Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Recent Acquisitions

I got into the Math Trade for Unity Games, managing to swap 5 games, and subsequently purchase a 6th. The ease of this process has made me less reluctant to balk at questionable games. Giving up 5 games I would never play again for 5 that I either wanted or was interested in was a no-brainer once I put it to myself that way.

I traded away Age of Renaissance, Acquire, Die Magier von Pangea, Quo Vadis?, and Battle Cry. And I received...

Pueblo is one of those out-of-print and generally unavailable games. I looked far and wide. I found a single copy in Halifax for $50 celsius + shipping + any customs cost and destruction. No thanks. It is unlike any other game in my collection, and I think the spatial nature of the game will be appealing to a wide range of players. Thanks, Michael.

The Bridges of Shangri-La has been on my radar for a long time. I like Colovini games in general. Thanks, Richard.

I was going to order Key Harvest in my next game order anyways. This came in shrink, yet was missing an orange piece. This is the second time I emailed Jay (RGG) late on a Sunday night and got an instant reply that my piece is on the way. Thanks, Richard.

I've played Robber Knights once before and liked it. Unfortunately, this was actually the German version, Raub Ritter. The game is language independent, but I'm picky enough that I would not have put in the request if I had bothered to look at the version info clearly specified in the math trade. My fault. Thanks, Adam.

Thanks to a random late-night game on BSW with melissa, my interest in Thurn & Taxis was rekindled. It's not a typical game for me, but I think it will get some play, if only at home. Thanks, Jay.

I also purchased Augsburg 1520, which I've been reading about with fairly high interest. Thanks, Bob.

Pueblo image by Toynan

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unity Games XIV: Dune!

With the play of Dune at Unity Games XIV, my Holy Grail list is now complete. And what a finish!

The Game

Dune is not your typical...well...anything. It has a lot of familiar sounding mechanics, but none of them is familiar. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the game was published in 1979, decades before all of our familiar mechanics became familiar. In that respect, comparing Dune to other games seems backwards. But since I discovered it long after most of my current collection, that's the only way I can compare it.

The goal of Dune is to occupy 3 of the 5 strongholds. This seems analogous with many Euro and wargame objectives. But in Dune, you don't necessarily spend a lot of time focusing on this because the only means to that end is Spice, and Spice is a rare commodity for most players.

Player units get from place to place by Area Movement...sort of. Combat uses Area Influence and Simultaneous Action Selection...sort of. The Storm moves around the map randomly...sort of. Spice appears randomly on the map...sort of. Players bid for cards sight unseen...sort of. All of these "sort of's" can create the false sense of complexity. It's simply different. And that is a good thing. It feels very refreshing to play. And just to keep you on your toes, player turn order is counter-clockwise.

The divisions of the planet are also unique. The map has many arbitrarily shaped regions that are used for movement, just as in other Area Movement games (eg Risk). However, the map is also divided into 18 sectors, pizza-shaped wedges with the Polar Sink at the hub. The regions and sectors form a strange mesh of overlapping topology. That is, you can be in a region and also in any one of 5 different sectors in some cases. The Storm fills the sector it is in. This includes every region (or partial region) in that sector. You could be a region along with Spice and/or an opponent but be separated from them by The Storm. All mountain regions, strongholds, and The Imperial Basin are safe from the Storm with a nasty exception: if The Shield Wall is destroyed, then Carthag, Arakeen, and The Imperial Basin are now exposed. All of this creates a very cool spatial landscape on which to maneuver, physically and politically.

The phases of a turn are simple:
  • move The Storm
  • place Spice on new location
  • bid for cards
  • recover units, land/move units
  • resolve battles
  • collect Spice
The interesting thing is that every player has unique abilities. Not just your typical orthogonal +1/-1 "Euro" unique abilities, but completely different powers that no one else has. This gives each player strengths and weaknesses that can be used and abused in the various phases.

The Atreides have prescience. They can peek at each card up for auction. They can peek at their opponents leader, offensive card, defensive card, or committed units before deciding on their own selections. They can peek at the next Spice card before moving their units. This gives the Atreides the power of information. Other players must watch the Atreides carefully to learn as much as they can. But is he bluffing? Are you willing to pay for information?

