Thursday, April 27, 2006

Central Tuesday Session, 4/25/06

A smallish crowd on Tuesday, not a surprise given the gorgeous weather we've been having in Portland this April. It seems, aside from the pollen, that we've skipped spring entirely and gone straight to early summer. Tim, Carrie, Mike and Ben showed up to try out two new titles for me, Hacienda and Tower of Babel.

Hacienda is a recent Kramer title that's gotten good buzz on the 'Geek, and it definitely holds to his philosophy that games shouldn't be terribly complicated to learn but difficult to play well, and this game met that critera for me. In spades.

The object, of course, is to score points, which you do by building chains of land and critters that reach from the dogbone shaped ring of various terrain types through the pampas to get to market. If you run by a water hole or place haciendas on your property, so much the better. The trick of the game is that while you start out with some land and critter cards, you can only get more by spending money to draw them, and you need to get money by running critters out to market and harvesting your land. If you are able to build a very large herd of one type of critter and place a hacienda on it, run it by water, and repeatedly get them to the market hexes, you can do quite well indeed.

I started out with the strategy of getting critters to as many markets as possible by choosing land spaces that were within a couple of pampas hexes away from three or four markets, then running the short lines of critters to those markets. However, my initial draw of critters was 2-1-1 in favor of horses, and that seemed to be the early favorite. As such, I shifted to sheep and I suspect that this was my undoing. As such, I wasn't pulling in the money I needed to make frequent card draws, and my land cards stopped cooperating with my needs about midgame. I did try a couple of harvests on my land to make money, but with only a couple of land blocks and none very large, I simply couldn't make any headway. Compared to Carrie, who managed to draw out to six markets, get a hacienda on a large hunk of land, and was next to lots of water (something I ignored early on, then spent $24 to get 8 more points late). Mike was also heavily involved with water, and had a huge sheep herd that must have had 10 critters in it (and a hacienda). I suspect he pulled down over $150 in cash with that herd by game end, it literally stretched across the board. OK, the short way, but still across the board.

Some games I simply never quite get. Modern Zeiten seems like a cool little game, but I never seem to be able to muster the discipline to wait for my moment. Hacienda felt that way to me, although (like El Grande) I do suspect that eventually I will be able to master it. With five players, I definitely felt that the board was crowded enough that having a long term strategy was key to a victory, so long as I could adapt, but focusing on a particular critter just never seemed to happen for me. I had originally thought that perhaps the game is better with four, but since there are four types of critters I'd think that perhaps that number will simply allow players to each focus on one rather than having to jostle fo that particular resource.

As always, the problem is that it's hard to get a game on the table multiple times in a given period of time because there are so many good games. I definitely want to give this another shot, and I think I probably will at Sunriver in another week, but I'm not sure it will get enough plays for me to remember it fondly as I'll probably be just getting started on "getting" it by then. Sigh.

Next up was Knizia's Tower of Babel, a game that has been knocked because of the dry theme. Imagine that, a Knizia game with a weak theme. Here, VP are collected by having stakes in the various wonders, by collecting sets of building requirement tokens, and (interestingly) by not getting picked to help build. That's right, you get rewarded for not helping. I love this game already.

There are eight wonders on the board (the eighth being the mythic Tower of Babel, which can lead to interesting discussions between people who take the Book of Genesis literally and those who don't, guess which side I'm on), each have a random selection of three of what I'll call "Building Code" tokens on it. Each Code token has a "suit" and a number. The active player may choose to pass their turn and draw a single building card (each with one of the four "suits" on it), or try to build up part of a wonder. They place their "column" from the completely useless and misleadingly oriented row of columns (in one of the most useless game elements I've ever seen - have we heard of start player tokens?) on one of the wonders, pick one of the three (or fewer, it this wonder has been built on before) Code tokens, and off we go.

The remaining players then bid a number of cards to help build this portion of the wonder. To build, the active player must select building cards that add up to exactly the number on the token. If they pick fewer, they must add the remaining cards from their own hand. You can't bid more than the number on the token, which is a good rule for reasons that will be clear shortly. It is possible that you don't select enough bids to build to this code if you don't have the necessary cards, although it isn't clear why this would be desireable. The reason is that if your bid isn't accepted, you get VP equal to the number of cards you bid, making the choice of who gets picked to help build that much more interesting.

