Monday, December 26, 2005

Central Tuesday Session, 12/20/05

Matt hosted, and Dave and Mike and I showed up.

Up first, while Dave and Matt and I waited for Mike, was... Wyatt Earp. Someday I'll finish a game of this, but for now the game performs its appointed function of drawing in the rest of the players before the first hand is done (or shortly thereafter, as in our game). Once Mike got there, we pulled out Pizarro & Co for the first time I'd played this game with more than three.

Somehow, I ended up being the guy who got to try to keep Matt honest. I did get five of my six ships onto the board in the first round, but I was so short on cash that I needed a great pull in the second round to keep up. I didn't, the best draw was a six and the rest were twos and threes. To make matters worse, I didn't even do much to keep Matt from having two ships in two explorer's areas, and he had gotten so many cards that I simply couldn't compete against him. As such, he got both ships to the second level in both explorers areas, and that was that. Matt won, I came in second, and Mike and Dave somewhere in the middle.

The entire game is pretty much decided by the card pull at the end of the first round, at least as far as I could tell. What that means is that you have to be as economical as you can early on. Not having decent money at the end of that round, barring managing to grab all three ships in one area, means that you will be lucky to advance a single ship forward, and if you do it will be expensive.

This is not to say that I didn't like the game. I'd have to play again to figure out if I missed some basic tactic in the first round. However, I did sense that the real problem was that the person I had to take the bullet for was sitting to my left, and if that's the case I don't know you could avoid that situation. Of course, everyone else took the brunt of the "let Doug bid" strategy as well, so it didn't work out so well for them either.

Next up was Manila, which we'd played earlier with four as well. This game saw only one or two ships making it to port in the first several rounds (due to very low rolls), and so the game dragged on for quite a while. Two hours, in fact. Ships that started out strong sank, and the Pirate Sweepstakes seemed to come in at least once for each player. High bidding for the harbor master rarely paid off, and I ended up slowly eroding the $40 I managed to snag in an early round by the end of the game.

Again, I like this game, but two hours is way too long for a game of this stripe (I'd say 90 minutes was about the max). The central mechanism is pretty cool, and the theme really captures the money-under-the-table nature of trade in the Philippines (not to mention, say, New York), but it will be tough to get people to play this again without some guarantee that the game has a little more consistency. Perhaps using a Deck Of Dice might help...

By now it was close to 10:30pm, time to make the donuts. Thanks for hosting, Matt!

Monday, December 19, 2005

South Tuesday Session, 12/12/05

Mike was hosting this time out, and we had five people showing up, so out came Mike's new copy of Railroad Tycoon, Eagle's latest "dumbing down" of a Martin Wallace title (Struggle of Empires was their first Wallace game to become Conquest of the Empire). This was the first playing for Peter, Laurent, Mike, George, and myself, although everyone but Laurent had played Age of Steam.

The game plays like a cross between AoS and Wallace's earlier title Volldampf, which our group has only played once. Volldampf is a great game and much more forgiving than AoS, but it has the problem of having few resources out on the board early and thus players can get behind and stay there (as opposed to not getting an early bid in AoS, getting behind, and staying there). RT makes up for the lack of early opportunities by putting pretty much all of the trade cubes on the board early, added only through placement of new cities and event cards. Since the board is very large, that means that you can almost always find a place to set up your system with relatively little competition.

The other big change in RT is the addition of event cards that you can collect by spending one of the three actions you get during a turn. The competition for these can be fierce, and is what typically drives the "who goes first" bidding. Neither AoS nor Volldampf has a random element like this (it's all about what cubes get drawn when), but I think this is a good mechanism that ensures that every game will play a little bit differently and supplements the random cube draw well.

In our game, it was the cards that were in fact the difference. I think people were unaware that some of the cards (the ones with green dots) were collected as their conditions were met, not as you chose them through the usual mechanism. I managed to a) get the card that gave me two actions, which should have been the first card taken, and b) get six VP for sending the first cube to Duluth. Duluth is way up in the NW corner of the board, and it's a long way to anything else, but getting an extra $7k/turn right away helped me quite a bit.

The problem, of course, is that I had to spend a lot of money early building long lines in order to get things set up. Also, since there was a bonus card for getting the first four-link load delivered and I had the Special Mutant Power of getting points for getting the first 6 train, I spent a lot of money doing these things and ended up paying $10k in interest for much of the game. Comparatively, Mike had only two or three shares issued, as did Peter, although George had 11 (but also three or four hotels).

The thing that really screwed me up was that the purple cubes and the blue cities are almost exactly the same color. In fact, I spent a lot of money setting up a link that I couldn't use quite early in the game because I hadn't seen this. This is an inexcusable production error, although it is something that you could get used to pretty quickly. I also set up to bring a couple of purple cubes a long distance, then realized that I'd built a new city earlier that effectively cut off that route and a side route around it would be at least $10k to build and thus out of the question.

Those things aside, getting the early lead in VP (I was six points ahead from my closest competitor the entire game, and later on more like 15 or 20 points ahead) set me up for a pretty easy win. By the time I had 10 shares, it was clear that I'd have a lot more money than I'd need on a given turn, and I saw no point in building more track as I had no VP coming in for that. Even losing 8 points to Mike at the game end for the shares I had left me with at least a six point lead at the end, although I was a bit concerned that Mike would get more points for his Western Link. The other trick that I employed was to work very hard to get cities emptied out so that we would work through the 16 "train toys" that act as a game timer, and in fact got a bit of help in that very effort from others in the final turn.

All in all, I was impressed. We took about 2 hours to play, which certainly surprised me, and about 15 minutes to explain and punch out parts. What doesn't impress me is the huge size of the map - I know Eagle's trademarks are huge maps (with relatively little playing area in many cases) and plastic bits, but in this case the map is also defective. Mike left our game up overnight so he could take pictures for his blog, and when he got home the next day the map was warping, even with a sheet of plexiglass over it! I will wait for a while until Eagle gets this issue resolved before buying a copy. The other component issues are enormous train toys that could have been as easily implemented with a simple marker and track on the board, and cards that feel pretty flimsy. Since they get placed on the board, chosen, held in hand, and reshuffled, having robust cards would be a real plus. Still, the game has an incredible cost-per-pound ratio.

George and Peter had long drives, so Laurent, Mike, and I played a few rounds of Geschenkt, which I discussed a couple of months ago. This is a great little game, although I'm finding that once you get behind it becomes very difficult to catch up. That, and you do not want to have other people figure out you are out of chips. We played three hands, and Laurent won handily, with Mike and I quite a ways behind. Despite the wackiness and luck of the draw, I find this to be a great quick game, certainly one of the better short games I've played. Dave keeps trying to get people in our group to buy Diamant, but Mike felt that Geschenkt was a better game at a much lower price. I'll be ordering this one in the short term, along with Carc:Discovery, Caylus, and maybe one or two other things from Funagain.

Thanks for hosting, Mike!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Central Tuesday Session, 12/6/05

Time for my once-a-month hosting duties this past Tuesday. Time was during the nicer weather that having four or five people was a real treat, now we've got eight, nine or even ten people showing up on a regular basis. Very nice!

While Chris, Mike, Rita, KC, and Tim played a prototype of a new game under consideration for Sunriver Games in the next room, Matt, Ben, Laurent, and myself tried out Beowulf and St. Petersburg, both at Matt's request.

The funny thing is that both of these games were still in shrink wrap. I historically have made an end-of-year trip to Funagain Games in Ashland, and until a couple of years ago was able to roam through the warehouse area and impulse buy to my heart's content. Since my sister has moved, and Funagain both doesn't have a warehouse that works for browsing and they really don't want me back there anyway, I had to come up with a different way to simulate the experience of a billion new games. So, I ordered 10 or so games from Boards and Bits with the intention of not opening any of them until Christmas. The games were stacked on the piano, Matt saw them and wanted to play, so it was an early Christmas for everyone.

I discussed Beowulf in an earlier entry, and I had really liked it. The uncertainty of the "mystery meat" awards (the rounds that have either gold or VP), playing chicken with the deck, watching two people decide that this is the auction they really need to win, I love it all. Best of all, the game can be taught very quickly, as you basically learn as you go. Even running through the basics ahead of time takes perhaps five minutes at the most.

In our game, Matt used the Collect Gold strategy, although I think that this was more of a "Got this much, more shouldn't hurt" approach. Ben took the "lose every early Risk and auction" strategy, Laurent collected Mystery Meat, and I went for VP and a few critical cards. By midgame, Ben and Matt had two wounds each, I had none and had collected few scratches. By the endgame, I had to choose between blowing a good number of cards that was going to ensure me 5 VP in the last space or fighting the dragon and avoiding wounds. I took the Risk on the very first draw (I had a lot of the cards I needed to win, but was trying to finesse a win over Laurent's stack of Mystery Meat, which he'd already used to remove his sole wound).

Unfortunately, my draw netted me nothing but horns, gave me a third scratch to give me a wound, and I got the double wound marker for my trouble. On the plus side, I had quite a large hand, and Ben and Laurent played chicken with their entire hands for the Dragon attack, so I was able to remove a wound and gain 5 points on the final space. Now that I think of it, you get one or the other, so I guess I didn't do quite as well as I thought... At any rate, I did have the most gold and the most cards, removed one wound to get me down to two and avoid the penalty, and ended up with 25 (modified) points behind Laurent's 34 (he had no wounds). Ben was close behind me with 24, and Matt was in the rear with 15. Matt did have a lot of blown Risks, but I think he was also spending a lot of gold on stuff that wasn't quite as valuable as we approached the endgame. This is still a thumbs up for me, although I'd really like to try it with three or five players to see if it's as good a game.

