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.