The Harkonnen are treacherous. They can have up to 4 of the opponents' leaders in their pay, as opposed to the default of one for the rest of the players. They may hold 8 cards instead of the default 4, and every time you win a card at auction, you get an additional one. The Harkonnen almost always have a nasty card ready to mess things up, and battles against them run more of a risk of a traitor being discovered in your midst.

The Guild controls all space travel. All players shipping from off-planet must pay them for the service. They have more options available during movement, and do so more cheaply. They win by default at the end of 15 turns if no other player has won. Every time you land new units on Dune, you are making The Guild richer.

The Bene Gesserit are galactic advisers and have The Voice. If they can predict (and perhaps cause to happen) the winner and the turn on which they win, then the Bene Gesserit win instead. They can ship a free unit (to the Polar Sink) when any other player ships from off-planet. During combat, they can Voice their opponent to play or not play a specific card. The Bene Gesserit are scary to attack, but start very weak.

The Fremen are native to Dune and know its ways. They may move units 2 spaces instead of the default 1. They add units to the map from hidden on-planet locations, so do not pay The Guild. They may ride any Worm that appears in their region to any other region (rather than being devoured). They win after 15 turns if they can create certain stronghold occupancy criteria. Ironically, the Fremen are Spice-poor, but require less Spice during play.

The Emperor rules the galaxy, or so he thinks. He collects all Spice used to bid on cards. Every time you win a bid for a card, you are giving the Emperor Spice with which to bid on the next one.

Combat occurs between any two players in the same region, unless they are separated by The Storm. Each player secretly dials a number of units to commit up to the units present, selects a leader, an attack card, and a defense card. Then everything is revealed. If your opponent is using a leader that is in your pay, you may announce your traitor and automatically win the battle. Otherwise, the offense/defense card pairs are compared to see if the leaders die. If they do, their value does not apply to the combat. Units committed and the values of surviving leaders are added together. The greatest value wins (aggressor wins ties). The loser loses all his units. The winner loses all dialed units.

This combat system is very nice. You can win, but lose your leader. You can lose but keep your leader. You can win even if you've dialed zero, or have no leader. If your goal is to collect Spice after combat, then you have an incentive to dial fewer units at the risk of losing the battle.

The Session

We had the pleasure of playing on David Fontes's fantastic wooden masterpiece. It has raised areas for all the mountain regions and a removable Shield Wall region. We used wooden discs for units and glass beads for spice.

Atreides - Al
Harkonnen - Scott
Fremen - Dom
Emperor - Josh
Guild - James
Bene Gesserit - Jim

I chose The Harkonnens to win on turn 8. It was a complete guess, but I figured I could ally with him early and make it happen. Unfortunately, we didn't get our first Worm until turn 7, so we couldn't form alliances until then, which was too late for my evil agenda.

I felt so weak for many turns. I managed to buy a couple of cards which wiped me out, putting my on CHOAM Charity for a bit. I couldn't ship units because I couldn't afford The Guild's outrageous prices. I took every opportunity to ship my free unit to The Polar Sink whenever anyone else shipped. But this meant I had a big stack on units in the center of the board and nowhere else. I had to start spreading out.

Units caught in the desert are killed if The Storm passes overhead. I had more than my share of bad luck, as well as deliberate attacks through the use of the Control Weather card. No one seemed to consider me much of a threat until my first battle when The Voice showed its power. We had 3 units each. I dialed 1, chose my leader (they are all 5's), a Poison Weapon card, and a Poison Defense card. I voiced my opponent to not play a Poison Defense. My weapon killed him. He had no offensive card.

My battle against The Fremen would have been a disaster, but fortunately I had Stilgar in my pay. The Fremen got screwed badly by traitors in this game.

I decided to be more proactive. I offered Atreides a Spice if he would tell me the location of the next Spice blow. He agreed. You cannot lie or break deals in Dune. Wind Pass North! I had a stack right next to that region. 6 Spice for me on the next turn. Things were looking up.