Next up was St. Petersburg, which for some reason has been denigrated in our group other than Eric claiming it makes a great two-player game. Matt had played it and liked it, so he did the teaching (a rarity, usually Mike, Dave, KC, or myself do the teaching). The game is based on a draft of three types of cards: workers, buildings, and aristrocrats. There are also Trader cards that upgrade one of the other three types. Each turn, you fill in the eight slots with cards from each deck in turn, then draft them in a preset player order that shifts every turn. If you play the drafted card directly, you pay the cost of the card. Upgrades are the difference between the upgraded and replaced card. You may instead choose to draft a card into your hand, but you must eventually pay to play it or lose 5 points at game end. Also, you lose the Stale bonus of 1 ruble in some cases (cards that have survived an entire turn).

For example, on the first turn we begin by turning over eight worker cards. All but one are drafted by the players, and after everyone passes they score VP and income (primarily the latter with workers). Next, seven buildings are turned over, as one worker card remains. Players can still draft the worker, but once everyone passes only the buildings (primarily VP) are scored. Next is the aristocrats, which is the meat of the game as having more unique aristocrats at game end gives you an exponentially bigger bonus. If in this case we still had the one worker and three buildings, only four aristocrats are turned over. Finally, the trade cards come up in the same fashion, although there is no scoring. This ends the turn. Once one of the draw piles for the various decks is depleted, the game continues until the turn is finished. Players score for having a particular number of unique aristocrats, and highest score wins.

I'm not quite sure where things went off the rails for me in this game, but I think that my basic problem was waiting too long to get buildings that gave VP. Matt had explained that it was important to get income early, as it was possible to get in a hole easily that you could never climb out of. We did get a lot of very pricey buildings early in the game, including the Academy, and the building upgrades just never came my way.

The other problem I had was in hand management. You can "bank" up to three cards at a time in your hand without paying for them, and I foolishly banked three cards early and missed out on a couple of opportunities as a result. By the midgame I'd figured this out, but at that point timing kept me from even getting the chance to pull good building upgrades. I did get up to seven aristocrats, all different, and my early game income was decent for my workers (but no chances for income from buildings), so i was stuck.

Despite coming in dead last after Matt, Ben, and Laurent respectively, I really enjoyed the game. I do think there is the possibility that because of the draw you simply never see the cards you need to win the game; getting stuck being the first to draft buildings did not help my cause. However, like Beowulf, the overall mechanisms and feel of the game were great. Play moved along at a decent clip (although we did take about 90 minutes to play), and it was a good balance of brain work and tension. Definitely one I'll pull out, although I'm not sure when I'd get to try it 2-player, as Eric and his wife play. Glad I gave it a shot.

The other table got in games of Sieben Siegel and Diamant as well as their prototype, I'll leave the reporting of those games to Chris and Mike.

Thanks to all for coming, after a day of watching a plumber attempt to break every pipe in my basement it was a much-needed evening of fun with good friends.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Two Player Games

Mike hosted a two-player gaming weekend last year, and it was so popular that he decided to do it again. Six of us showed up to play on Saturday, although for four of us that meant a 10-4 stint. I'd missed the South Tuesday session, partly because of a scheduling snafu, so I was looking forward to playing a few games.

Eric and Mike played a scenario from Under the Lily Banners, a recently published GMT wargame in their Musket and Pike series taking place during the 30 Years War, Tim and Dave played Columbia's Crusader Rex block wargame, and Chuck and I started out with Guilford Courthouse, the third in GMT's Battles of the American Revolution series. We played the historical scenario, which focuses on the battle as historically fought. The game itself allows the players more manuever in the early game and a few extra turns for the British to try to get to their historic objective (exiting the map beyond Guilford Courthouse).

I'd played the first game in this series, Saratoga, several years ago when I took it on a business trip to keep me occupied in the hotel room in the evenings, but it's been a long time since I played. I'd reread the rules (now in a Series and Exclusive rulebook set, which I typically hate), and most of the game is very straightforward, although there are quite a few modifiers used in close combat, enough to keep me off balance for the first couple of turns. However, by the end of the game we were having much less trouble, at least I was.

The Americans, who I took, have very few State or Continental Army units, with mostly wimpy militia that take a lot of damage (and don't cause much either). The only decent troops (all three of them, plus Greene) are far to the rear, barely able to advance to the front line in the few turns they have to work with. The militia start along a fence line a little ways away from the Courthouse, with heavy woods and a ravine inbetween. They also have a variety of rifle units in the militia which are less useful in close combat, but allow a free shot during both player's turns. Finally, the Americans have two decent dragoon units that can threaten units regrouping in the rear, whereas the Brits only have one.

The Brits, by comparison, have good leaders (and more of them), considerably better morale, and stronger units. There is little chance that the Americans are going to inflict much damage on the Brits, even less when the Brits start with a momentum counter that allows a reroll (with more to come, given the huge positive DRMs that the Brits generate). I think Chuck managed to collect something like seven momentum counters during the game, and I'm not really sure how the Americans are supposed to do more than occasionally scratch the Brits.

On the plus side, Chuck was having a lot of trouble doing much more than scratching my troops at first. In the first couple of turns, in fact, I don't think he captured more than one unit, an artillery unit that was nearly useless in the heavy woods most of the battle was fought in. He did manage to drive the Americans off of their initial defensive position behind a fence, but as the only benefit of the fence was that the Brits got to add to their morale, and Chuck was already maxed, this was hardly an issue. My rifles, about the only offensive capability I had in the early game, missed repeatedly, even with their initial shots which give a positive DRM to hit.

The big break for the Brits came when Chuck managed a "double-move" through the initiative rolls after he'd done some damage to my units and had them out of position. There were just enough light infantry and leaders to give some tactical flexibility and buck up the militia, but after this turn my morale was spiraling downward and I'd lost several units off of the line (although not as many as I suppose I could have). However, I managed to get the same benefit of a double-turn going into the next turn, and my rifle units were able to drive off enough units to make close combat practical. Chuck's one remaining momentum counter kept me from killing off one of his leaders to have at least a shot at a tie (he'd killed one of my minor leaders earlier). As it was, I got 1 VP for the Courthouse, which Chuck never got an LOS on, but he scored 4.5 off of captured or eliminated units, resulting in a .5 VP Marginal Victory.

I like this system, even though I'm not an AmRev buff by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't think that the Americans have any chance to win this scenario. The only way it could happen is if the Brits have to use their starting momentum counter early, then don't get a result that will give them another one (which happened over and over). My rifle shooting, weak at the beginning, was exceptionally sharp in the last half of the game, but the results were always pretty weak, and I never even flipped a Brit unit, much less eliminate or capture (again, partly because Chuck had tons of momentum counters, negating any decent rolls I did get).

As such, I left the game feeling like I had no chance to win, only to preserve a tie. Maybe the campaign game is better, although since the units are essentially the same, I can't imagine that things would go much better. There are three other games in the series, of which I also have the previously-mentioned Saratoga and the very recent Savannah, plus a second game in Eutaw Springs in the Guilford box. I want to give these games another try, as they are very quick playing and an elegant set of mechanisms, but I'm a bit concerned that it's tough to game the AmRev as it was more of a political fight than a military one. As such, games like We the People seem to be more successful than the tactical games or even Columbia's Liberty.

We finished up at the same time as the Crusader Rex game, so the four of us decided to play something a bit lighter. Chuck and I pulled out the recently acquired Pizza Box Football, while Dave and Tim played Dungeon Twister and Roma. PBF is a pretty light game with a lot of dice rolling, but still manages to give a statistically accurate game that feels like you're calling a football game. However, the only real decision points are in what plays (of a grand total of six, count 'em, six) you will call on offense or defense. Even then, the net effect is generally not big for the majority of plays. As such, it feels a bit like you're just picking a table to roll three dice on and see what happens.

We played the Smashmouth game, which uses the standard pro football time scheme but not the involved Professional Game time system (which uses hurry-up plays, time outs, and spiked balls). We did use the Expanded playsheet that I got from the official website, which actually improves the number of plays possible from three to six. This is usually part of the Advanced Game kit, that also includes special offense/defense play tables for each NFL team, and I have to say that just playing the basic game with run/short pass/long pass options would get dull very quickly.

Here's the thing...I had a great time playing the game. OK, I got blown out 28-0, and I couldn't seem to get a break even when I fooled the defense, but it was still fun and it was definitely more fun than a football video game. With specific team tables and a little clarity on how to incorporate goal line defense and long bombs into the expanded game, this is a fun little game. I think perhaps the Backyard Brawl version, where each player gets three possessions, might be the best for those not interested in league play, but I like the Professional version because I believe that ball control and clock management are key elements of the actual game and add a lot of tension. Tim and Eric played the Brawl version later in the day and enjoyed it.

By now my blood sugar levels were dropping quickly, and time was beginning to be a bit of an issue for some of us, so I skipped grabbing some food to try to get in a quick play of Lost Valley. Sure, this wasn't a two-player game and thus we really shouldn't have brought it out, but I'm a fool for discovery games. Big mistake. Two bad "helpful" suggestions to me by the one player who had experience with the game, along with a poorly translated rule that cost me the chance to get even a single gold marker from a mine I'd built (compounded by one of the suggestions earlier), soured me on the game quickly. While I abhor rules that you have to look at an example to figure out, it was clear that the phrase "only x units may locate in a space" meant at the end of movement, not during movement. I didn't argue the point, but a quick look at the rules after the game taught me to not worry about looking petty and instead ask to see the rules when you aren't absolutely sure what a rule means.

Combined with a truly astonishing set of technical domestic problems weighing on my mind that are seemingly never going to be solved (including not having a functioning refrigerator for better than 10 days, with another four to go before there is any chance of it working again), I stopped being interested in this game within ten minutes. I suspect that there's a good game here, but with an increasingly large library at every place we play with similar mechanisms, this isn't one I'll ask to have pulled out anytime soon. Maybe if there were dinosaurs...

