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.

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