Monday, February 20, 2006

Birthday Wargaming

Chuck came over on my very happy unbirthday (a date with an uncanny similarity to the day I was born) for a little wargaming. On the table: Crusader Rex and C&C: Ancients.

Last time, I was the Saracens and Chuck the Franks, so we switched places this time. The rules have changed slightly to allow "native" castles/cities to support 3x the units of "enemy" castles. For example, since Aleppo is Saracen with a value of 3, they can support 9 units over the winter, but only 3 Frank units. Other effects (replacement points) are as before. Also, Frank units may only set up in alternate seats within the kingdom they begin in. This means that the holy orders such as Templars have some limitations on where they can go aside from just the spaces with their mark on it.

Chuck got off to a great start dividing and conquering my areas. I got the Jihad card in the first draw, and used it to extremely poor effect - I must have had Deans Disease, as I rolled crap the first half of the game. Once Chuck got going, he started by taking the big Frank castle in the north and tried to roll his way down the board. Fortunately, the English showed up just in time to save Acre, and then the French showed up to threaten the not-so-fortified north. On the final turn, there was a big fight for that last big city (and a quickly taken and retaken Aleppo in the NE), but I kept forgetting about using Knight's Charge and Chuck managed to hold on to win the game.

So much of this game relies on when you manage to draw the Crusader blocks for the Franks. Despite terrible rolls early on, and only one really good run when the English came in to protect Acre (Jerusalem and Tripoli were never really threatened), I felt like I was in it right at the end. I still can't believe I didn't attempt Knight's Charges during the big fight for that city whose name I JUST CAN'T FREAKIN' REMEMBER. Sigh.

I wanted to try out Ancients, and Chuck was kind enough to put up with a game system he really isn't that impressed with. I haven't been either, I put Memoir '44 up for auction and Battle Cry is going on eBay soon. Still, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, my solitaire attempts were kind of fun. The biggest changes (aside from the bizarre component choices - If you've got blocks, why do I need four to make up a unit instead of rotating a la Columbia's games?) have to do with a wide variety of unit types, more rules to reward at least a semblance of historical tactics, and the devastating effect of heavy and medium infantry.

We played Cannae, and I got the Carthaginians as I was the unbirthday boy. The sides are pretty evenly matched, but the Carthaginians have the advantage of a six card hand to the Roman's four (to reflect Varro's complete lack of tactical comprehension). I began with a cavalry foray with Marharbal's units on the left flank. This didn't work so well, I lost two units pretty quickly and had to pull Marharbal back. I also moved my Gallic warriors up to cause some damage early, but they got mowed down pretty quickly for only one VP in return.

We started moving units up, with me focusing on the left side. Cavalry made more probes on the flanks, going after unsupported light units, but the real damage happened once the heavy infantry got into the mix. Say what you will, rolling five dice with a leader in tow is going to cause some problems on the other side's units. The lead in VP went back and forth, but finallly we were down to six VP each, and a devastating attack (or counter attack) would determine the winner. In the end, my larger choice of cards paid off and my medium cavalry killed the last unit in one of Chuck's auxilia.

Hey, at least I won something.

Chuck has serious issues with the luck, the lack of historical accuracy, and (as he put it), "Did you feel like you did anything that won the game for you?" As the winner, my natural answer was, "But of course!" It is a good point, but at least it's a good ride and a fun, short, light game with serious wargame elements. It's such a huge step up from M44, I can forgive that it's really not a wargame.

That was it for Saturday, but I did get the chance to play World of Warcraft solo on Sunday. This time, I was the Alliance with the Paladin and the Spooky Hand Lady (sorry, I have no idea who these characters map to in the computer game), fighting against Mr. Peek-A-Boo (you have to locate which of the five tokens hides the overlord). I had a couple of setbacks with both characters, and there was an Ogre-In-Training per the third-party solitaire rules that I didn't get around to whacking ahead of time, so I ended up fighting both the overlord and the ogre at the end. This killed me against the first overlord I found in my first solo game, but here it wasn't too bad. The Paladin is all about red and green dice, and I had very smartly chosen the 5th level talent that lowers the threat level (what you have to roll) for every red 8 you roll. Since the Overlord has a threat level of 7, getting this number down is H-U-G-E. It took three rounds of combat, and I took a lot of damage that first round when the ogre was adding attack value, but after that the Paladin had so many markers in the defense box that it would have taken a really bad roll. Spooky Hand Lady helped a lot in the first round (she was three XP out from level 5), but I'd blown a lot of Energy in the last turn getting her powers set up and she was pretty useless in the next two rounds (although that succubus is helpful in giving red dice and taking hits).