Next up will be the regular session at my place on Tuesday.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Martin Wallace - God, or Devil?

A last minute cancellation saved me from sitting around all Saturday waiting to get asked questions by the folks shutting off my basement "water feature", so I was able to go to our monthly Saturday session at Mike's. And boy, did I need the break.

First up, the new Wallace title, Byzantium. I'm the first to state that I'm not as big of a Wallace fan as many in my group, especially after I bought Princes of the Renaissance only to learn that a few in the group had pronounced it a dud (my copy, as well as myself, has never seen play). As such, I was happy to get the chance to give the newest title a try before I made a buying decision.

Byzantium shares many of what have become stock Wallace themes: multiple factions not attached to players, special actions, short number of long turns, an economy to limit how much you can do. The game is actually (to my mind, at least) less fussy than many Wallace designs. There are only six special actions that can be taken (in addition to what I can only image are "regular" actions), so there wasn't much need for cheat sheets. What would have been useful was a list of how you score VP, as when we got to the end there were a few surprises for everyone but Mike, who had actually read the rules.

The game models the Arab invasion of Byzantium (with a little help from the Bulgars in the Balkans). Players each control one Byzantine and one Arab army which they have to pay for each turn. The armies can move (so long as the army can "pay" with their logistical arm of their army), but it's limited and fairly expensive. Stealing, er, liberating cities and combat are very straight forward, and that's really the meat of the game (as it's cities that give you money to pay for the armies). What is particularly interesting is that you have to balance your activities with both factions, as having more than double the victory points for one faction than the other at game end effectively subtracts the lesser amount.

Dave, Chuck, and Mike all concentrated their armies in Persia, which has "empty" cities to take early on. While I did a bit of this, I was knocked back to Mecca, and used my Arab army to advance into the Levant later on. My Byzantine forces were centered in Cyprus, while Chuck focused on western Anatolia, Dave in the Levant, and Mike in Eastern Anatolia. By the mid-game, I had gotten quite a few Byzantine points and was able to focus my final turn on the Arabs. One interesting facet is that the Arabs are only allowed to attack a fellow Arab twice in a game turn, the Byzantines can only do this once, so you have to be ready to fight the other faction rather than the other players, and this requires some foresight.

Another interesting element is that the game can end if Constantinople is taken by the Arabs or Bulgars. I had a good lead in points during the second turn, and used the Bulgars to try to take Constantinople for the quick win, missing by one unit. As such, it's important to be aware of how powerful the Bulgars are and how often they can attack in that turn (a max of two).

In the end, it turned out that you also got an extra VP for every city token (there can be up to three in a city) rather than every city, so Chuck ended up taking way too many Byzantine points to negate his Arab points. Mike, on the other hand, had so many Byzantine points that he ended up being the surprise winner. I did come within one unit of taking Damascus, which would have added four points total to my score, enough to tie Mike. Regardless, it was clear that this was a practice game, as so many of the first-time-outs with Wallace titles are.

The game felt more elegant than most Wallace titles, which always have very obtuse actions (Liberte is a very good example). The combat is much faster (but very tense), and there is very little chrome. You can have the mechanisms down in less than one turn of play, although it does require a certain amount of play to understand what actions will win the game. One big knock: The city tokens are about 1/4" thick when they should be closer to 1/16". Stacking three of these up, with a potential fortress, plus one of your cubes, and you've got a board that is particularly susceptible to a catstrike, or even a loose sleeve. The rules show a more practical height of city token, too bad they didn't make it into the game. The only other necessity is a simple cheat sheet like the first page of rules, but incorporating the VP awards as well.

I want to give this one more try, but I felt it worked well with four and played in about 2.5 hours including 'splainin'. While I'd like to play again once more before I buy, this looks to be a winner.

Next up, Dave had brought Beowulf, the non-cooperative variation on his very successful Lord of the Rings game. I love this sort of thing, and in fact I liked Beowulf. Mike and Chuck were less enthused, but this will make my to-buy list for the holidays.

Like LotR, Beowulf follows the epic story of this ancient hero. There is a deck of cards with six suits (one wild) containing one or two symbols per card. The object is to collect laurels through various auctions, actions, and other activities, all represented by spaces along the game track. Like LotR, planning ahead for future auctions is critical tos success. Playing time is billed at 90 minutes, and that's about how long we took.

What makes this game is the "risk" factor. On specific spaces and all "around the table" auctions, you have the opportunity to take a Risk. In the Risk spaces, you simply choose if you want to play if you want. If you do, you draw two cards and if either or both match the symbols in that space (usually two) or if the card is wild, you keep it. If you don't draw the symbols, you take a Scratch (three of which earns you a wound). If you see a Risk space coming up before an auction that has similar symbols, you can decide if the risk is worth it to draw extra cards into your hand prior to the auction.

When Risk is part of an auction, you can choose to play before adding to your bid. If you draw the right suit in your two cards, you add them to your bid and can add more cards if you need to meet the existing bid. If you don't, you get the last remaining choice of rewards for that auction and take a scratch. This adds a great Chicken element to the game. At one point, I needed to draw four (!) symbols to stay in a critical auction. I got all four, which was very cool. For me. Mike won the auction, but the tension really turns a ho-hum game into something much more fun.

I'll also note that each space on the board corresponds to an event in the saga of Beowulf, and there are handy expansions of the major events in the rules. Unfortunately, some are a little thin ("Well Met Friends" reads "You Meet Gladly with friends", or "Death of King Doodad" reads "King Doodad Dies" in the rules). Uh-huh. However, the components are very similar in style to the matching components in LotR which I consider a plus. However, the board is really almost unnecessary, and could be replaced with cards quite easily.

There is also an "advanced" version that incorporates a gold economy and adds extra spaces that require bidding with gold instead of cards. I'm not convinced that this adds a lot to the game, although we played with it and it didn't seem like too much extra stuff or time. With kids, this might be a good choice to just play the basic game (the game is rated for 12+).

Like Settlers of the Stone Age, there is ample opportunity in this game to act like a 12-year-old and find funny phallic references for pretty much everything. We took advantage of this in spades.

Mike ended up winning again, this seemed to be his day. I was not far behind, with 25 to his 32.

The big knock against the game is that, like Taj Mahal, you lose your card bids regardless of whether you get anything good or bad, so it's important to decide whether to bluff with few cards, bail early, or keep feeding the bear. We generally bid fairly aggressively, and it would be interesting to play with a more nuanced bidding strategy. Despite Chuck's concern that you can get in trouble early (strangely not a knock against Age of Steam), I felt it was good fun despite a lot of bidding.

The last game up was Carcassone: Discovery. This variant on the Carcassone franchise allows players to choose between placing meeples or removing them to score (even if the area they are scoring is not complete). This simple change adds a tremendous amount of choice to the game, and Discovery is a close second behind The City in this franchise.

Chuck ended up taking the game, while Dave couldn't draw the right tile to save his life. Mike was in second, with me right behind (as usual). Not a good day for Dave, who finished once out of fourth, and that was when Chuck was surprised to have so many points for his Byzantines.

I cannot express how much I needed a day when I wasn't worried about having problem after problem during the week of Thanksgiving. Good games, and good company.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Game Day at Tim and Carrie's Place

Tim and Carrie (I sure hope I've spelled that right) hosted a Saturday all-day session at their place, surprisingly close to my own house. People came and went over the course of the day, so the whole day had a very "open house" feeling to it, which was nice. Surprisingly, timing was just about perfect, as you shall see.

I arrived first, a bit after 1pm. The Mapquest map I had showed several streets entering the neighborhood, but in fact this was badly mislabeled and I spent an extra ten minutes trying to find their street. Since I was the first in, and they were expecting another couple to show up a little after I arrived, this wasn't a huge problem, and I spent the extra few minutes looking at Tim's collection. How people can keep from ripping the shrinkwrap off of a new game immediately is beyond me.

Once Doug and Joy (plus the baby) arrived, we sat down to play Basari while Joy made sure the baby was happy. I really like this game, as it has a great "guess what your opponents will do" feel to it. However, it's important not to let someone get too far ahead, or they can coast through the final round to win. In fact, this is what I was able to do. In the first round, I decided to fight for the yellow and red "high value" gems, and did pretty well, not trying too hard to get the round-the-board bonus. While I think I only managed to get the yellow bonus, and was a bit behind on the score, I was well placed in both blue and red. By the end of the second round, I was able to score both yellow and red and half of the blue bonus, plus a few lucky die-rolls, to have a 10-15 point lead, and from there it was all about getting the game over quickly.

A big part of the game is about the trading, and forcing your opponent to give up a lot if they want to win the action. Bluffing is not out of the question, and in fact I got away with one bluff in the second round that helped me lock up those big points. In the third round, I was forcing Carrie to bid up to get the jewels she wanted specifically because she couldn't use the gems I had up for offer. There is really quite a bit to this game, and while I think my win was in large part a product of the ill-gotten gains of my second-round bluff (Doug is not hard-core), it was still a somewhat satisfying win.

The second win for me was not so satisfying. We played the Out Of The Box edition of Tutankhamen with all five of us. However, the basic idea that you wanted to be the first to get rid of your coins seemed to get lost in the mix. I went for two of the three 8-point sets, and that focus won me the game. However, when people realized that by me making large jumps at game-end gave me the win by forcing the closure of the sets, it was clear that this was not something they'd considered. That's a shame, as a game won because of a basic misconception is no win at all in my book, and the game felt a bit soured as a result. Still, Tut is a game that has been much maligned in our group (it was the "Game Dave Refused To Play" when we first organized), and I think quite unfairly. The mechanics are very simple, and I do think that there are times when a player will have, through no fault of their own, find themselves too far into the game with too many competitors for the sets they've started, but at the same time it's very clever. Perhaps it's best with four. BTW, Tut did make my cut, and it isn't one of the games I'm selling.