If your bid is accepted, you place as many building "materials" (this is starting to sound like a game about being a contractor) as your bid on the wonder. If you played your "trade" card as well, the active player places materials in your stead, but you get the token instead of them. Also, the active player may only accept a single bid with a trade card, which can limit your options a bit. The tokens are kept (secretly) until the end of the game, when you get points for having sets. The second and third tokens are worth 5 points each, and the fourth is worth another 10, so this can nab 40 or more points if you are successful. Since these points don't get added in until the end of the game, it is important to not just look at the scoring track to see who is leading, you must also see how many tokens people have collected. After all of this work, everyone gets an additional building card.

When the third token in each wonder is completed, you score the wonder. Having any materials on the wonder at all is worth three points, having first place is worth a sliding scale of 6+2n, and second gets 3+n, where 'n' is how many wonders have been built including this one, so later wonders score more points and it is worthwhile on occasion to force a score early where you don't have pieces (or won't score in the top two places). The person who forced the completion (the active player, not the person who won the scoring) gets an action card with a random Special Mutant Power on it.

The game ends when the last of one of the four suits of tokens is completed. You score for not being selected, place materials, score the wonder and get an action card if necessary, and end by scoring all uncompleted wonders at the rate of 10/5/3. Finally, you score for your tokens and for any VP action cards you've drawn.

Our game was very interesting, with me doing quite well with bidding lots of cards that weren't picked, at one point netting up to 5 VP per turn. Compared with getting 3 VP for placing up to three or four materials, that's a decent strategy, but one you have to commit to. Throwing in the trade card in this case may be valuable if you are trying to nab the token, but most of the time it seems like a good deal to just hold them. Of course, this means that your strong suit won't come up so often as people learn to avoid that particular suit, but it is a viable strategy. Regardless, there are many paths to victory, and some will bring you up from behind at an astonishing rate.

When we ended the game, I was in the lead, but not comfortably. I had not managed to score any points for tokens (I had one of each), and I wasn't in most of the wonder races for points. Ben and Carrie both charged forward with points for wonders and/or sets of tokens (I think Carrie had at least 30 points in the latter category), both passing me at the end. Carrie looked to have won, but Ben pulled out his 5 point action card, and he'd won.

Until Carrie pulled her 5 point action card out and trumped him. Ouchie!

Mike, who seems to have this sort of thing happen to him fairly often, especially in a game we're learning, managed to draw cards for suits that he wasn't collecting tokens in, so he was never able to pull in the fourth token he wanted. Also, that suit was fairly dry, having been bid on frequently early in the game. Me, I came in third, just enough so that had the 5 point action card gone to me instead of Carrie I might have won.

Like Hacienda, this game has a lot of paths to victory, depends a certain amount on what cards are where when you need them (although planning won't help quite as much in Babel as in Hacienda), and provides a relatively lean ruleset with a rich decision-making environment. I do believe that you have a bit more flexibility in Babel if things aren't going your way, although as Mike learned this could start to wane in the late part of the game. At 45 minutes, this one looks like a winner to me, weak theme or no. I enjoyed it much more than Hacienda my first time out, and I'll definitely be bringing both games to Sunriver for additional plays.

Thanks to all for coming! Next week we'll be at Mike's for South Tuesday, followed by the Sunriver retreat.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

South Tuesday Session, 4/18/06

Seven of us showed up at Chris' house, a rarity these days, for our Alternate South Tuesday (or something) session. Present were Ken, George, Mike Carey, myself, special guest Wes, and Chris (of course). On the table was Caylus with Wes, Ken, and Chris, while the rest of us played TtR: Maerklin and Acquire.

First off, a note about pronunciation of the TtR title. The umlaut over the 'a' character (often written as "ae" when the actual umlaut character, two dots over the letter, is unavailable - and I have a Mac, which uses different codes than PCs) is pronounced using the shape of the short vowel sound (as in "father"), but saying a long 'e' sound. The result is placement of the vowel closer to the hard palette right behind the teeth, and with an 'a' it sounds like a long 'a' (as in "tape"). Maerklin is thus pronounced "Mare-k-linn," or at least close to that.