WoW strikes me as a puzzle game. There really isn't much differentiation between the various critters, although their effects do add up (and the different values between green/red/blue). What is fun is figuring out how to equip a character to best effect given the situation. What does get lost pretty solidly in the solo game is the event deck. The biggest issue is getting the "overlord sidekick" events, the others are really kind of non-starters unless you get a quest in one of the same areas. I get the strong sense that these make considerably more sense when you have six (or three solo) players, as there are fewer quests to go after on your side and you need more opportunities to get XP. I do understand that you refresh quests once one gets done, but it's difficult to plan to be in the right area if you don't know where it will show up, so having those extra "quests" is handy. I may try this with three characters next time, although to be honest I have no idea where the heck I'll put that third character sheet on my admittedly smallish dining table.

All in all, though, I feel like I've gotten more gaming value per dollar (and certainly per pound, this monster must weigh at least six) from this game than any I bought in 2005. Pizza Box Football takes less time to set up and play (WoW takes a good 20 minutes just for setup, another 15 for teardown), and you can take it on trips, but WoW is, so far, a blast.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Good Thoughts Needed

I'm not a religious man, although I do like to think I have a healthy spiritual side that can be replenished through good friends, good food, the arts, etc. However, I have learned in the past few days that a close friend is facing the end of his life, and I will ask for anyone who reads this blog to send a little positive energy to him and his family if you can.

His name is Pat Newman, and he was the best man in my wedding 20 years ago next month. He was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, last September. Six months later, he is unable to talk on the phone, unable to use his right arm, and is sinking fast. From all accounts, he is in extremely good spirits given his condition, and has been an inspiration to all who have been around him since he discovered this disease.

I learned of his condition from a mutual friend on Wednesday who spent considerable time tracking me down. Pat and I haven't spoken in years, not because of any bad blood but simply because we lived in different parts of the country. I am making plans to travel to Denver as soon as possible to see him. When I spoke to his brother this evening on the phone (Pat is unable to communicate over the phone anymore), and I asked how critical time was, Mike told me that Pat said "sooner is better".

I have no illusions that Pat has even a slight chance of survival, although his family and church are praying nearly around the clock for his recovery. As someone who has spent time with a dying family member I know what a toll this process can take. What I don't fully comprehend is what this would be like to endure for six months with things steadily getting worse. Listening to his father and brother on the phone I can hear the fatigue and pain even over 1000 miles of telephone cable and it breaks my heart. They are the ones who will be left behind to wonder at God's plan, and I grieve for them as much as I will grieve for Pat when he is gone.

So please, regardless of your world view and/or religious leanings, take a few minutes and send both Pat and his family as many good thoughts and as much positive energy as you can over the coming days. Thank you.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

South Tuesday Session, 2/7/06

My wife wrecked her car recently, and it had enough damage that we had to total it and buy another car. I really hate buying cars, as I know just enough to be dangerous. To make matters worse, we didn't look over the weekend as a friend has a connection into car auctions, and we wanted to see if any RAV4's were up for grabs in the near future. Sadly, no, and so we found ourselves on Monday afternoon in a position with very little free time to find a car before State Farm stopped paying for the rental. Tuesday afternoon was that day, so I got up very early to take care of things at work, then rush home after lunch to rush out to one of the few dealerships with a used RAV4 (the market is very slim on these vehicles in Portland), and managed to buy a car in time to get to Mike's by 7pm for gaming.

You knew there was a gaming tie-in there, didn't you?