As we were remembering how Tut fits back in the surprisingly small box, Chris, Ken, and their sons showed up in a display of excellent timing. Chris had brought Caylus and Railroad Tycoon, and so we set both games up and played. Chris, his nine-year-old son Matthew, Carrie, and myself played Caylus, as it has gotten such great reviews by the rest of my group, while the other six played Railroad Tycoon (which is freakin' huge. Huge).

Caylus takes a bit of time to explain, so I'll point you to the 'Geek for more complete descriptions. In a very small nutshell, the game requires you to pay to choose actions that will allow you to gain goods to build structures to gain points. As the game goes on, your range of choices increases as more structures are built that allow you to gain more goods. In the meantime, you want to also be sure to have enough extra goods to build onto the big castle, and in doing so gain points as well as (hopefully) gaining bonuses for doing this better than the other players. Sometimes games like this are pedantic (Vanished Planet is a good example), and sometimes they work quite well. Caylus falls into the latter category, and I think this will be a favorite in the group, at least until Dave figures out the perfect strategy.

In our game, I spent the first few turns figuring out the basics of the system and the importance of going first in the early rounds. Money was supposed to be tight in this game, and although both Carrie and Chris got low at points, I never felt like it was a problem for me. Matthew, being nine, saw money as being of great value, and he managed get up over $15 in reserves for much of the game. I did get down to three or so at one point, but was right back up in the $5-10 range that I was in for much of the game.

One thing I did not spend a lot of time analyzing was the different buildings and what they offer. In retrospect, I think this was not a horrible idea for the first game, as there is a lot to parse. We certainly weren't going after residences until quite late in the game (only two were built), and no blue buildings were erected at all. Instead, we seemed to be very anxious to build parts of the castle, and every portion was build at least a couple of turns before the balliwick (big white piece) got to the respective space on the road. What a great mechanism that road is: you have a timer, the opportunity for shutting down people who push their luck with the obliviator (the little white guy, I can't remember these names), and a place to expand the possibilities of actions. Perhaps the most elegant system I've seen, given the possibilities for strategy.

In the end, Chris and Matthew made a huge run on the castle at the end, building seven (!) elements combined in the final turn and shutting Carrie out. I tried to build as many structures as I could to boost my points, but we ended up with Chris in first, Matthew behind him by a few points, me about ten points out of the lead, and Carrie behind me. I had so much fun that I could have cared less who won, and that is perhaps the highest praise I can give a game. This will be on my to-buy list for sure. As a bonus, Caylus strikes me as a game that would be good fun to play solitaire, as there are so many strategies that you could simply assign one to each virtual "player" and see how they interact. Solitaire-ability is rare in Euros, so this is a real selling point for me.

While I didn't get much chance to see Railroad Tycoon in action, and I've sold/given away/am selling pretty much every Eagle game I own, it seeemed to get a good response. If it's solitaire-ready, it may be one I pick up, as Age of Steam has the lock on this general style of game in our group and I can't see this one getting much group play unless it's family day.

To continue the streak of good timing, both tables finished within minutes of each other, Doug and Joy took off with the Littlest Drooler, and we went through the standard pizza-ordering metagame, followed by a playing of Wits and Wagers. It is entirely possible that I've gotten this title wrong, but I will say that it has been released under Eagle Games' party imprint of Northstar. The game works best with seven players (I'm not sure how well this would work with teams), each having a dry-erase card, dry-erase marker, chips, and player markers for showing who's bets are whose. Play consists of a series of seven questions, each of which can be answered with a positive whole number (I suppose they accept exponential notation, which is not as far-fetched as it sounds), that get progressively more difficult as the turns progress.

One player reads the question, then the 30-second timer is turned over. Each player writes a number that they think is the right one (trying not to go over the answer) before time runs out. Next, all seven cards are placed on the game board in order from lowest to highest. The board has seven slots for the cards, each slot corresponding to an odds payout. The center answer pays 1-1, with each slot out in either direction at one rate higher (2-1, 3-1, 4-1). There is also an additional eighth slot below the smallest answer in case everyone overshot (which happened once in our game) that pays 5-1.

The timer is turned over, and everyone has the opportunity to bet twice, at one chip per bet, on what they think the right answer is, again without exceeding the actual answer. You can bet both chips on a single answer, or split them up, and your bets are marked with the wooden cubes of your color (matching your dry-erase card). You may shift your bets as often as you like during the 30 seconds, and I think that this is supposed to be the "wacky" part of the game, although we rarely shifted our bets once they were made. Perhaps if alcohol is involved. Once the bets are in and the timer runs out, the winning entry is awarded two chips, and the people who put their bets on that number get the payout listed for that slot. All other bets are lost. For the final round, which usually has a much harder number to guess, you can bet as many chips as you wish, although you are still limited to two separate bets at most.

Given that we groupthunk'ed out what I can only imagine was supposed to be the "fun" part of the game, the title still was good fun in trying to see how well we could guess the right number, both individually and out of a group of numbers. Chris amazed everyone (including himself) by nailing the height of the Empire State Building in feet (silly me, I guessed stories and didn't realize my error until the timer ran out) on the very first question. I had the upper hand when it came to knowing the lowest temperature recorded in Hawaii (12 degrees Farenheit, they have a couple of very high volcanos on the Big Island; it is good to be married to a local!). In the end, Tim won by having a bet on every correct answer in the game.

I liked the game, but not well enough I think to purchase. I have enough party games based on trivia knowledge, and if we want to wager, there is always Royal Turf. I'm happy to see someone trying to put out party games that will appeal to eurogamers, but only time will tell if Northstar succeeds. For our group, they managed to be successful and miss their mark all at the same time.

To complete the trifecta of timing, the pizza guy pulled up as the lid went on the box. I ate and ran, although everyone else stayed and (I'm sure) had more fun. Thanks to Tim and Carrie for a very pleasant afternoon of gaming, and may their good dogs get all of the treats they deserve.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Playing Catch-Up (Ketchup?)

It's been a while since my last post, for a variety of reasons. Partly travel, partly other things going on, no one good reason. Rather than post several entries that people are less likely to look at, and since most of my recent gaming sessions have involved a single "serious" game, I'll just cover them.

First up was the Central Tuesday session before Halloween, which was a pretty small turnout at Matt's. KC, Matt, and myself first tried out 3-player Meuterer (by the same folks who brought you Verraeter), which proved to not work as well as with four. I can't really put my finger on why this game didn't work well, perhaps because it was so obvious who was going to mutiny. Next, we tried out Australia at Matt's request, which had a bit of the same problem. While the (large) lead changed hands a few times, Matt got one really good opportunity to score, and that 22 point pad served him well at game's end. I like the game, but I think it needs four to work effectively.

The next session was with my wife and two friends at my family's vacation home in Central Oregon. The friends like games, although because they spent most of their time running to visit other friends, we didn't see them so much. We also discovered that the DVD of Amadeus we watched was the director's cut, clocking in at over three hours! However, we did get in one game of Barbarossa, the clay modelling game that has been taunting wargamers for years. The idea is to get other players to guess your model somewhere in the mid-game rather than early or late, so the trick is to make is not too hard, not too easy, but just right. Laura, the chiropractor, modelled a femur and a lung (!), her SO Carole modelled a birdbath and a gun (that looked a lot more like bacon than a firearm), my wife made a kernel of popcorn and Rapunzel, and I did a hot water heater and a plunger.

While there were several times that my wife stated that I was most certainly doomed (she would ask if she would use the hot water heater in the bathroom, and of course the answer is yes even though it "lives" in the garage), it was agreed that this was a very good game, and I look forward to playing it again. Perhaps the best four-player party game I own.

We also played a popular music trivia game called "Rock and Roll Odyssey" that my wife loves, but that I can't play because I tend to crush my opponents (playing in bands since 1975 does that). We played with me against the three women, and they didn't have to answer questions from the 50's or 60's. They won somewhat handily, although had I gotten the "name every Elton John single up to 1980" things would have gone much much differently.

The next session was last week's West Side Thursday, held at Mike's. I normally don't attend these, but I'd missed Tuesday's South session at Chris', so Thursday proved handy. Mike, Tim, and myself played Ted Racier's new Phalanx title, The First World War. Despite Racier's pedigree as a wargame designer (and the title), this is hardly a wargame, more like Schotten-Totten with some chrome. Each player takes one faction (Germans, Western Allies, Eastern Allies, or the poorly named German Allies), and tries to take ground on one of several "fronts". There are six game turns, each consisting of four plays for each faction, sixteen per turn in total. During your turn you can move forces from one front to adjacent fronts, move one or two units anywhere on the board, or fight on one front. Fighting consists of figuring your combat strength (lead unit, +1 for larger force in terms of units, +/- combat chits, + a die roll), and the smaller total side loses their lead unit and the winner takes the next city on that front's linear track. If you roll of of two "S's" on the die, you add zero, but get to draw a combat chit, some of which are less than helpful. If you've taken all of the cities, the losing faction adds one to their surrender total for that turn. If, at turn end, a faction rolls their surrender total or less (S's now are not zero), that side immediately loses and the game is over. Otherwise, you add up replacements and reinforcements and do it all again.