This is the price you pay for reading a blog written by someone with classical vocal training.

TtR:M is pretty close to the original, with a couple of changes. First, you have two decks of tickets, some ranging up to 11 points, some ranging over 12 points. You can draw from either deck, although you have to declare which decks before any draws are made ("I'll take one from column A, and three from column B"). There are also "+4" locos that are treated exactly like other cards in terms of draws (and like locos for the purposes of sweeping the drafting pile), but can only be used as locos on routes of 4 or more. Passengers, which are too complicated for me to describe here, but that change the game significantly, can add lots of points during a game, giving players more options. Gone are the stations from TtR:E, which I think is actually a good thing.

TtR:E has seen play twice for me, and both times I felt a distinct lack of tension that I usually feel in the original. Perhaps the stations should be worth more at game end so that it feels like you should only play them if it's critical, I don't know. All I know is that I rarely felt like my routes were in danger, unlike the original when I almost always feel like I could be in deep doodoo at any moment.

TtR:M restores that feeling, and in spades. I was constantly worried about getting the right routes and deciding when to make a run with my passengers and use the few passenger cards I'd collected early. As it was, I missed the really lucrative points along most of my route, and I think I may have scored 25 points tops for my two passengers. Thats' not trivial, but it didn't feel as important as I thought it would be. Perhaps that's because I got a really nice line of two long and two short tickets running from Switzerland to Berlin to the Netherlands. Carey stole one line out from under me in the late game, easily made up with one card longer in the same color to preserve my route, but I was concerned that I was going to lose several critical links throughout the game.

And that's the genius of the new version, the passengers mitigate the problems involved with random ticket draws. If you get a variety of crazy draws all over the board at the game's start, you keep two and focus on running passengers instead. In other words, you have some choices. To me, this turns TtR from a light but tense game into a gamer's game, much as Carc: The City and The Discovery did for that franchise. Too bad the games take up so much room!

In our game, the lead changed several times, although Mike had a very handy lead by midgame because of his lucrative passenger runs. I was keeping up, but I knew that with mostly 4 routes and 45 points in tickets, I'd be in good shape. Helping me along was completing the long Berlin to Hannover route (the black one) early in the game, those 18 points really helped out later on. As it was, having the four tickets turned out to be a great deal, as everyone else was trying to snag the passenger points in the SW corner of the board in the late game and focusing on those instead of risking drawing tickets they couldn't use. Like I say, this game got it right for those of us who love something with a little meat to it. In the end, the extra 10 points didn't matter as I'd sneaked by Mike by a couple of points for the win at game end, even though he did have two long central spine tickets that he completed. Perhaps the most exciting game I've played all year.

After a quick break to see where things were with Caylus, we went up to the Aerie to choose another game, and out popped Acquire. Neither Carey nor George had played, and I went to great lengths to coach them on how not to get into serious trouble in the midgame with money, which Carey learned the hard way anyhow. This was the first game that I felt I had a handle on what I was doing, although my tiles certainly weren't cooperating early on. I was patient, though, holding onto tiles that could force mergers at the right times, and buying up shares pretty cheap. I think I bought four shares total over $400 per.

In the end, it came down to two large companies that I was heavily invested in, and I was pretty sure I'd get at least the minority position in both. Mike killed me in Fusion (I'd given him and George a leg up when they traded in a lot of shares late in the game), but I still got the $5k. Hydra was a lot closer, and George had me beat by a single share in the end. That single share cost me the game, as I ended up about $5k behind both Mike and George, who ended up within a couple hundred bucks of each other, about a 1% difference in score. The $5k difference, which went to George, plus the extra share at $1k, would have put me over the top. Mike did discover a couple of Quantum shares that he wasn't sure he'd cashed in when he had the chance, but since that was his responsibility I didn't count the game a bogey. Closest game of Acquire I've ever played, and I'm starting to get hooked. Of course, drawing useful tiles helped a bit. Particularly amazing was Carey's building three companies in the first three turns, with George and Mike building two more. I don't think I ever built a company the entire game, although I had the chance to at one point but chose not to as it would have given Mike and George the chance to get more Fusion stock than I had.

