted men/women. The payout rules are rather quirky, but not cumbersome. This game played in about an hour for 4 players with 3 of us learning. We could probably play in 30-40 minutes next time.

Wyatt Earp image by Geosmores