I kept trying desperately to gain control of Carthag or Arakeen so I could use Ornithopters to move units farther. I had a stack in The Imperial Basin waiting to decide which stronghold I should attack. The Guild player had 6 units on the Shield Wall, waited until the Storm was over me, moved to Hole in the Rock, and blew the wall with Family Atomics. My units and those of Atreides in Arakeen were destroyed. Had I chosen the more forward sector of The Imperial Basin, I would have been ok.

On turn 8, we got a Worm which allows alliances to form, break, or change. Much discussion followed. In the end, 3 alliances formed: Atreides/Bene Gesserit, Harkonnen/Fremen, Emperor/Guild. The Atreides/Bene Gesserit alliance is very powerful in combat, being able to peek at one of the opponent's combat "settings" and Voice them at the same time. The Guild attacked both Carthag and Arakeen, taking on one of us each. These battles should have been easy, but The Guild had powerful cards, winning them both and claiming victory for his alliances 3 strongholds.

This caught the rest of us by surprise. I don't think anyone was really paying attention to the victory conditions as much as just trying to gain more Spice and cards. I really had a blast playing this, and would play it again any time. It's definitely not your typical game. It's got a lot of randomness. The strategic options are more about doing things that take advantage of your strengths rather than executing some specific long-term plan. The game is very opportunistic, and rewards aggression and negotiation.

The Board

There are many version of the Dune game, as well as many custom boards. As always, my thoughts on the board are related to physical functionality.

In effect, there are 4 basic types of regions: The Polar Sink, strongholds, desert, and mountain. The published boards all seem to strive for some less-than-functional textured look. In practice, it's not easy to see what's what.

While I love the custom wooden board and really like the imagery of some of the other custom jobs (1, 2, 3), my tastes go along with Mike Doyle's excellent treatment. It shows the 4 basic region types along with something else important: the 2 green-shaded strongholds are the 2 that need to be occupied to get Ornithopters as well as the 2 that become exposed if The Shield Wall is blown. Very nice.

The Future

I'm going to play Dune again, but I'm not sure I could live with the tiny Avalon Hill version with its cardboard tokens. This game deserves a special treatment.

Fantasy Flight Games is supposed to be publishing a game using the Dune system in Q4 2008 that will be re-themed [perhaps] into the Twilight Imperium universe. At this point, it's either that or make my own. I think I'll wait and see what FFG comes up with. Will they keep the game mechanics exactly the same? What versions, variants, expansions will they include? Will they FFG-ize the game (a million cardboard counters where 10 will do, 200 cards with ambiguous affects that feedback on each other requiring an FAQ larger than the rules)?

My preference--if it means anything--would be Mike Doyle's board, leaders, combat discs, wooden bits for leaders and Spice, and a better solution for hiding reserves and Spice. Player shields never seem to work well. Someone find a better solution.

Unity Games XIV

The largest Unity Games turnout to date occurred on Saturday with over 350 attendees. We took over the entire Wakefield Sheraton Conference Center, and kept it busy from 9:00am until they kicked us out at midnight. It was yet again a spectacular feast of board gaming goodness.


Thanks to Craig, Adam, Dave, Pitt and the rest of the UG steering committee for another great convention. Thanks to Adam and Craig for the charity auction. Thanks to Phil for running the teaching area and setting up the huge number of labels for game storage and math trade spaces. Thanks to Jeff for running the math trade.

A personal thanks to Eric for teaching Agricola, to Bryan for teaching New England, to David for allowing us to use his custom-made wooden Dune board (pictured), and to Al, Scott, Dom, Josh, and James who played it with me.


I started the day in the teaching area with Agricola. I haven't been as excited as most about this game, but I still wanted to try it. We played a 5p game without any of the cards. Even as a learning game, it took less than 2 hours to play. It has elements of Caylus, St Petersburg, and maybe Notre Dame. I found the action selection to be too coarse for my tastes. In Caylus, for example, if you need wood you might be able to get it free, or pay for it, or trade for it, etc. In Agricola, you might not ever be able to get something you need. I dislike being a slave to the turn order unless there is something to mitigate it. I'll play it again, but I have no interest in owning it.

Next up was Dune. Another Holy Grail game for me that, this time, did not disappoint. There's too much to say here, so I'll leave it for my next post.