Anyway, this will help to explain why I managed to set up Union Pacific for five players and completely forget to deal four share cards to people at the start of the game. That's 20 cards, and since I like the variant deck preparation rule where the dividend cards get spread around the deck, and the last dividend card was seven cards from the bottom of the deck.

This made for a fairly long game, a good 2.25 hours. We eventually ran out of places to place trains, and had to just play or draw shares for the last several rounds. On the plus side, I won with a boatload of points. I managed to get the majority of UP shares for the last two scores, at the end with a single share lead over both Mike and George of 6-5-5. I also held the majority of the Red track, and in fact essentially built it up the entire game. Mike felt badly for getting all of these second place points for this train, and actually put a couple on the board for me, but I was able to hold him off for the entire game in that line. I also managed to snag the Mexican Radio line out from under Patrick at game end. Play Tip: go after the same lines as the guy to your left, as you'll almost always be able to snag these shares before he can.

In the end, getting close to 80 points off of just the UP and Red lines, I won handily with over 130 points. I will not forget the dealt shares in the future!

With only about 30 minutes left and five people, Mike wanted to show us a racing game that is released in the US as Breakaway Rider. I have this title, and was ready to give it away after an abortive runthrough with members of my family at Sunriver last summer. After playing two heats (hands) with this group, I have to say that it is just as luck-based as ever, but with extremely brisk play I think it is good fun. If you spend too much time thinking about what to play, the game loses any charm it might once have had, but if you have to react quickly it's pretty fun. If you're interested in a quick game that will in all likelihood not reward you for good play but is entertaining if you take it for what it is, this is a keeper. It has moved from my Auction pile to my Keep For Now pile.

Thanks to Mike for hosting, and I again apologize for the rules screwup. I spent the whole game thinking that we had an awful lot of trains on the board given the number of shares left to draw...

World of Warcraft Solitaire

Every once in a while you get a game that you know is going to be a tough sell to the rest of your group, but it looks so cool that you just can't help yourself. World of Warcraft (the boardgame, obviously) is one of those games. On the one hand, it has a very interesting character development system, great bits (even with the now-standard blue/green/red 8-crayons-to-a-box colors), an astonishingly clean set of rules, and enough variety in quests/characters/overlords to keep things interesting for many playings. On the other hand, the game can take a very long time and I suspect that downtime would be a huge issue (especially with six players). As such, the game only appears to really be feasible for four. Add in enough components to completely overwhelm most dining room tables, and this is a game that is likely only to come out a handful of times at best.

Which is a real shame, as FFG seems to have finally done a computer game franchise right (I won't count Doom or Warcraft w/ expansions, as you have to in effect purchase two games to get one good one). Fortunately for me, a kind soul put out a really great solitaire/cooperative set of rules on the 'Geek that makes this game extremely playable, not to mention fun.

The rules themselves are very simple - you play one side instead of two, so you always have turns with little downtime even if others are playing. If you are playing alone, you pick two characters, otherwise you play one character each with two or three players. To balance the shortage of independent critters on the board, there are a few changes to event cards, especially Old Hatreds, Creatures of Lornaedon, and War. In all of these, independent critters are placed based on a dieroll. Old Hatreds can be particularly brutal, as the critters are usually very big (Doom Guard, Drakes, etc), and if you don't take them out they end up helping the overlord at game end. I can specifically state that allowing them to get that far is a Bad Idea.

Rather than playing every turn, you simply start the turn marker on turn one or two depending on which faction you are playing (Horde take odd turns, Alliance even), and advance the turn marker two turns instead of one. You still do all of the events and goodie cards, but otherwise play is exactly the same. Obviously, there are no PvP wins, you must defeat the Overlord in your 15 turns or lose.

