Saturday, November 24, 2007

Game Night...And Day

Friday night was an unexpected game night...and then some.

Thanks to Brian Leet, Mary Ann now loves La Citta. I have developed a new-found interest in it as well.

Our previous game made it painfully clear that citizens form the largest share of your victory points. Each in our own way, we both decided to go all out for population. I had built both of my extra castles by turn 3, Mary Ann by turn 4.

La Citta is one of those games where you can be a victim of your own success. Every turn you need to be able to feed your population or bad things happen. Having 4 cities means that you normally gain 4 citizens each turn. This is in addition to any placed with markets and any gained through migration.

If you are doing too well, you could conceivably gain 6-10 or even more citizens in a single turn. The most food you can hope to add by building a farm is 5, with 3 or 4 being much more common in later turns. What this means is that if you decide to build 4 castles, you have to start focusing on food in a big way. We both found ourselves building farms everywhere, taking Rich Harvest cards, and sadly hoping we'd lose citizens to the opponent's cities.

In the end, I was the only one who couldn't feed all my people (turns 5 and 6). This cost me 3 citizens on turn 5 (and a lost action) and 5 victory points on turn 6. Even with that, I won 35 to 28. Even though the German version is easily playable, I am considering buying the new English version and selling my German copy.

After La Citta, it was already 10:00pm, but Mary Ann suggested that I teach her Arkham Horror. She'd seen me playing it, and thought it looked fun. I concealed my excitement and told her we could stop at any time if she wasn't enjoying herself.

I could not imagine a game going worse. Our two characters--I forget who they were now--had little cash and no weapons. On the very first turn we got Terrible Experiment that put 5 extra monsters in play. Every turn we had to add a new monster. If the pile reached 8, the Terror Level would be set to 10. The worst part was that most of the monsters in the pile we had no chance of defeating.

So we tried to get some items that we could fight with. The gates started popping up all over, and more unkillable monsters moved to block the entrances and exits from critical locations. It was frustrating as an evil dimension. I kept trying to explain how this wasn't how it normally went in the hopes of salvaging any shred of interest she might have in playing.

Three hours later, 1:00am and around turn 12, my character died outright when we were only 2 Doom Tokens away from waking the Ancient One. I looked up in defeat and started to explain what happens in this situation. Mary Ann said, "Now I know how the game works. Let's start over." I replied, "...," and quickly started resetting the board before she figured out what time it was.

Our second game was the best game I've played to date. I was Jenny, and Mary Ann was Dexter. We both had some good items. The Mythos Phase draws were more "normal" and the monsters were nicely mixed.

At 3:15am, Dexter emerged from a gate, Elder Sign in hand, but with only 1 Sanity and 1 Stamina. He decided to seal the gate regardless, giving his life. We left the board overnight, and would setup a new investigator for Mary Ann in the morning. She drew Michael, another tough one.

The entire game, we only managed to find a single Elder Sign, but we still had 5 gates sealed before the Doom Track filled. I was in the Other World going for number 6, but I failed some check and was Lost in Time and Space.

Unfortunately, Yig Curses all characters when he awakens. We had failed to plan for this event by acquiring Blesses. We needed to make 20 cursed successes (rolling 6's) to defeat him. Jenny had 9 dice each time, and Michael had 10. Jenny could only fail Yig's Sneak Check 3 times before being devoured, and Michael only 2.

On the 4th round, Michael gave his last hit to Yig and went under. On the 5th round, with Yig still at 14 life, Jenny, using all 5 of her remaining Clue Tokens, failed to pass a Sneak -3 Check and fell as well.

This was the first game I've played where I felt I had some control over events and where I felt we might actually win if things went well. But, in the end, you really don't mind losing.

Missed rule: if a gate has +1 difficulty to close, you don't roll 1 less die, you need 1 extra success. So a -3 gate to R'lyeh does not become a -4 gate; it becomes a -3[2] gate.

La Citta image by dipdragon

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Back from Lobster Trap

As I expected, four straight days of nothing but gaming was not enough to cover the post-Essen flood of goodness even though I was staying awake on fumes for much of the time. In all I played 22 different games.

This event was a complete blast. It was held in the hotel where I was staying. Every minute that I spent sleeping and eating felt like wasted time. Everyone was very pleasant and helpful. A huge thanks to Pitt Crandlemire, Craig Massey, Adam Smiles, Dave Bernazzani, and the other members of the organizing committee. Thanks to Scott Nicholson, Adam Smiles, Kevin Horovitz, and Brian Leet for going beyond the call of duty to teach some complex games.

