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.

1 comment:

Mike said...

> Mike ..... ended up being the surprise winner

And no-one was more surprised than myself. I thought you had it sewn up. I liked Byzantium (of course... :), but I am one of the Martin Wallace fan boys.

> Princes of the Renaissance

I've only played the once and would be more than happy to have another go at it.