I played two solitaire games, as this monster takes a long time to set up and put away and I wanted to maximize my play time to box time ratio. First I played the Alliance, using the short Brunhilde priest and the midget with a gun. Sorry, I don't play the online version so I can't tell you what specific class they are (and really don't care). I made a couple of big mistakes in that I did not go after both of the Old Hatreds monsters, so I ended up with an extra Doom Guard to fight. I also had Kel 'Thuzzad (or whatever his name is, the guy with extra cards in the event deck). I drew three of the five cards during the game and so he was extremely strong by game end. I barely remembered I had to take time just to get to Stratholm to fight him, so both characters were short in terms of advancement (both halfway through level 4). As it was, they barely survived the first round, and only managed to have a couple of hit markers in the damage box after killing the Doom Guard lackey. Needless to say, they were toast before they could kill Kel. I also didn't realize how important buying Powers could be, as I was thinking you had to place them rather than have them handy to set up for specific opponents. Both characters ended up with close to 20 or more gp at game end, just sitting there doing nothing.

The second game saw me with two characters that didn't look that similar at first glance, the Horde Druid and the orc chick with cleavage and a spikey club, the one that there isn't an Alliance equivalent to (Shaman?). They start with different health/energy levels, but I hadn't noticed that they both had the same limitations on armor and weapons, so almost every single item card they drew was useless, certainly the ones from the merchant. Their opponent was the Really Big Dragon, Nekahoohoo or something. Nekahoohoo is interesting because he's on a timer of sorts - when you draw an event card, you advance Lil' Neky that many spaces across the board. When he gets to a specific space, you have to fight him no matter what shape you're in.

I actually aborted my Horde game about three turns in, as Neky was three spaces away from where he would end the game, and both of my characters had blown their dice in their first combats, effectively losing a complete cycle. When one lost again the second time (against a Murloc, how lame), I chose to concede to myself and start over. The second game, despite the lack of useful items and similarities of the two characters, went very smoothly and they beat the dragon rather decisively on the final turn of the game. If I had to pick a key play, it was going after the Old Hatreds Drake in tandem to avoid having to deal with it in conjunction with Lil' Neky, and at little cost to each player.

Game time took about two or three hours, although I did have to look up several rules in both cases that slowed me down. I also did not play the games all the way through on either playing, taking time to do chores, etc. FFG has a FAQ that covers errata, although it is mostly on the cards, and I highly recommend you have it handy for those times when a card has discarded terminology that doesn't make sense in the context of the published rules (some characters have text on their sheets that is incorrect as well). I did print out some stat tracking sheets that look very useful, but my poor table was completely overwhelmed by all of the components and even two more 8.5x11 sheets would have required an additional table leaf. I found myself able to quickly tally up dice at any rate, and by doing so I kept myself honest wrt paying energy for any instant powers I used.

The thing I like most about this game is the character development. You have 12 powers and 12 talents (the former earned through paying gold and/or energy to equip, the latter gained when you go up in level), and there are a few different combinations that allow the characters to focus in different directions. Since you are playing with at least two characters per side, but the max is three, I didn't feel that I was any more limited in terms of what combinations would work vs playing in a "real" game with four or six players. Combined with the variety of quests and overlords, this game has a huge replay value. Just getting to know the various characters well while playing two at a time would take at least a dozen playings, as the Horde characters, while sharing the basic Power/Talent deck in a given class, have different printed abilities in the slots of their character sheet, making them at least a little bit different from their Alliance counterparts.

I highly recommend this game using this system, it is good fun. Look on the 'Geek in the files section for something labelled "solitaire/cooperative", it's worth the trip.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mike's Super Bowl Party 2006

Usually, the Super Bowl is one of those sporting events where the hype far outstrips the enjoyment of watching the game, especially once the first half commercials have all run (that BK ad with the dancing condiments - very trippy!). As such, Mike hosts a party every year where we mostly game and occasionally watch the football. Two years ago, we were all playing Coloretto when Janet Jackson had her wardrobe malfunction and almost all of us missed it. Thank goodness for the internet or I'd never have seen anything. ;-)

This year, however, since we're in Portland and the closest thing we have to a pro football team is the Seahawks, things were a little bit different. About half of our group are 'Hawks fans, so watching the game was going to be the feature rather than a good excuse to get together and game. Still, the game didn't start until after 3pm...

With Pizza Box Football such a hit with our group, we decided to run a quickie single elimination tournament. I was very excited to play this game again, as I got creamed by Chuck in my first ftf game, and haven't done so well against the AI they have for solitaire on the website. We used the Backyard Brawl rules for most of the games, where each player gets six possessions starting at various parts of the field. The final used the Smashmouth rules, where each play takes one tick off of the 30 tick clock per quarter.