Excellent fun. Thanks to Chris for hosting, and to my tablemates for a very pleasant evening.

Next up is the Central Session at my place next week, and the next week after sees four days of gaming goodness at the Sunriver retreat, which I will attempt to enter over the course of the weekend. Promises, promises...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Solo Arkham Horror

Tom Vasal recently talked about playing Arkham Horror, getting his tush handed to him and the other players (it's essentially a cooperative game), and having a great time. Having played an abortive late-night game (is there a better time to do this?) last summer followed by a single one-character solitaire session that was less than satisfying, I decided to give this game another shot.

AH (hmm, perhaps Avalon Hill should change their name to Avalon Horror after releasing a stinking pile of poo like Rocketville) is a repackaging of the 80's classic, and currently linked into FFG's CCG Call of Cthulu, both based on the freaky too-much-cocaine-for-you HP Lovecraft. The artwork is great, there are tons of cards, lots of characters with Special Mutant Abilities, development in the form of a wide variety of items, everything that seems to make World of Warcraft such a fun solo experience. With anything less than three characters in play, however, the game simply becomes unwinnable as you dash around trying to seal six gates to the Nether Regions (settle down, people), unable to deal with any side issues that come up. With three, the game felt like it was winnable, and in fact I did. Having an environment that made spell-casting essentially free and a character whose Flux Generator (tm) seemed to deny half of the gates opened by Mythos cards helped quite a bit, although I did send one character to the Lost In (Time And) Space box once.

I won't go into details on the game other than to say that your entire raison d'etre is to collect clue markers on the board, then go into the various and gradually increasing gates to Other Worlds, finally emerging and using your clues (or Elder Signs, it you've got 'em) to seal the games. Seal six, and you win without having to fight the Major Baddie who wants to Enslave Humanity (Lovecraft's prose tended to feel like it required lots of capitalization, even if it wasn't there). If enough gates open, you have to fight whichever of the Elder Gods felt like spending Spring Break infiltrating our world. I never did get why any of the EG were so hot to take over, other than there are a few hot babes (see my previous post) spending too much time behind microscopes or hanging with the Mob. You can also win by shutting down all of the gates, although that really isn't an option unless you get very lucky.

As such, the game kind of feels like you're working on a factory assembly line: Get clues, fight through monsters (or evade them) to get to gates, draw random event cards for the oh-so-unsatisfying experience of wandering around on another plane (the game should come with 'shrooms or acid or something), then rolling a few dice to see if you can seal the game instead of just closing it. Stapled alongside is a truly astonishing array of chrome: you can become a deputy (shades of Bang), hang out at Miskatonic University, buy weapons from shady characters at the docks, even get a membership at the Silver Mphmph Club. That is, if you had time to do any of those things.

I get the sense that the game was designed to give you lots of paths to achieving victory, but the simple fact is that you go where the clues appear, then go where the gates appear. You don't really ever have time to do anything else, so your path is set more by what Mythos cards you draw than by any real strategy. Even if I could become a deputy (and really, doesn't everyone want to be a deputy?), get to drive the cool wheels, arrest people who annoy you, use the 1920's version of an occult taser, it still just feels like a space on the board to me. Even the Other Worlds feel more like I got into a bad batch of Corn Nuts more than having my sanity ripped from me neuron by neuron.

And there's another nit: Each character has two, well, characteristics, Sanity and Stamina. Which begin with the same letter. I played for about an hour before I realized that I had been removing Sanity from each character even when the card called for Stamina. Perhaps we could call it Health? Constitution? Anything that doesn't start with an 'S"? FFG usually gets this, but I think this was a case where they wanted to match up with the CCG's terminology, or perhaps even the terminology from the old CoC roleplaying game. I wouldn't have minded, guys. You use little hearts, which are Health in every other game you produce. Maybe it was bad Corn Nuts.

Anyway, playing this game solo was boring. Perhaps things were too easy because of my combination of characters, early spell-friendly environment, and non-starter gates. I never had a single monster in the outskirts, clues were plentiful, and even when six monsters were on the board near the end of the game I had no problem getting characters into the Other Worlds (thanks, Nightgaunt, for providing a transporter to the nearest gate when a character lost to you!) and winning with six gates sealed.

