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.