Of the games present, I did not get an opportunity to try Agricola, Amyitis, The Circle, and Cuba. The disappointing absences of new games were Chang Cheng, Container, Darjeeling, El Capitan, Kingsburg, Mordred, TZAAR, and Tribune. The disappointing absences of older games were Die Macher, Dune, Princes of the Renaissance, and Stephenson's Rocket. Unplayed (sadly) older games that were there: Byzantium, Liberte, Perikles, Struggle of Empires...hmmm all Wallace.

Of the games I played, the following are the ones of interest, good or bad:

Bug Bluff: Very simple and silly game. Perfect when you are tired. I was surprised how much fun this was. Pass a card from your hand depicting one of eight bugs/animals face-down to another player and name it. That player has 2 options: call true/false (if he's right you get the card back face-up, if he's wrong he gets it face-up), or look at it and pass it to another player naming it whatever you like. The first player with 4 of the same face-up cards loses. There's some good bluffing as well as tactical options. Scott Nicholson has the Stare of Truth™.

League of Six: Decent game, but it didn't wow me. Mostly tactical. The "auction" phase consists of an Evo-style system where you bid Guards for the rights to tax a given city (one per player). If you are outbid and decide to travel to another town, you collect the other player's offer immediately. If you move to a city with another player, you must outbid them. Chain reactions are common. In fact, you can start the round with no Guards and end up with quite a few. It's got a lot of physical stuff to do each round that's a little annoying.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB: Wow. Just wow. I had this one my radar at one point, but removed it when I was convinced that it came down to the luck of the draw. There are some really cool combinations you can execute here. There's a lot of press-your-luck and bluffing as well. If you like games with cards that have special powers that can mess with your opponent (eg Magic the Gathering, Jambo, Citadels, Roma, Babel), buy this now!

In the Year of the Dragon: I've had this on my radar for a while, but I wasn't sure what to expect for how the game would actually feel. To give you a clue, we called the plastic bag that held the people tiles "the body bag". Every round, each player can perform one action and hire one person. Afterwards, an event occurs. Events usually result in people dying...from starvation, disease, war, execution, you name it. You have to manage your pitiful collection of palaces, people, and resources trying to keep them alive--at least the ones you need, until they are expendable. This game also has a very original turn order competition sub-game which is a very big deal since going first can save you a lot of money. I'm very happy with this one.

King of Siam: A very serious and short (30 min!) game reminiscent of Liberte. There are 3 factions on the board, owned by none, controlled by all. Each player gets 8 total actions for the entire game of 8 rounds. Use 3 actions in the first round and you'll only have 5 left for the next 7 rounds. After each round the current region is resolved. If one faction has majority, it wins control of the region. If there's a tie, the British Empire wins. If the British get control of 4 regions, the game ends immediately and the player with the most sets of all 3 faction cubes wins. If the game ends "normally", the player with the most faction cubes in the winning faction wins. Very slick.

Origins: How We Became Human: A game that plays like a 3-hour Discovery Channel special on the rise of man. Each player plays a different species (homo sapiens, neanderthal, etc) bent on becoming the dominant intelligence on Earth. Players start out trying to unlock the areas of their brains that allow for speech, and end up mining for uranium. Quite a wide scope. It's detailed and seems very well-researched, but I just never got over the feeling that I wasn't just drawing cards and playing the ones whose requirements I had met. You did get to choose how fast you expanded and where you migrated to, but it was over-shadowed by the cards.

Through the Ages: I played the full game (all 3 ages) starting with 4 players and ending with 3. It took me half of the game to get it through my head that the cards in play DO NOT represent the items they describe (buildings, military units, etc). They represent that you have the ability to make those things. The yellow markers on the cards are the things themselves. The population and resource systems seem to work exceptionally well, but I can't wrap my head around the math that drives them. With resources, efficiency is a concept built into the system. If you can create 1 unit of food, then one blue marker on your farm is 1 unit of food. If you can create 5 units of food, then one blue marker is 5 units of food. The more blue markers "in use", the more corruption you have. So being able to generate 5 food (advanced agriculture) as a single unit (1 blue marker) is much better than generating 5 food one unit at a time. This game really challenges many of the typical notions of game mechanics. After the game, I was still so overwhelmed I didn't know what to think. Since then, I've started to think about how I would play differently (I got my ass kicked). This is a good sign, and will probably lead to a purchase.