Next up, Bryan taught us one of his favorites, New England. The tile laying part of the game is quite unremarkable; it's the competition for the tiles that make it's work. I suppose you could call it an auction mechanic. Players each select a coin from 1-10 which sets the price they are willing to pay for 0-2 tiles and/or cards. This also sets the turn order, highest going first. As is typical in Euro games, you must make a difficult trade-off between good resources and cost. And since money is open, you can often play some nasty games by setting a price that forces another player to pay an unreasonable amount for a single tile they desperately need, or give up the tile to another player who would choose before them. Not bad.

I finally hooked up with one of my BSW buddies, Jeff (nyriv). We got a group of 6 together for Vinci, a game I cannot refuse even with the threat of the 6p downtime. We finished in a remarkable 2 hours, with me barely able to keep out of last place. I said, "Kill green!" early on, but no one listened. I love the civilization selection mechanism and the ebb and flow of the 12 (!) civilizations on the board. Your choice of powers and where you expand on the board are affected by other players' powers, terrain, current scores, and future powers. This one isn't getting old.

Red Dragon Inn fell into the same category as Cutthroat Caverns for me. It's silly without managing to be fun. You are playing random cards from your hand with no setup. In Magic, you typically have many cards in play which set your stance and can restrict your possibilities. In this game, there's no warning and no defense unless you just happen to have a specific card. It's all random.

I closed out the night teaching Cold War: CIA vs KGB. This one succeeds where the previous fails. It does have a lot of randomness, but you can work with it. And on the psychological side, it's just as fun as games like Shazamm! and Lord of the Rings: Confrontation.

Dune image by dfontes

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Star Fleet Battles

What geek doesn't have a soft spot in their heart for James Tiberius Kirk? Well over 15 years ago--around the same time that I bought the hefty Advanced Squad Leader rulebook--I purchased the Star Fleet Battles Basic Set. It was partly nostalgia, partly the huge rulebook, and partly because I always wanted to fire photon torpedoes.

At the time, I had only played out a game solo to work through the rules, and maybe, just maybe, played a single real game with my brother. I specifically remember that my chances of playing again with him died on the vine that day. He disliked the Energy Allocation system. I'll get to that later.

The Game

SFB is set in the universe of the original Star Trek series. Each game session is basically some battle between 2 or more ships and/or space monsters/menaces. Unlike most hex and counter wargames, SFB is set in the relative void of space, so terrain and all its repercussions (line of sight, hindrances) are minimal at best. You have the basic Federation, Klingon, and Romulan races along with the lesser-known Kzintis, Tholians, Lyrans, etc. Each race has its own technologies and ship types, making for very different tactics and strategies.

Each ship on the map is a 1/2" cardboard chit, and its controller has 2 sheets with which to manage it: Energy Allocation, and an SSD (ship system display). The Energy Allocation sheet is a table of all the sources of and uses for power. The SSD is a simplified picture of the ship with all the internal systems laid out in their places, along with all the necessary charts for that ship's weapons, movement, and other internal record-keeping. Pictured is an SSD that I colorized to show the different systems (green = defense, blue = power, red = weapons, gold = misc).

One of the aspects of the design that makes the game so tactical is shield facing. Each ship has separate shields on each of its six hex sides. The forward shield is #1, and the rest are numbered clockwise, ending with #6 on the left front. If a given shield is weak or completely down, attacks from that direction could cause serious internal damage. You are constantly evaluating your position and orientation with respect to enemy vessels. In addition, weapons also have firing arcs which usually correspond to one or more shield facing directions. In other words, your rear-firing torpedoes cannot fire at a ship in front of you.

Each turn of the game begins with Energy Allocation. Energy is generated by your warp engines, impulse engines, and reactors. It can be used to reinforce shields, move, and power weapons. Each turn, you must decide where all of your available energy is going...before knowing how the turn is going to play out. You do this secretly. Are you going to put a lot of energy into your engines so you can move quickly? Are you going to pre-load all your torpedoes? Are you going to reinforce all your right-side shields intending for a close pass? What if the enemy goes left?

