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.