Utopia: A medium-light game of drafting, set collection, and "stock price" manipulation. Contrary to many statements, this game has no Area Influence. The box is full of beautiful plastic monuments and wonders. That being said, the physical design is very non-functional. I'm certain the designers wanted to go for theme. The buildings are textbook examples of the architecture of the 5 civilizations (China, Egypt, Maya, Greece, Persia). The prince markers depict the faces of archetypal people. The problem is that 90% of the work in this game is looking at the board trying to figure out where your pieces are, what buildings they match, and what regions they are in. This leaves 10% of your brain to actually play the game. It's just too over-the-top busy and visually disconnected. I would have made the board much more subdued with more distinct borders, and done away with all the plastic in favor of colored wooden discs with simple symbols for each civilization.

Key Harvest: I never even had this game on my radar, but I had an opportunity to try it. After one game, it's already almost a must-have. Consider playing Acquire (except on a hex grid) where each player has their own board with matching letter/number coordinates, but there's still only 1 tile per location; if I have B4, then no one else can fill that space on their boards. Now instead of drawing tiles randomly for your own use, make the system into a two-level drafting mechanism. The drawn tiles go onto a public board. Players can put the tiles up for sale and offer goods they are willing to pay. Other players can pay them those goods to buy to the tile (and place on their board). On a subsequent turn, you can buy the tile(s) you have up for sale by giving up the goods you previously offered. The other interesting part of the game is the workers. They can only be placed if they touch as many goods tiles as their number (1-3 on personal workers, 4-5 on public workers). Tiles placed on the same location as a worker cause that worker to move to a new location re-activating their power. If you are clever, you can build twice and move the same worker twice. I really enjoyed this game.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lobster Trap or Bust

Lobster Trap, a four-day game convention, starts tomorrow! The Gathering of Friends is held in Ohio because Alan Moon's private game night grew so big that Ohio was the only place that would inexpensively accommodate the 600+ invitees. Lobster Trap is a local, and more intimate, version of that.*

I attended Unity Games at the same location. It was a great one-day event, but lacked a certain quality that only multiple days, late nights, and lack of sleep can provide.

I made a list of games I'd like to play. Some are games that I'd like to try before I buy. Some are games I'd probably never buy unless I played them and really liked them. Some are games I'd like to play with experienced players so I can learn them better. Some are games I just want to play because I don't get the right crowd for them often. And some I've just wanted to play for a long time:

Agricola, Amyitis, Byzantium, Chang Cheng, The Circle, Cold War, Colosseum, Container, Cuba, Darjeeling, Die Macher, Dune, El Capitan, Galaxy Trucker, Il Principe, In the Year of the Dragon, King of Siam, Kingsburg, League of Six, Liberte, Mordred, Neuroshima Hex!, Origins, Oriente, Perikles, Princes of the Renaissance, Pueblo, Quo Vadis?, Qwirkle, Stephenson's Rocket, Struggle of Empires, Take Stock, Through the Ages, Tribune, Tzaar, Utopia, and Wadi.

If you are going to Lobster Trap and you own any of these, especially Dune, King of Siam, League of Six, Mordred, Neuroshima Hex!, Origins, Princes of the Renaissance, Pueblo, Stephenson's Rocket, Through the Ages, and Tribune, please bring them and teach me!


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Rehash Redux

Each time a new game comes out, it is inevitably compared to all those that came before it. This is even more the case when a large batch of new games is released, as occurs each year around Essen time. If some new game has, for example, an Auction mechanic, then it is denounced as "yet another Auction game."

I believe that such superficial comparisons are presumptuous.

Consider the Area Majority mechanic, which is exemplified by such great games as El Grande, Maharaja, Liberté, San Marco, Aton, Carolus Magnus, Mexica, Mission: Red Planet, and Carcassonne. I own and happily play all of these. None feels remotely like another even though some share other mechanics.

Another way to look at this is to choose any mechanic and find games you like and dislike that use it. If the mechanic alone made the game, this would not be the case at all. With Set Collection for example, I like Taj Mahal, Ra, and Tower of Babel, but dislike Ticket to Ride and Fairy Tale.

Games are more than a list of mechanics. Mechanics must be stitched together in various ways, drive each other, feedback into each other, and complement each other. This stitching provides the sequencing and flow of a game, directly affects the kinds of decisions players make, and can provide tension and conflict.

The simplest rule can completely change the texture of a game. Imagine Quarto! without the rule that you choose the piece your opponent plays. Imagine Medina without the rule that you can't start a new palace of a given color if the current one is incomplete. Imagine Rheinlander without reinforcements.

When I hear about new games featuring mechanics that exist in games I love, I don't dismiss them, I pay attention. Did the designer find some new way to hook things together? If so, don't be so quick to pronounce the game a rehash.