Mike showed us all his incredible prowess at skewing probability curves by rolling what I will conservatively estimate was 80% S's. As such, he lost battles constantly, and the Western Allies had a lot of units in the dead pile as the game went on. However, because of the addition of new units as the game goes on for the Allies, he did better and better, finally doing so well that he was poised to win the game against Tim's Germans and my Losers (urm, German Allies) on the final turn. However, I had one last chance to force an extra surrender point on the Western Allies in Italy, and Mike rolled a 1 on the last turn to lose the game. However, since Tim had four more VP than I (three is the cutoff), he was the Big Winner and I came in a close second.

I really want to like this game. It played pretty quickly, there weren't too many rules questions (although the rules are the usual Phalanx gibberish in spots, there is a very basic rules question I've had on Revolution for months that they refuse to answer for me), and while clearly being a euro rather than a wargame, it still kept the general flavor of this world altering conflict. Mike was particularly unhappy that the game came down to a single die roll at game end, although I like to term that sort of thing as "tension", and it is possible to try to try to prevent surrender rolls by simply not allowing the opposition to win battles that involve your base (or give them their own surrender points). It was very clear that we were all playing with sub-optimal strategies, as I don't think the Germans ever went after the Russians at all, and we weren't going after the city spaces that generate replacements as much as we might have. I definitely think that the Germans shouldn't have done the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in turn four, but waited another turn to keep the heat on in the east, but then again the German Allies were starting to suck wind.

In the final analysis, the general verdict was "Hmm." At two hours (including describing the rules), it's perhaps just a bit long. I'll have to try it with two or four players to see if there is a game here.

We also played a few hands of Take 6, which I haven't played for a long time. I like the game, but it gets old after a few hands when you realize that the game is playing you more than you playing it.

Whew! Only one more session report left!

This past Tuesday saw eleven (!!!!!) people show up at my place for Central Tuesday, including Lost Boy Mark whom we haven't seen in years. Michael and his son Alex also came, and I haven't seen either at a regular session in some time. We split up into two groups, with Matt, Mike, Chuck, Alex, Laurent, and myself retiring to the Temple of Conspicuous Consumerism (the family room with the big TV), while KC, Mark, Michael, Jim, and God help me someone who I simply can't remember (it was a lot of people) played Australia and then KC's Havoc game. We, on the other hand, played the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game, Medici, and finally For Sale.

Paranoia is a role-playing game that has survived from the mid-80's to the present day, largely because the premise is funnier than hell. You are a Troubleshooter living in an underground shelter run by an insane computer that tolerates no threats to it's authority. Which means pretty much everything. The thing that made this RPG fun, at least in small doses, was that the GM (the Computer) actively killed players at will, spurred on by the other players who were hoping it wouldn't be them left as a smoking grease spot. Since you had five extra clones for each character, this wasn't as bad as it seemed. However, for those desiring long-term campaigns, the odds of advancing characters much past Orange clearance was pretty slim. And it made the game less fun when people lived.

Mongoose Publishing has dusted off this RPG, and has trotted out a companion card game, which I will refer to simply as Paranoia for the remainder of the report. In the card game, each player is a Troubleshooter with five extra clones, and your team (the other players) are all assigned missions. The missions usually involve everyone trying to inflict "wounds" or "treason" markers on the mission, although the person who inflicts the final wound usually gets to advance in clearance level. Since you don't want to set someone else up to get the advancement, which also determines the winner after several missions, players generally don't want to wound or accuse the mission, although once you've gotten any advancement you generally want at least one hit to keep from getting demoted.

At the same time, players are playing cards on each other to generate enough treason tokens on someone to make them a traitor, at which time you can safely shoot at them to kill off their clones. Players who are traitors at mission's end are executed, so even if you don't get them the computer will. There are also cards that you can play to defend yourself or create problems for others. When someone runs out of cards (you generally don't redraw during the mission), the mission is a success, or a number of other things happen, the mission is over.

This is a very wacky game, and it requires a certain amount of "buying into" the premise, just like an RPG. I thought it was hilarious, as did several other players, although at least one player would have preferred root canal. Six people may have been one or two too many, although there is no denying that the game's wackiness factor goes up with more people. As a midnight game at our gaming retreats, this may be good fun, although certainly not for more than an hour. Considering that the cards are fairly generic other than the title, graphic, and flavor text (which is often pretty unrelated), it relies upon the players to give it the sense of gleeful backstabbing and mayhem that made the RPG a survivor for more than 20 years.

After three missions, we decided to put Mike out of his misery and play Medici, the quintessential six-player game in our group. Alex was the only person who hadn't played, and (sadly) the only person smart enough to correct our pronunciation. Did I mention he turns 17 in a month? Smartass kids...

In a strange first round, few people got more than two advancements in a given commodity. Usually, people are pretty good at pulling in at least three of one good, but not in this game. Early draws of three different commodities forced this on us, and we finished the first round with a pretty close game. The second round saw Laurent doing well in Spice, the only person to hit the bonus point territory in that round, also unusual for us. There was a considerable amount of table talk, with Chuck leading the way (and some great smack talk between him and Mike concerning said amount of talk). It's a good thing we all like each other!

The final round saw Alex going for points more than commodities, and he did well enough to garner third with close to 100 points. Laurent rode his Spice Rack to 30 points and a win with about 107 points, while I was the only other 20 bonus point earner, but came in fifth at 93 when I couldn't pull two cloth at the end of the round. Chuck came in last with something a bit less than 90. This is always a great game, and even the dreadful Mayfair graphics can't sink it (ha!).

Chuck and Matt had to leave, so the rest of us played a quick game of For Sale, the Stephan Dorra game that plays in 15 minutes. In our game, most of the players made the classic rookie mistake of overbidding early, so I was able to score three of the top four cards for nearly nothing. Still, in the end I won by a fairly close margin at 70 points, with two other players in the sixties. This is a great game for the time spent on it, and the less spent the better in my opinion. With very brisk play, it is a gem. With a lot of deliberation in the early bidding, it becomes pedantic. Light, but very good short filler, and there are very few games that fit that need.

My fingers are tired now, so I will thank all for playing, and I will have more frequent and timely reports in the future. Coming up: a Saturday session at Tim and Carrie's, Mike's Thanksgiving Weekend Saturday session, a 2-player game weekend the following week, and a holiday session or three at year's end, in addition to the regular reports. Better start lifting weights with my pinkies!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

In The Shadow of the Sillouette of the Shade of the...

George turns 40 next week, so his lovely wife Staci opened their brand spankin' new home in Newberg for an open house party. Sadly, several people had conflicts, so while I was there it was just Tim, his wife Carrie, George, and myself playing In The Shadow Of The Emperor.

Both Tim and I had played once before, and this was a first time for both Carrie and George. Shadow is a fairly involved game, with several segments in each turn and several actions that players can take during their turn. For the first-time player, it can be downright overwhelming, and in fact Carrie thought she might just play randomly for the first turn or two. However, once you've played a game, the strategies start to open up and a real gem shines.

Set in the Holy Roman Empire in the time leading up to the 30 Years War (circa 1500-1600), players compete for victory points by building cities, being elected Elector (reminding me of the old Cheech and Chong Horrendo Revolver bit - "There's a session in session"), being emperor at turn end, and backing the right horse in elections for emperor.

I never realized that Emperors were elected, but there you go.

I will describe the game in terms of how it starts, which means that we start with the middle of the turn (the first turn skips the first few segments). The meat of the game is the Action Phase, when players take turns buying action cards from the pool. Each card carries a cost (players start with 7 thalers each, and the cards range from 0 to 5 points to use). Each card also has a blue or pink background, which is important later on, but for now the players will either get to do a special action immediately with their card or gain an advantage when voting for emperor. The actions range from placing or moving barons, knights or couples on the board, aging your opponents barons/couples (or rejuvenating your own), and upgrading a knight to a baron or a baron to a couple. When you run out of money, you can pass, or (if no one else has taken it), you can make a run to become the emperor yourself. Also, each electorate has a special action it can do, often free, instead of taking an action card. Once all of the action cards for a given action are taken, players can't pick that action for the rest of the turn.

Once actions are complete, players check each of the seven Electorates to determine if a new Elector has been elected. Ack. Knights, cities and barons give you one vote each, couples are worth two. In the case of a tie, the current emperor chooses which player gets to advance to the Electorship, which gains you two points. In fact, this is by far the best way to score points. In my first game, it became clear that the idea was to take over an Electorate, then shift your units over to another Electorate the next turn to take it over instead. Holding your old Electorate is sometimes a good idea, especially if you like the special action it gives, but if you have to spend most of your money holding on you'll find you don't score as many points.

Next, players vote for a new Emperor, assuming someone took the Rival card. Each Elector gets a vote, plus the votes (or cancellation of votes) from various action cards. If the rival and supporters end up with more votes than the Emperor, the Rival takes the throne and the supporters get a VP. If not, the Emperor's supporters get a VP. Note that only the supporters get VPs in this segment! The Emperor gives a couple of advantages: you choose who gets an Electorate in ties, you get a vote for any "empire" cities in the electorate, and you get stuff at the end of the turn, based on which turn it it. Usually, it's a VP or two, maybe a little cash for next turn, and early on you get to place or move Empire cities. This is also where the game ends and you move to a new turn.

At the start of the turn, everyone gets money based on cities, money left over, and any special income (one Elector, Emperor on Turn 5). This amount is typically around 7 early, 9 in the middle turns, and 10 or more later on. Obviously, more money gives you the ability to do more actions, but at the end of the game you find that many actions have been used up and there isn't as many options as you might like.

Next (and this is really the unique element of the game), all of your barons and couples age. If they are at max age, they are removed. As such, you are constantly balancing between bringing in new barons/couples, keeping them alive a bit longer with doctors (while others may be killing them off with doctors), and trying to keep your units as effective as possible. Since you only get seven barons/couples combined, this management aspect is a critical part of the game.