Once the turn is underway, all speeds are known. Speeds range from 0 to 32, and the turn is likewise broken into 32 impulses. On a given impulse, you either move 0 or 1 hex. After 32 impulses, each ship has moved its movement rate. This is all shown on a chart that has the movement impulses set for each possible speed.

On any impulse, one or more ships may fire weapons if in range, if that weapon is allowed to fire, and if an enemy ship is in the firing arc of that weapon. Most weapons always hit, but damage is based on range (and a die roll). Others require a die roll to hit, then do a fixed or variable damage if successful. Some weapons only do decent damage up close. Some need two or more turns to power up. Some ships have a few big weapons. Some have many smaller ones.

The Session

In our first game, we played 2 newbies against the "expert". I had Klingon Heavy Battlecruiser. My ally, Whit, had a Federation Heavy Battlecruiser. Our enemy, Brian, had a Lyran Heavy Battlecruiser and a Lyran Light Cruiser. The Lyrans have a special technology called the Expanding Sphere Generator. This creates a force field around the ship which can be used to "ram" enemy ships for massive damage.

We decided to stick together and gang up on the bigger ship. The Federation ship would use its massive array of Phaser-1's to punch a hole in the shields into which I would launch all my Disruptors. We set approach speeds, but the Lyrans would have none of it. They turned away on their approach. We couldn't get close enough to do any serious damage.

On the second turn, since we were much closer now, I decided to lower my speed to 8 and put everything I had into weapons and my #1 shield. The Lyrans still set a speed of 24. This allowed them to outmaneuver us and fire on un-reinforced shield facings, and to contact us with the dreaded ESG. Ouch. But as he passed by, we got a pretty serious volley off on his #2 shield and scored so many internal hits I think it took 10 minutes to work it all out.

The game was a learning game, so we didn't play it out to the bitter end. It really was as enjoyable as I had hoped. There's a lot of record-keeping, but it's mostly to do with decisions you are making, or results you are applying so it's all part of the fun. I'm not at the point where I want to add all the complexity of the full rules yet (mid-turn speed changes, seeking weapons, tractor beams, boarding parties, etc.). I'd just like to explore the various tactics of the basic ships and get more comfortable with the system first.

Friday, January 18, 2008

2007 Board Game Internet Awards

BoardGameNews has announced the winners of the 2007 Board Game Internet Awards. It appears this blog has won something. Honorable mention? Right alongside Yehuda Berlinger's blog. Good company.

I'd like to thank my producer, my director, my editor, my spell checker, and my little dog too. Actually, thanks to all of you gamers who provide fun at the tables, as well as information I so desperately crave. Game on!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bob Day

Saturday was Bob Day for January. I had specifically asked for any of 4 different games to be brought and taught. Of the 3 that were brought, I got a chance to play 2 of them. This is their story...

Holy Grail Desanctified

I've been trying to obtain a copy of Princes of the Renaissance for a long time. Fortunately for me, I have been unable to do so. The game fell utterly flat. It had all the promise and structure of other great Martin Wallace games, namely Perikles and Liberté, but failed to live up to my expectations.

During the first decade, players snatch up all of the military tiles. This sets the base attack and defense values used for the rest of the game. These values can only be further modified by acquiring city tiles which give you various +1 and +2 adjustments. Once you get to this point, the whole game is all about tweaking the "stock values" of the 5 cities by declaring battles, and auctioning "shares" in them.

Each player has approximately the same military strength (except me because I failed to see this exact problem I am describing) to which is added a single die roll. So battles are won and lost by chance, which increases and decreases city values. This kind of system works in Struggle of Empires and Perikles because attack and defense strengths rise and fall over the course of the games, players have choices where to apply them, and units can be lost. Princes seemed to degrade into players trying to create battles where they benefit no matter who wins and loses, who fights and who doesn't. I found this wholly unappealing.

Geek Buddy Failure

I put a lot of weight on the ratings of my geek buddies because I carefully choose them based on existing matches and/or useful comments. Blue Moon City was a game I had read the rules to twice and dismissed. But my geek buddies said otherwise. This worked well with Beowulf in the past, so I decided to give it a try.