As it is, WoW provides much more of a fun experience, if nothing else because the character development system is so rich that I could play dozens of times, trying out different combos. Because really, WoW's feel isn't any better, perhaps because I don't play the MMORPG, but it's fun solo, whereas AH just feels like a math problem with random events. Hey, there's an idea.

Not to say that AH wouldn't be fun at, say, 1am with a couple of other people, although I'm not pulling out the Bart Simpson acid (some of that art is pretty eerie), but as a solitaire game, it just doesn't cut the mustard. And I'm a Lovecraft fan!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Solo WoW

Interesting title. I'm referring, of course, to World of Warcraft, a game I'm reluctant to inflict on my group, but that I really enjoy solitaire. I've found that playing two characters is the best bang for the buck, and the least confusing. This time out, I tried a couple of Horde characters, the sneaky backstabber and the mage/zombie chick/guy. Talk about gender-ambiguous art.

While I enjoy the game, it takes a very long time to set up, and uses a lot of table space. Since I had a couple of spare Plano boxes of differing depths/configurations, I thought to use them to organize the pieces better than the little ziplocks I'd been using.


The thinner box is used for all of the smaller critters, and markers used during the game (money, health, energy, stuns, etc). The critters just fit. The thicker box I used for all of the prep materials: character figures, cards, and tokens; Quest markers, dice, things you take out once and are pretty much in use throughout the game. That box goes back in the big box, and off you go. While I was able to fit the small item cards in this Plano, the big cards, as well as the big figures, had to go in baggies to avoid the inevitable ravages of the Rubber Band.

Even better news: with the box top open on the thin box, it lays flat enough to act as a dice corral/drink coaster. I even gained a bit of table space, and the game moved along faster as I didn't have to spend as much time figuring out if I'd taken all of the critters out of a given baggie. This is the only way to go, I will have to do the same for Descent and perhaps even Railway Tycoon, and even Doom if I can find a Plano that will fit. That should make for an interesting trip to the local sporting goods store, me and a Doom box. Hope my health insurance covers getting pummelled by rednecks.

Clean up was just as fast as setup. I figure this saves about 30-45 minutes over the course of a game, making this something I can reasonably play within two hours from clear table to clear table. In my house, where the table is pretty small and my wife prefers not to have games set up for days on end, this is A Very Good Thing.

As for the game, not so good. After making a couple of mistakes at the start (forgetting to add the Talent when the characters advanced and losing almost every combat in the first six turns), I restarted. The Horsey-sneaky guy did great, getting up to nearly 5th level before the Wandering Dragon got to the Bulwark (this is my favorite Overlord, although I do draw them randomly), but the Androgynous Wizard had a very difficult time getting out of 2nd gear. First, I forgot to buy the Polymorph power that allowed the character to ignore any independent critters (a critical mistake), then there was only one 2nd level quest left, and the character was physically incapable of defeating it within two combat rounds because they couldn't roll enough dice to kill the higher end amphibian thingie.

Can you tell I don't play the MMORPG?

Of course, by the time I got all of this figured out (and lost again, which kills two turns for that character once they recharge and move), the Dragon Overlord reached the Bulwark, and off we went to tango. Fortunately, no extra bonus characters from using the solitaire rules from the 'Geek, so all I had to do was score 26 hits in a couple of rounds. Sadly, much of my points came from attrition with Horsey-sneaky guy, and while I did quite well in the first round, I was slammed in the second when my red dice failed miserably. Horsey-Sneaky Guy is great the first round, then everything falls apart because he isn't quite so stealthy once the opposition knows he's there. Sadly, the dynamic duo managed to score only a couple of extra damage points before turning into Horde BBQ. Which is quite yummy with a little soy sauce.

Still, it was good fun, made more fun through the streamlined setup/access/teardown process. The fun thing about this game is discovering the various classes and how they can advance in different ways, and how they can compliment each other. While I think the downtime would kill this in it's original form for almost everyone in my gaming group, the solitaire/cooperative version is quite playable and entertaining if you don't mind playing against the game instead of the other team.