Finally, you look at the action cards you collected from the previous turn. If you have more blue cards, you have a son and you can place a baron in an unoccupied aristocrat space (bumping a knight, if there is no other choice in that Electorate). If you have as many pink (or more) than blue, you have a daughter and can propose to marry her to another player's baron on the board. If they accept, they flip the baron to a couple, and you get a VP. If not, you get a thaler added to your total because your daughter ends up in a convent. Really.

If this sounds like an involved game, it is. Early on, there are so many options that the game is a bit daunting. However, different players will have different strategies and sometimes they work out pretty well. I like to build all three of my cities early even though it is very expensive to do so, as you gain income every turn and VP, plus votes for electorates. I also like to try to fight for at least one new Electorate every turn. On my first turn, I managed to take three of the seven, although I did lose my Emperor status to George.

It became fairly clear at that point that I was the leader, having racked up close to 10 points in the first turn (that's a lot), although people were figuring out that it was good to take over electorates pretty early. I was down to one electorate a turn for a couple of turns, but was scoring points by taking the VP action card and building cities.

At the end of turn 4, I took back the Emperor from George, although I really shouldn't have. I'd thought I had a couple of extra votes, enough to clinch the vote even with everyone voting against me, but in reality I only had enough to win if one player helped me. Carrie did vote for me, and she did get a VP, but it was enough to help me take an electorate from George on the last turn because I now controlled two Empire cities in that Electorate. Even though Tim took the Emperor at the end of the game, I had enough points to win. Final score: Me, 26; Carrie, 21; Tim, 19; and George, 16.

This recap really doesn't do the game justice, as there is just so much going on. What was interesting was that as the game went on and people started seeing the strategies, the pace picked up quite a bit. My very first game took about two hours, which seemed pretty long. This game, including teaching, took about 90 minutes, maybe a little longer. With people who have a couple of games under their belt, this could easily play in 75 minutes, which is just about right. I'll also note that I stunk the joint up in my first game, but did much better even after not playing for several months.

Eric stated several times in my first game that ItSofE had perhaps the strongest theme he'd seen yet in a Euro. The backstabbing and machinations, while present and an important part of the game, are not so nasty as to make things unpleasant, but there is a definite balance of offense and defense in this game, and fortunes can change very quickly. Just the fact that having been successful in one turn sets you up to be spectacularly unsuccessful in the next is a great feature.

After my first game, the verdict was that the game needed more playings before we could give a fair assessment of the game, but I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a bit the second time around, and will be pulling this one out more often in the future.

Thanks to George and Staci for hosting in a house that is so new that they got both their washer/dryer and their refrigerator that morning! I'm already jealous of the bonus room...

Friday, October 21, 2005

South Tuesday Session, 10/18/05

Mike came back from Essen and of course wanted to host and show off his astonishing loot from the Toy Fair. Present were Mike, myself, Tim, Eric, Laurent, and KC (another person who didn't seem as jet-lagged as he should have been). On the table were Shear Panic, Whiskey Race, and Geschenkt.

Shear Panic is a very wacky game with some very unusual bits. Aside from what felt like pretty low quality components for a German game (laminated play sheets, plastic disks), the game includes 11 fairly nice (and good-sized) sheep miniatures. I have to say that they added a lot of flavor to the game, and I can't think of another game with such interesting bits. OK, Shadows Over Camelot has painted minis you can get, but this was a bit different.

In a nutshell, play involves each player choosing one action from the 12 available on the playsheet. Each action allows certain types of movement with the sheep to try to accomplish different positions during the game, as well as advancing the "timer" marker along a combination scoring and timer track. For example, in the first portion of the game, you get points for having your two sheep (of the nine in question) adjacent. At a certain point, Roger the Ram (really) shows up and now the sheep are competing for his attention, so you want to have your sheep in the front row when the timer first goes through the gate on the timing track. Later, being adjacent to the black sheep is a good thing, as is being as far from the shearing sheep as possible. I did say wacky.

We played two three-player games, and Eric and Laurent were in my game. I figured out fairly early that it was good to be the person who moved the timing marker into scoring positions, so I tried to choose actions that would help me accomplish this. I was pretty successful in the Roger and shearing portions of the game, and managed to tie Laurent for the lead. Since I'd gotten one of his sheep sheared right at the end, I won the tiebreaker on having more sheep still unshorn. Sheesh!

Both Eric and Laurent felt like they didn't have a lot of control over the pacing of the timing marker, but I didn't share this view. I suspect that part of the reason was that I won, and had been trying to pace the game to accomplish my goals, but only repeated playings will show if it was just a case of sour grapes or if the game really is that lucky. Given that there is not that much luck in the game (dice are used solely to "regroup" the flock when they break up or determine which sheep does the pushing in a "Shear Panic" space), I think that we'll find that planning pays off. If you're a sheep, anyway.

Since the other game was still going, Eric introduced us to Geschenkt. The game is very simple: There is a deck of 36 cards, numbered astonishly enough 1 to 36. Nine cards are secretly removed at random, the remaining cards shuffled, and each player gets 10 chips. The first player turns over the top card, and may either take it or put one of his chips (kept in hand for secrecy) on the card. If the card is still out for the next player he gets the same choice. If you take a card that has chips on it, you get the chips as well. Whoever takes the card turns over the next one. At the end of the game when all cards have been played, you lose points equal to the numbers on your cards, and add points equal to the number of chips left in your hand.

One twist: if you have a series of card numbers (21-22-23, for example) of any length, you only subtract the lowest card in the series. Thus, a 34 that is very painful for other players can be very valuable for you if you have the 33 card already collected, and it behooves you to let other people put chips on the card for a few rounds, then take the card. The game plays very quickly, I don't think our game took more than 15 minutes including explaining the rules. Eric got a couple of good runs going, and won handily. Despite Cooley's Law, this one is a keeper.

Finally, we all played Scottish Highland Whiskey Race. I thought at the game's start that perhaps it would be even better with real whiskey. How prescient I was! This is a race game (duh) where each player bids "malt" points to move along a track littered with all sorts of rewards: victory points, whiskey to buy, places to sell, places to get more malt points, and places to move the Englishman (sort of an electric rabbit at the dog track). The trick is that the first player to move is the one who bid the most malt points, and they move that many points. Each space costs as many points to move into as the number of pieces (including yours) in the space you move from. As such, if you don't bid boldly, you are likely to be moving a different number of spaces than you thought you might. In addition, you only get the benefit of the goodies in the space you land in if you are the only person in that space at the end of your turn. Finally, each bottle of whiskey you get gives you a one time special mutant power - just like real whiskey! If the Englishman gets to the last space before any of the players, the leaders lose points, but if a player gets there first, the leaders get points.

As you can imagine, this game was a mess with six players. Every turn I saw my carefully counted and planned move reduced to uselessness, even when I tried to lag behind and then make big moves, only to have someone else bid more, play a whiskey bottle that changed the amount I'd bid, and screw me up. In the end, I sold no whiskey for a whopping four points, and got another 3 points from landing on the "right" spaces. This was enough to put me dead last. Amazingly, Tim had even less fun than I did. I could have screwed him at one point, but he was so obviously miserable with the entire process that I decided against it. I also had a great chance to send the Englishman into the finish at the very end, but at no gain to myself, so I played nice. Since Laurent was in front, this was more of a temptation than usual!

I would definitely try this again under two conditions: no more than four players, and real whiskey. With six, this was so painful as to be masochistic. Had I managed even one clever move, it might have been fun, but there was simply too much chaos in too long and fiddly a game (it didn't help that the various mutant whiskey powers were misrepresented at the start of the game). With play aids and four players, it would probably work pretty well.

After all of this, Mike and KC were still awake, but I think ready to go home to bed, so we called it a night. All in all, despite the bad experience with SHWR, these all appear to be very clever games, and I look forward to playing them again soon.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cen Tues Gaming, 10/11/05

I didn't expect too many people this evening, with three of our regulars off in Germany, but I did expect more than just Laurent to show up. Dave had cat issues (with a good outcome for the cat), Eric wasn't feeling well, and Patrick had to work. I'm starting to get a complex with the last two, they've never made it to my house yet.

Since I didn't realize that Dave wasn't coming, Laurent and I started with the basic version of GIPF, which I've discussed earlier. My second "real" game, Laurent's first, so I had a bit of an advantage. Quite a bit, as it appears that Laurent wasn't "seeing" threats as well as he might have. As such, despite a bit of a lead on his part to start, I managed to take the game. This game is growing on me quite a bit, I may have to find more opponents.

By now it was evident that it was just the two of us, so I taught Laurent Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. I'd played once about 18 months ago (really) at GameStorm 2004, and won as the good guys when my opponent got out of position. You'd think that would be a good lesson for me, but I found myself late in the game with Frodo marching on Mordor, and in real peril of finding myself in the same position. I still had my Winged Death From Above unit, but otherwise I really didn't have enough units to sidetrack Frodo from his sideways retreat trick. At the critical moment, I realized that all I needed to do was let him make the next move, so Saruman went to the Shire, and there were no moves that Laurent could make to save the game. A historical ending, at least for the Shire (sans scouring).

I didn't feel too bad, as Laurent had pasted me in two games the previous Tuesday.

For the last game, I remembered that I hadn't gotten to try out Blood Bowl the week before, as Laurent's set was in French and was first ed. He plays in a French league, but it's online. I have the second ed, so we pulled it out (with a little looking for the actual teams - 2nd ed came in a box that was far too skinny). We played basic rules, but only got through the equivalent of the first quarter, with Laurent managing the only touchdown as the "hyoomies". The orcs are tough to play, as they have no catchers and fairly poor agility. However, they do have a lot of goons, and in the next game I'd make it a point to block every chance I got.