I should be very clear that PBF is largely luck driven. Get the right roll at the right time, and you are in good shape. The entire defense system will have a major effect about once in 30 plays, otherwise it's all about how well you roll those three black dice to determine the result of the play. This is one of the reasons I like the Full Professional game, because now you also have some control over the clock as well, whereas otherwise it's simply playing rock paper scissors. Mind you, it's an awful lot of fun for playing rock paper scissors! PBF gives great story, at least some of the time, and has been said before, it does feel like you're participating in a football game.

My first game was against Morgan, a friend of George's wife Staci. This was his first game, and had I not intercepted the ball in his third and fourth drive, it would have been close. As it was, he conceded before we played the final drives as I was up 21 -3.

Next up was 9 year old Matthew, who is a great kid but a little on the loud side. He had fun, especially the part where he was winning (which was about 2/3rds of the game), but he also liked to bring the QB Blitz in obvious run situations. One wacky thing about playing PBF in Brawl mode is that you have no reason not to go for it on 4th down unless you want to try a field goal, so you really have to get out of thinking in terms of 3 and out until you get in pretty close. I had several 4th and long situations in this game, especially in my last two drives, that saved the game for me. In the penultimate drive, I scored a touchdown that put me up by six points on Matthew, and he wasn't happy. Until he managed to score a touchdown of his own on his last drive. He's up by one at this point, and even though I start on his 25 yard line, I still know that getting a few more yards will increase my chances of winning with a field goal by quite a bit. Sadly, I gained nothing on three straight runs (all of which he QB blitzed; I'll give him this, he's committed), but I did manage to squeak the field goal in on a 10 where I needed a 9, so I got to advance. Nothing like defeating a nine year old to make you feel good about yourself.

The "conference championship", one step away from the final, was against Carey. Carey's strategy was, in most situations, to select plays randomly. Argh. As if the game weren't random enough! We had a very tight game, with the score going back and forth. Carey was ahead going into the final set of drives, but not by much, although I did need a TD to take the lead. Not wanting to screw up and get intercepted, I instead ran the ball, had a mishap, fumbled, and after a few bounces it went Carey's way. He immediately kicked on his possession, making his attempt and cementing his win. Sadly, he fell to Chris in the final. When I checked in the score was something like 34-7 around halftime, and I guess when Carey had to leave he conceded to give Chris the win in what was already looking like a walkover. Random don't work so well when you play the full game...

Three games of Brawl, and I enjoyed all of them. I have to admit, even though the game loses the aspect of clock management, it is made up for by being pretty short. I don't think any of our games took any longer than an hour, and that was unusal (mine all took around 40 minutes tops). The game does reward playing the game in a football-like manner - going for long passes when it's necessary or a luxury, running on short downs, etc - so even if it does come down to not rolling 5 or less and trying to roll 12 or higher, it doesn't feel like the game is playing you. Good fun.

We had an hour until Mel was due to show up and the game to start, so Dave showed us his prototype. I will not go into details other than to say that I liked it quite a bit, although it still has some tweaking to do. I still think a tie-in with a show on the Food Network is the way to go wrt theme... ;-)

Of course, the second the game was to start, the highschoolers wanted to learn World of Warcraft. This is a game that really requires someone to set it up ahead of time, we spent about 20 minutes just getting everyone ready to start learning the rules. Teaching was even more difficult, as I was standing in front of the beverage fridge with the television directly behind me. Hard to get focus in that situation! Also, I wasn't going to be playing, so I taught them the basics of what actions were, how combat worked, and that the whole game was about trying to complete as many quests as quickly as possible. Considering they only had a couple of questions in the two hours they played, either my teaching was effective or the game has a clean design, probably both considering the complexity. I think they got through four or five turns each before halftime, not bad considering that it took me the entire first quarter to get them set up. Sadly, that was the quarter where the Seahawks played well.

