Sunday, March 19, 2006

24 Hours

With a trip to Canada to celebrate my 20th anniversary coming up, I knew that gaming opportunities at the end of March would be far and few between, so I took advantage of two sessions within a 24 hour period, separated only by some sleep and a performance by my church choir at the American Choral Director's Association regional conference. I've almost recovered.

Friday night we had a gaming session at a local Starbucks. The idea is mostly to expose others in the public to quality boardgaming (and we did have a couple of people show up), but we also got to "audition" a new gamer who is interested in joining the group. Mike, KC, and Chris joined myself and Ben to play first one of KC's Diamant variants and then Pirate's Cove.

This was my first playing of Diamant, even if it was using homebrew components (to accomodate the variants, KC owns a copy of the game). The game is basically a Chicken variant, where you can stick it out in the mines at the risk of Bad Things happening. I was a big Chicken (although to be honest I didn't know the card distribution) in most of the chambers, and I had a miserable score as a result. The first two or three tunnels never saw anyone getting any points at all, as we tended to turn up two Die, Miner, Die cards of the same suit pretty quickly.

The two variants were a) "artifact" cards that went to the last players in a given tunnel, and b) the Personal Doom variant, where in the final tunnel each player gets one hazard card. If your card comes up, down you go (although the first three cards you are "safe".

This is a cute little game that should fit in a standard card game box and cost $10 retail. The fact that it costs $25 and has a ton of superfluous components makes it a game I'm unlikely to purchase, and there are enough people in the group who own it.

With five players, we took the opportunity to try out Pirate's Cove, DoW's reprint of Amigo's Piratenbucht. I am a huge fan of the original, and I think the few changes made by DoW are good ones. While the Island of the Fabio's (sailor's island) doesn't have the same cachet as in Piratenbucht, the components are great. I particularly like the plastic pirate ship models.

I had a great start in this game, getting the parrot that lets you roll six dice in combat, and I became feared. Then I whiffed badly, lost the parrot, lost two fame (one of the changes), and stalled for pretty much the rest of the game. I had almost 20 fame points within a couple of turns of starting, then I sucked air so bad I managed perhaps another 8 points total. KC was doing quite well, and even Ben's late run wasn't enough to catch him.

I own the original, but am considering buying the DoW edition just because it looks so cool and the changes are well considered.

After my concert on Saturday morning, I made the trek out to Eric's for Third Saturday of the Month. Because of the concert, I didn't get out until around noon, so Chuck, Dave, and Eric played the Italy map of Age of Steam and had good things to say about it.

After lunch, we tried out Reef Encounter, the new Richard Breese title that's gotten a lot of positive buzz. Like most Breese games, the basic focus is on doing a variety of actions that chain together to achieve the game's goals. In this case, the goal is to a) feed your parrotfish with a reef you control, and b) improve the viability of those reefs (that were, uhm, eaten) through algae. Really.

And that's just how you win. In order to get to this point, you have to build reefs with polyp tiles in conjunction with larvae cubes, protect them with your shrimp, eat other reefs (some of which may be yours), and jockey for position over which color reefs eat other reefs through the algae. Put bluntly, this game is a bitch to explain, and after using the words "algae," "larvae," and "polyp" you can see the other gamers' eyes glazing over.

With that much rules explanation, it better be a good game. And, frankly, I think it is, although I think the game would be much better with three players, or even two (although with two I'd expect a little too much reacting over planning). Every turn, you need to examine what tiles and cubes you have, what the board position looks like, what your choices are for tile/cube draws at the end of the turn, and what polyps can eat other polyps. For such an involved system, it really does work pretty well, albeit with a certain amount of downtime.

One of the problems is that of defensive play. You can only "harvest" one reef on your turn, and chances are very good, especially early, that any reefs big enough will be beat down by other players before it comes around to your turn. However, if you can get a reef eaten early, you can "freeze" which reefs eat other reefs, which can have a big tactical advantage. Still, chances are good that whatever specific plan you had during your turn isn't going to work by the time your turn comes around again, so flexibility is also important.

Some tactics quickly showed their value. Building a reef in a corner of one of the playing boards is a good idea, as is leaving single square holes in your reef to limit where players can bring in new threatening reefs. Playing the Algae board that controls which polyps eat which other polyps can be huge, not only for protecting your reefs but also for points at game end and for stopping the game. I found that choosing a set of tiles and a cube at the end of the turn hinged primarily on which cube to get, which was important as you had to have a cube to place the matching tiles unless you had previously consumed a tile of the correct color.

Chuck was clearly unimpressed with the game pretty much from the start, and perhaps he didn't get the necessary shots at tiles and cubes to do what he needed to do. For the rest of us, it wasn't immediately clear at what point you should harvest a reef. I typically bit when the size got to seven, although Dave had two large reefs harvested where he got nine or ten (you lose the first four, so it's an even bigger difference than it seems). If you can manage to get a large enough reef, better yet two, it tends to create an unassailable position, and Dave did just that.

Yet, at the end, Dave lost the tiebreaker (consumed polyps not played) to Eric, both tying at 42 points. I was fairly close behind with 36 points, partly because I had collected four different colors of polyps (you really should be focusing on two if possible). Chuck, who I think was lucky to get three of his reefs collected, had 32 points.

Since defensive play is so critical in this game, I'm a bit concerned that the game will work with three, although the game will go a lot faster. Without defense, I'm worried that the game will move faster and thus be more affected by the tiles/cubes available for draw at the end of the turn.

Still, I think this game has tremendous potential, and I definitely think it will require a few plays to get my head around it. I can definitely see this game playable in 90 minutes with four players, so it could see table time at weeknight sessions, not just on weekends or at our Sunriver retreat.

With that, I turned into a pumpkin and headed home to nap for an hour before heading out for dinner with friends. Perhaps it will be good to have a break from games for several days...


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