While the rules are far too GW-ish for me, and the game is a total luck-fest between equally skilled players, I love this sort of thing. My wife likes NFL football, and I'm really hoping that the pizza box game that comes out late this month will be something she'll be interested in. Blood Bowl is far too involved for her, but it might be a good game to take to Mike's Super Bowl gaming party he throws every year. It certainly would be relatively fun to watch, compared to most euros. Great, another 2-player game competing for my time. As though wargames weren't enough...

Thanks for keeping me from looking like a complete loser, Laurent. I can hardly wait for folks to get back from Essen and back to multiplayer games.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Peas and Carrots

Chuck's wife was out of town, so he came over to play some of the new titles we didn't get in at our "WBC West" retreat in August. Perhaps the most anticipated (and tragically late by one stinking day) was Crusader Rex, the Columbia block game on one of the many Crusades that European rulers sent to the Levant in the Middle Ages. While I think this is certainly a topic worth designing a game on, I do have to wonder at the timing, given our most recent Crusade in Iraq (although in this case, we've replaced Saving Jerusalem as the excuse with Fighting Terrorism. Not much of a change, really).

A random draw gave me the (currently) favored Saracens, in a delightful pea green shade (the Franks are the carrots). I started out with a bold three-front advance from Aleppo, Damascus, and Egypt, only to see the southern and northern thrusts blunted rather badly. However, I did manage to get several castles along the coast that were undefended, as well as many of the inland castles. While these don't really help you win directly, they do allow you to keep your units on the board in the winter, which I found was a very good thing. The coastal fortresses also prevent the Franks from having operational flexibility to shift units from one part of the board to the other.

On the second turn, I used a 3 card to take Jerusalem (with the help of a few very good rolls, making up for my earlier crap rolling), and that was essentially it for the south end of the board other than one late stab by Chuck toward Egypt. The rest of the game saw the Saracens take Tripoli with Saladin himself, and a very sneaky siege of Antioch that saw the Assassins remove the last pip on the defending unit, just before the German crusaders showed up in force. The resulting siege and battles saw the Germans decimated to the point that, while Antioch returned to Frank control, Aleppo was never truly threatened.

Further south, the French finally decided to show up, and they tried to take back Tripoli. Saladin and his brother harried the attackers, retreated into the fort, took a little damage from storming, but a Jihad refreshed both units enough to hold off the French. The Brits finally drew their last unit in the penultimate turn, but Chuck had such bad cards on the last turn that he was doomed as soon as a relieving force eliminated the French threat. The Saracens won with 5 of the 7 victory castles under their control.

The biggest problem Chuck had was in not drawing his crusader units in a timely fashion. Of course, I did everything I could to prevent this by playing Mud cards on the last card play to stick Chuck with too many units in a given location. This didn't work quite as well as I might have hoped, but I did end up returning enough units to Chuck's pool that his odds for successful draws went down. The other key was getting enough castles to support the units I had on the board, and figuring out where the critical castles to prevent threats to my "home" areas of Damascus, Aleppo, and Egypt.

The other great news was that we finished this game within 3.5 hours. Part of this was due to a great play aid on the 'Geek (thanks, fubar!), use the v1.1 2-page aid there. We literally were able to play within 10 minutes, and neither player had read the rules in the previous month. I think we had five situations where we had to check the rulebook itself. I figure our next playing will take less than three hours, which is great for evening play. I really liked Hammer of the Scots, and this game is even better.

Next up was Winter War, the most recent of the Battlelines series from Lost Battalion. This is a very cool system marred by atrocious component values and perhaps the worst ruleset ever. And this is not an exaggeration. I picked up the very first game, Drive on Stalingrad, at WBC a couple of years ago and literally would not have been able to figure it out had I not gone to a demo. Even Walt Mulder's extensive rewrite does little to help, with multiple mentions of the same rules and terms and an example of play that requires a specific game in the series. Fortunately, once you have navigated the labyrinthine ruleset, the system itself is like nothing else on the market, and is good fun to play. Because the missions are relatively short, you can easily pick up the game and set it up again if time is an issue.

DoS is a very cool game, but I felt that the Russians had little if any chance to win. Also, because of the period, the Germans are always on the offensive and the Soviets on the defensive. The next two games, which I don't own, cover Stalingrad itself and the Soviet Uranus offensive that encircled the city. Winter War covers the German attempts to relieve the city, and the missions are a mix of both sides attacking, which is why I was attracted to this particular game.

Lost Battalion has their own card press, and the overal quality of the cards they use is pretty low. While the cards seem like they'll hold up in their current condition for a little while, that condition is pretty bad, with lots of damage around the card edges. However, they do shuffle well, and all of the necessary information (and there is a lot of information on every card) is presented clearly, with the exception of the damage capability of German units, which blends into the background of the flavor photo on the card. Later games, such as Battlegroup, are much better in quality, but have had serious color registration issues - my card backs had several different discernable colors, and the replacement deck they sent was only marginally better (although the company did offer to refund my money).

The game is played almost exclusively with cards. In fact, the only other thing you need (which isn't included) are markers to keep track of a few things - in general, five or six markers per player is more than adequate. Lost Battalion has started shipping markers with their newer games, hopefully they will start including them in a second edition of Battlelines in the future, although this is a small nit compared to the rules/component issues. Each mission starts with drawing a mission card, that describes how to lay out terrain cards, how they are connected (there is no way to show this directly with the terrain cards, but with only five to ten terrain cards in a mission, I've never had a problem), who is the attacker, starting forces, and how many points taking the enemy objective is worth.

Each player gets a unit deck that represents the forces within a specific military organization, along with a variety of other types of cards. Units come in a variety of types, and are organized into units that have specific icons. Some are very specific as to which other units they can coexist at a terrain location with (spades, moons, hearts), while others can be attached to any unit stack (diamonds). The other cards in the deck allow for "response" cards, action cards, terrain cards to help your position, and attachment cards that expand the capabilities of a given unit. All cards include a "general" random number, random numbers used in combat, a number to determine the number of actions a player can take in their turn, and whatever information the specific card type requires.

Each turn consists of a player pulling a card and checking the orders number, which simulates the operational flexibility of the unit. The Germans typically will get two or more orders, while the Russians typically get one or two. Each order can be used for a variety of things: discarding a card, drawing a card, playing an action card from the hand, playing unit cards down to friendly controlled terrain, and executing the text on a unit card. A typical unit will have between one and five lines of text, which are executed in order when that unit is activated. In some cases, a unit can affect a friendly unit by moving or advancing (and taking other units with it), or drawing artillery fire with Observers. In other cases, a unit will have a shot at an action if they can get a specific random number draw first. Artillery units can barrage from adjacent terrain card, headquarters can bring in units from the discard pile if they are of the same unit, and also reorder a certain number of cards at the top of the draw pile (very useful for random draws, as you can imagine). Finally, purple attachment cards can add lines of text, as well as adding attack or defense strength, cover, hits, etc.

Combat comes in three flavors: direct, indirect, and shock. Direct attacks are the most complex. First, a unit has to have the Combat action on their card (or on an action card played from the hand). The defender is the unit on the top of the defenders stack in the same location. Next, players determine who will fire first by comparing cover values (the tree icon on the terrain and occasionally the card itself) plus a random number card. The attacker uses their green attack number if the target is "soft" (has a green hexagon defense value) or blue if hard (a blue shield). Both players draw cards, the attacker adding the appropriate attack random number to their attack value, the defender adding to their defensive value plus the defensive value of their terrain. For each multiple of the defender value the attacker achieves, the defender draws a card to determine damage, given at the bottom of the card. Assuming the defender survives and holds, the roles are then reversed and repeated.

Combat resolution is a bit convoluted at first, but is very straightforward once you've done it a couple of times. For every attacker multiple, the defender draws one card and checks the damage line. If the line specifies a number of hits, the unit's damage capability is checked to see if the unit is eliminated. If the unit survives, the same draw will also specify specific numbers that must be drawn in order for the unit to hold. If multiple cards are drawn, the random number drawn must be on all original damage cards. For example, a unit that can take three damage (and has already taken one hit) takes two damage draws. The first card is "1 Hit, Hold on 2, 3, 6", and the second is "Hold on 1, 3". The "hit" card is placed underneath the unit to show that the next hit will eliminate it. Next, a random number card is drawn to see if the unit will hold or be removed for the rest of the mission. In this case, since the only number that is on both damage cards is "3," that is the number that the defender needs to draw to keep the unit in place. If the unit is eliminated, the opposing player takes the card and adds the victory points (given in a blue diamond) to his total.

Shock attacks use the red numbers and tend to be made by special action cards, such as airstrikes, and have no return fire. Indirect attacks use yellow values, are made through Barrage or Observer actions, and also have no return fire. Artillery is often only allowed to attack when friendly units are in the same terrain as the target, or if the cover value of that terrain/unit is below a certain level. Some artillery can directly target enemy artillery, bypassing the "may only attack unit on top of the stack" rule that normally protects artillery and HQ units. Otherwise, combat is resolved in the same way.

When one player's draw pile is exhausted, the mission is over. Players score points based on how well the offensive does, and occasionally if the defender manages to make a raid on the attacker's base. The basic format is 2x points if one player controls the objective terrain uncontested at mission end, or just x if the defender takes the attacker's base or the attacker is contesting the objective. Points are also earned for controlling non-base/objective terrain (based on the terrain card) and for eliminating enemy units. As you can imagine, the defender wants to cycle cards as quickly as possible, while the attacker wants to take terrain as quickly as possible.