Most people had given up on the game going into the final six minutes, and some games started breaking out, but I was pretty tired by then and it was time to head home and find out exactly what constituted a "Code Black" on Grey's Anatomy. A little internet research showed that in the real world, a Code Black means violence, where in the show it meant an unexploded bazooka shell, which I think is really a Code Orange. I guess Code Black sounds much sexier. I do feel sorry for anyone who tuned in expecting an episode of ER when the show is really much more like LA Law. Sort of like when the marketers pitched American Beauty as appropriate for teens, or Striptease as a madcap comedy.

But enough about marketing scum! Thanks to Mike for again hosting what seemed like a pretty good number of partygoers for the Super Bowl, I figure one day he'll wise up and decide it's all far too much work, but for now it's a great space where we can get four different games going at once and get sterilized by the subwoofer. ;-)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Central Tuesday Session, 1/31/06

Eight people playing games on a very rainy Tuesday night in late January. I can hardly think of anything I'd rather be doing.

Mike, Tim, Carrie, Rita, KC, Eric, Chuck, and myself split into two groups, with the first three on the list and myself in the Temple of Conspicuous Consumerism (my family room). The other group played Power Grid on my new France map, Tichu, and perhaps one or two other games. We played Gardens of Alhambra and Mess'o'potamia (apologies to The Daily Show).

Gardens looks like a fairly simple game of the Carcassone stripe. You put down the tile from your one-tile hand next to an existing tile on what is essentially a square grid board, and then draw a new one. There are unbuilt structures at the intersections, and when these are surrounded they score. Each tile contains from one to six "trees" on each side of the tile, with each player's color represented, so that when you are helping yourself you are almost always also helping someone else. Whoever has the most trees surrounding the structure gets the points, between 1 and 5, multiplied by the number of different players who where contending for the structure. Thus, a 5 building surrounded by three different colored trees is worth 15 points. If there is a tie for the most, they cancel out. It is even possible, although very unlikely, for a player who hasn't got a single tree to get the points, although this would require three players each placing exactly the same number of trees. In our game, the ties were always between two players and so no points were awarded in these cases.

In fact, this rule is what makes the game interesting. It is possible to make plays that will both help you and stifle scoring in a nearby space, and it is finding these results that make the game fun. Since you only have one tile in hand, and the number of trees on each side of the tile is the same, parsing the board is really pretty easy to do, although we did seem to take a while to try to figure out optimal moves most of the time, largely because the tile wasn't as optimal as one might like. There is a variant that gives each player three tiles in hand, and I think that this might actually speed things up when an optimal play is possible.

In our game, Tim and I got out to an early lead with some good scores of 15 and/or 20 points, with Mike bringing up the rear. Carrie made an excellent run at the end, good enough to get within one point of Tim's victorious score, while I stalled badly and ended up a good ten points back.

This is one of those games that reminds me a lot of Samurai, and the scoring algorithm would make it very interesting for three players despite the lack of other scaling features as found in a game like Samurai (where the board gets smaller with fewer players). The structures are placed randomly on the board at the game's beginning, so every game feels just a little bit different. I liked it quite a bit, and I'll give it a very solid Play Gladly on the Lietz Scale with a potential Will Kill To Play rating if the fun level stays high in future games.

Next up was Mesopotamia from Phalanx Games. Think Roads & Boats with a discovery element and a much more significant luck factor, but also a whole lot shorter and less complex (and cheaper). The idea is to build huts using your meeples wood gained from forest hexes, which produce offering tokens and allow for making more meeples (a process known as "doinking"). OK, I made that last part up. There are also rock quarries that produce rock used to build holy places that generate mana and to increase the amount of mana you can save up. You take the offering tokens to the central temple and spend mana equal to the number on the token. Once you get all four offerings in to the temple you win.

In doing all of the above, you get to move your meeples a total of five spaces in a turn (that's all moves combined, not moves per meeple). Moves include picking up resources, stealing resources from anyone with less meeples than you in a space (forcing a certain amount of defensive moves), discovering new hexes, and building the temple by taking a rock resource there. Next, you can either doink, build holy places or huts in plains hexes, or take a Wacky Random Effect card. Finally, you get mana for every holy space that you have the required number of meeples on.