I found the game to be silly. There's no other word for it. There's no long-term or even medium-term planning whatsoever. There are too many card types to do any kind of hand management. Buildings get completed all around you before it becomes your turn again. I don't see any game here at all. Sadly, I have to rate it a 3.

On top of all that, the production quality is horrible. What's that? Why am I picking on Blue Moon City and not on the quality-inferior Princes of the Renaissance? Because it certainly looks like effort was actually made in BMC. If the game is going to be physically dysfunctional, just don't make the effort. It's not as horrible as Fairy Tale, but pretty close.

Princes of the Renaissance image by Terminus_Est

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Age of Empires III: First Play Thoughts

I finally had the opportunity to try a copy of Age of Empires III tonight. It's a game I once had on my radar but removed. It wasn't that I found something not to like, but that I just couldn't find anything specifically to like. Four of the five of us were first-time players.

I focused on colonization almost exclusively, taking Missionaries and Soldiers when I could, as well as a building that gave me an extra soldier every round. Others focused on goods to generate cash, or on other specialists. I was mostly broke the entire game with others buying multiple buildings per round, but ended up winning by a small margin.

Physical Design

You really have to be a fanatical Ameritrasher or have a small amount of brain damage to think this game has a good physical design. It's not even so-so; it's just plain bad.

The coins are very cool individually, but do not stack well. The notion that the gold ones should be used as 10's is silly. They should be 5's.

The board supports the playing pieces well on the right, but only because the playing pieces are over-sized and out-of-place for the game. The left size of the board--with the map of the New World--is undersized for the huge piles of pieces that end up on them by the end of the game.

The score track is also a huge mistake. Why do so many board games have ridiculously bad score tracks? I'll have to do a post on it, but I digress... You can't see some of the spaces. The spacing of the scoring spaces is not consistent at the corners. The "men" barely fit onto the score track when the score is close.

Overall, the board has the same kinds of flaws as Railroad Tycoon: bigger than it needs to be because of poorly thought out use of space, and a poor score track intended for use with pieces too big to fit. Why do people who can design games people who can sell a game to a publisher think they are fit to design or approve the design of a game board? They certainly make great apologists.

The playing pieces are the biggest blunder. If you line up the 5 different kinds (Colonist, Soldier, Missionary, Merchant, Captain), they are pretty obvious. But when there are 60+ pieces on the board, it beats even War of the Ring in dysfunction. I'm certain the game would not have sold as well, or be as popular, without this dysfunctional decision. What does that say about the game and its fans? The designer himself says, "Wooden cubes or meeples can always be substituted by the players who prefer them, but miniatures actually work best in this design!" Rubbish.

Game Design

I approve of, and even enjoyed, everything about the play of the game, except for Discovery. Basically, you pile up your pieces until you are either willing to risk 3-5 points of them or are willing to use 6 points of them (guaranteeing a success). You flip up a Discovery Tile or Card. If you committed enough to match the number on the tile/card, you are successful and receive gold and VP's. If not, you lose everything.

This is a mechanism typically seen in party games or fillers taking 20 minutes to play, and not in serious and more lengthy games. There's no way to even gauge how much risk to take. Every Discovery is an unknown value from 3-6. You could attempt 2 Discoveries with 5 each, fail both, and lose 10 points worth of pieces for nothing. An opponent could attempt 2 Discoveries with 3 each, succeed on both, and gain lots of gold and VP's.

It would be excusable if players were doing dozens of them over the course of the game; the probabilities would smooth out the randomness. But when you are only doing, say, 2-5 of them, and since the endgame spread is so tight, any single extreme success or failure could be the entire game. Dumb.


All the above being said, I did enjoy the game, although I'd prefer to find a better-designed Discovery mechanism. I'm sure there are many suggestions from others. This is such an egregious flaw that I cannot possibly be the first to complain.

I like the intentional turn order bias, the initiative/gold mechanism, the limited action selection system, the small amount of conflict, the goods collection, and even the buildings. It certainly has some of the same play feelings as Puerto Rico, Caylus, and even a little taste of Struggle of Empires. However, for a game so popular with the AT-ers, I cannot say that I notice any sense of theme. It's just a Euro with a broken mechanic and stupid plastic.

Age of Empires III image by Capitaine Grappin