As you can see, this is a pretty cool system, with lots of opportunity for massive turns of fortune. A couple of examples: In an earlier game, Chuck is the Germans and has been using action cards to generate extra orders, very bad news for the Soviets. After a few draws, Chuck has managed to get a whopping eight orders, a very large number. The Soviets, however, have a response card that reduces orders to 1, much to the Germans' chagrin. In our game yesterday, Chuck Plans by reordering the first three cards in the stack to enable a particularly nasty artillery barrage, but the Soviets play a card that forces the German to Waste the top two cards of the deck, screwing up the attack.

Sadly, I'm finding that, with these two sets at least, that the Soviets are mostly a punching bag for the Germans. In our game yesterday, Chuck won in three missions, with the Soviets unable to score a single point. To be fair, the Soviet units are worth about a third of the German units, but it is very hard to eliminate them since they have so many hits they can take. Also, the Germans have very few units (typically four) with a given organization icon, all of the rest are diamonds. As such, they can stack units pretty freely compared to the Soviets. Finally, the Soviets have fewer orders on average and smaller hand size. I also noticed that the Soviets have a response card that cancels air attacks by the Germans, but the Germans' deck doesn't have any cards that make air attacks! In essence, a card that you have to burn an order on to get out of your hand in a deck that is already at a serious disadvantage.

I suspect I'm missing some very basic strategy (like choosing your initial forces, which seems to be obvious: pick one icon and hope you don't get your HQ pulled at the start). Otherwise, I felt like either the mission didn't allow me to protect my terrain (four units to defend three areas), or my units had been so decimated by cards off in the withdrawn area (units can't come back unless you play a Medic card, which of course the Sovs don't have) or in the deadpile. As such, unit cohesion can take a huge hit in the first mission that is very difficult to recover from. But the real problem is that the German units are very strong and very hard to take out. In our game, in three missions, I never even saw a German unit withdrawn, but at least 12 cards of the Soviets were out. You would think this would work in their favor, but in this case the Germans attacked in the first two missions and the Soviets attacked in the third when deck size needed to be bigger.

Perhaps these are the least balanced modules in this system, although Uranus would be a lot like Drive, only with the Soviets constantly attacking, and Streets has very difficult terrain to navigate, making attacks by Soviet units problematic. Still, I felt like I never had the faintest chance to score any VP, much less win. In our first DoS game, the Soviets got lucky with a couple of damage draws on German units and there was a chance, albeit slim, for them to win, but otherwise the Germans have won handily every time.

I may try to find out if I'm simply misunderstanding how this game is played, but in general I'm very disappointed that Winter War was even less balanced than DoS. And I'm sorry, but anyone who suggests that two out of four separate games in a series are not balanced and I should try those after being burned twice is welcome to buy my copies. Still, the system is so promising that I will make the effort to get it to work as I can only imagine it was intended to.

So, one fairly good game (although I do wish that Chuck had had better luck in his unit draws in Crusader Rex, as well as his very poor siege rolling), and one dog. Still, the company was great, and Chuck bribes my wife for my time by taking us out for breakfast first! Yay! Thanks for playing, Chuck, we'll have to do this again soon.

South Tuesday, 10/4/05

Chris was getting ready for Essen, and Mike had a couple of things to do, so Laurent thoughtfully offered to host. However, Laurent lives about as far south as it's possible to be in the Portland Metro area, so I ended up as the only person to attend. This was a good thing, as it gave me a chance to play some of the 2-player stuff that has sat on the shelf for me recently.

First up was Carcassone: The Castle, the 2-player version. The differences between this and the regular version are pretty small: a constrained board, rewards for being the first person to end on specific spaces on the scoring track (which encourages going for specific scores), points for having the largest keep (like castles, but fewer VP at finishing time), double points for roads with wells, and farms that score based on special Market icons rather than tiles.

I had a strong start, but when I couldn't get the 20 point road that I'd been working on for the entire game finished off (and I had the chance to do it in the midgame), and Laurent did finish off his huge castle worth about the same, plus smoking me on Markets at the end, he won by about 10 points.

Laurent had wanted to try out the Settlers Card Game that I brought, so I taught the game and off we went. I have the expansions, but as this was new to Laurent we left them out. Someday I'll get to try more than just the Wizards expansion.

Again, I had a strong start, but try as I might (and I had the buildings that double ore and wheat production), I simply couldn't get a city built for the longest time. I did manage to get the extra settlement up, but Laurent had gotten so many windmill tiles that I never had enough goods to build cities until late in the game. Laurent won handily.

SCG has some great close results, but 90 minutes of being this far behind is too similar to Settlers of the Stone Age, where a few poor rolls at bad times (like when I had enough to build a city, only to have the Brigands show up) or outright statistical flukes (20 windmill rolls and 1 tournament roll, and you guess which I was rooting for) can really make the game seem interminable.

Of course, this all may just be sour grapes, but I'd much rather lose a close game than win a blowout. However, I'd much rather win a blowout than lose one, so there you go.

Thanks for hosting, Laurent!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Day of Gaming

The Sunriver retreat fell through at the last minute, so to stave off depression and angst I had Dave and Chuck over for a day of three-player games. On the table: Age of Steam, Scandinavia map; San Juan; Anno 1503, both the "basic" version and with the Pirates expansion.

Age of Steam is one of those games that I don't want to like. It seems very involved for a euro, and you can screw yourself six ways from Sunday in the early game if you aren't careful or aware of what can happen. In fact, my first experience (at Sunriver not long after it came out) was an unmitigated disaster, with us giving up after a few turns. Others persevered, however, and I played the Eastern US map with four players at Eric's not too long ago and enjoyed it. Still, it always feels like it's a lot of work for what it is.

Sadly, I don't know the names on the map particularly well, so my descriptions of how the game went will be on the vague side. I started out in the middle of the board, near the two ferry lines. In fact, I developed both ferry lines early and had a nice little set up with a four-link hookup in the early game that allowed me to stop issuing shares at 8, while Dave and Chuck both had to get up closer to 12 before the game ended. Dave, meanwhile, started setting up in the NE corner of the board, while Chuck focused in Germany along the southern edge of the board.

By the midgame, Dave had created a very nice little loop that was generating good money for him, and he was catching up to me quite nicely, although I had a good four-point pad in shares. I was also starting to run out of loads, although I did pull up by filling a couple of 3-link trips to avoid going up into the -6 income range and saving the 4-link'ers for the next turn. Chuck was coming on strong, but it was too little too late for him. He had set up in the NW corner of the board, but Dave moved up to meet him and Chuck couldn't get a good line going for what became a lot of unmoved goods in that corner of the board.

By the end of the game, it was clear that the "good" strategy was getting the "Move By Sea" option and creating your own load somewhere on the board. However, I was trying to get a certain amount of track on the board as well, and Dave outbid me on the last couple of turns. Especially on the final turn, we discovered that I'd built one piece of track too many, and I had to save $3 to avoid losing four links of track, worth a point or two to me at the end. I backed out, built a little more track, but couldn't do much better than 4 points for each load. In the end, Dave aced me by a point in what was a very tight game.

I'm going to have to pick this one up with the expansions. It's very good at scaling to different numbers of players, it doesn't take too long, and the tension in our game was quite high (at least for me). However, I still think that something doesn't quite work for me with this title. I really like the simplicity and elegance of Volldampf, maybe that's part of it.

It was time for food, so we hit the local pub that's two blocks from my place, ordered some pizza, and pulled out San Juan, the game that has to be my favorite of the last couple of years. Right out of the blocks, I pulled the Guild Hall, which is always popular with our group. I made a conscious effort to keep this card in my hand (you can't believe how often I go to build a card and discover that I spent it in the previous turn in this game), and did indeed get it out. In fact, I had what I considered to be a near perfect city, with four silver mines (a total of seven production cards), and scored 36 points in what I thought would be enough to win. However, Dave managed to get the Palace and the City Hall to squeak by me with 38! I sensed a theme for the day.

Back we came to the house, and this time we played Anno 1503. This has gotten mixed reviews from the net, and I have to admit that after playing Candemir: The First Settlers I was a bit concerned. I'm not a fan of Settlers of the Stone Age either, as it is far too easy to get screwed out of any chance of placing in the first several turns through no fault of the player. I was quite surprised to find that this game, a blend of Settlers and Entdecker, was a lot of fun. I'm a sucker for progressive revelation and exploration in a board game, as evidenced by roughly 3000 hours spent playing Civilization on my laptop in grad school.

Chuck ran away with the first game, working for an economic victory. He did so handily, finishing his third VP right before I got my second (and prepping for building up money). If I have to say anything bad about the game (other than the usual "too long for what it is," and even that is a pretty mild complaint in this case), it's that you have almost no chance of screwing other players once the game gets to a certain point. Sure, there can be six pirates rolled in a row, but that's so unusual as to be specious. Still, I enjoyed the game quite a bit.

Then we tried the game again with the Pirates variants. Big mistake. For one thing, I really had had my fill of this particular mix of mechanisms, and playing it again wasn't a great idea. The variant adds a lot of time to the game, and way too much extra stuff. Good Lord, you've got an extra island, luxury goods, pirates (straight out of Starfarers, which is a game I do like), and cannons. Everything felt tacked on and fussy, and indeed, I felt like I was spinning my wheels for about half of the game. Both Dave and Chuck had tiles giving them marble and silk, and when I got the necessary tiles my numbers didn't come up. When I couldn't kill a 4 pirate harbor with the Sea Hero in hand, that was the final straw for me. Dave won the game handily before I was anywhere near getting my second VP, and I think Chuck wasn't that far ahead of me.

In a nutshell, Anno 1503 seems like a great game ruined by an overambitious expansion set. I'll pick up the base game, but the expansion will not make it to my shelf. Also, I don't know how well this game would work with four, three at times seemed a bit slow at the start, although by the game end we were playing in what could only be described as "briskly."

Thanks to Dave and Chuck for saving me from what would have been a very mopey day, even if I didn't win anything.