The components are quite nice in this game. The hexes have a funky whirlpool/sunburst outline so that they interlock, which I found to be a great alternative to the usual "straight edges that create chasms at inopportune moments" style. The rocks are actually white garden rock, the wood are little matchsticks on steroids, the meeples and huts are nice painted wood pieces. The rules are pretty straightforward, although there was at least one error on the otherwise useful player aid card regarding the requirements for successful doinking. God, I love that word, it's almost as good as "gobsmacked," which actually sounds a bit dirtier.

I found play to move along nicely with four players. I felt like there was actually less downtime than with Gardens, which is odd considering that you have several steps to each turn in Mess. Sure, it's a game of the "get stuff to build stuff to get other stuff to get points" variety, but it's short enough and there were enough choices that I enjoyed playing. I really liked the components, I felt they added a lot to the game.

It's important to not let anyone get the run of one corner of the board to themselves, however, and that was exactly what was happening with Mike around the midgame. Despite making a sequencing mistake early on by trying to doink in areas with huts that also had offerings (apparently they smell bad and ruin the mood), Mike was doing quite well, and I was a bit concerned that he was going to walk away with the game at the end. I played a card that stole a single mana point from him that delayed his victory by one turn, and that was just enough for Tim to play his card that gave him two extra points, enough to run in his last offering to steal the win from Mike. I was about two turns away from a win, largely because I spent several turns looking in vain for a little rock and only finding Iowa (plains hexes). Over, and over, and over. Of course, at the end of the game when I was looking for a plains hex, I found rock. Harumph.

At game end, everyone liked it to varying extents but Mike, who hated it. This really surprised me, as Mike loved Roads and Boats, and this felt a lot like that, at least the early part of the game (I disliked the later part of R&B, as it was so easy to make sequencing mistakes that made me feel pretty stupid). Mike felt that he had played optimally and had gotten screwed out of the win by a couple of card plays. I agree that the cards add a luck element, but whether or not you draw a card is up to you and doing so prevents you from getting the opportunity to build or doink. On the flip side, it gives you something to do if nothing else comes up. I'd play with the variant where you don't shuffle the discards in the future, as it makes drawing cards early a dicier prospect when the other actions have a bigger effect. When Mike feels that he'd have had more fun and gotten the same result by turning over a card, that's usually a sign that he didn't like it much (see todays Gathering of Engineers entry from me for a discussion of why I disagree with this specific assessment).

Me, I liked it quite a bit. I felt in most cases that my play choices were fairly obvious, but that wasn't always the case. The threat of having someone steal resources you are carrying forces a safety in numbers strategy, and having choices as to whether to use your rock to build holy places or increase your mana is nice, although only around five holy places got built, everyone choosing to up their mana from three to seven as quickly as possible. Again, the components are sweet, perhaps one of the best looking games I've seen. We finished in about 75 minutes, including explaining the rules (and looking up a few, as some of the requirements for building can be a little obtuse).

I'll give this one a Gladly Play for now, but I don't expect the rating to jump up higher. The luck elements do have a big effect on the game, but for a game that claims a 45 minute playing time on the box I don't believe it's anything close to a deal killer. This is really the first Phalanx title I've bought that I'm really happy about, not a good sign as I must own seven of their games (Revolution, Prince, House Divided, Age of Napoleon, Alexander, First World War, plus Mess), but they have such great production values that it's hard to say no. Given that a very basic rules question for Revolution has repeatedly been ignored by their staff, I would not have bought this game had not others in our group had a good experience with it.

As an added bonus, the plastic insert is actually made for this specific game, something new for Phalanx. I hate throwing those out, but in a lot of cases I'm much better off with baggies in a huge box.

Thanks to everyone for coming over. I'm sure Eric will detail the outcome of the other games on his Inculaba site (Incubala? Incubus Latte?) After a very long Monday for me that included 14 hours out of the house capped by me running rehearsal for a choir of high school aged Unitarian girls whose parents have taught them to question authority at every opportunity, it was nice to have such great company.