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.