One thing I do want to add is some colored cubes to help mark special spaces. There are markers included, but you have to look through the cards to see which is which, and it can take a little while. By putting a matching cube in each region, you can find the card a bit quicker. However, in all of my solo games, I have gone after perhaps two of these "side quests," as they tend to be of questionable value in the solitaire version where you are always the stronger faction. It almost always comes down to whether or not the side quest is conveniently located or not to a character who can handle it. In a competitive game, I could see this as a way to catch up, especially if there were six players spread out around the board. In a two-player cooperative game, they really don't come into play.

It's great to have found a complex, story-driven game that doesn't require me to relearn a 20 page rulebook and spend two hours setting up, as most wargames do. By the time I get the game set up, I usually don't have the time to finish before the cleaning people show up and bump all of the pieces. I sh*t you not, at one time they would pick up each individual counter of a hex-based game and dust around them. And put them back correctly. I felt guilty for weeks! Anyway, I'm really enjoying this title and am looking forward to the expansions (although no brass figures for me, my income isn't that disposable).

Central Tuesday session, 4/11/06

Seven of us showed up at Matt's, which has to be close to a record in the last couple of years: Dave, Chuck, Mike (who was getting around quite well on his broken toe), Matt (of course), myself (of course), George (who is starting to show up again after his second child has gotten old enough to forage for himself, apparently), and surprise guest Michael, who rarely attends weeknight sessions. On the table were Descent, Il Principe, and Wyatt Earp.

Matt, Mike, Michael, and George, who are not a 60's Brit pop group, spent the entire evening playing Descent, with Mike as the Semi-Evil OverGuy running an Amber Alert intro scenario. They clocked in at around 2.5 hours from opening the box to having it put away. I'm telling you, Plano boxes aren't just for fishermen and ASLers. They make those boxes h-u-g-e for a reason. Apparently, the child was saved, and there was much rejoicing. I'm looking forward to giving this game a try (I really liked Doom, outside of dying fast) at Sunriver in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, at the card table, I finagled Il Principe, a recent title from Mind The Moves Games, an Italian startup (boy, I hope they're Italian, I've already gotten in trouble for mis-labelling people this year). The game has gotten good reviews on the 'Geek, although the box is arguable huge for what it needs to be and the components mediocre compared to the rest of the pack. I understand that there were good reasons for everything, but I hope they find some success and improve in the future. The rules in English are very difficult to understand, and in very small type. I strongly recommend that at the very least they get blind rules testers in the future who are native English speakers, as it would be relatively easy and cheap to fix the translation problem. I'm sure that the size of the rules was also a price issue for them.

All of that can be forgiven if the game is good. The problem is that there is quite a bit going on here. Forget the theme, it's a paste-up as bad as Samurai, but that's nothing new. In essence, the idea is to collect Building cards (in five suits) that allow you to collect points in a couple of different ways. There are also points that encourage certain behavior throughout the game. There are a couple of unique elements that I liked that could set this game apart from the pack, but I'll need to play a few more times before I'm sure.

First, you get four Building cards each turn, half of which you discard into a pool that is auctioned off during the round. Winning the auction gives you the discards of that color that go back in your hand. This might seem roundabout, but there are other uses for money that you ignore at your peril. Winning this auction allows you to use cards from your hand to build a city (or improve it, or something), of which there are four choices. Each city requires a certain amount of money, certain cards in your hand (this is an important distinction), and gives VP plus allows you to place one or two of your markers on one of the six bordering territories on the otherwise useless map. Bigger cities give more placement choices, more VP, but cost more money and cards.

Pretty straightforward so far. You get about a third of your VP from building cities, and another third from controlling regions on the board at the end of the game. However, there is a third way to earn VP that conflicts with these goals. There are ten offices that also give points during the game, a Major and a Minor in each color. After the card auctions, each player then may either build a city or place down cards of a single color in front of them for use in determining who gets the offices. There are also a few VP given at the end of the game for having played cards in this manner in all of the colors in a weak attempt at encouraging diversity, although our game was tight enough that this could have been (and was) the difference. Once everyone has played cards in front of them, the Major office, 2VP, and a special Mutant Power go to whoever has the most face-up cards of that color, and the Minor office, 1VP, and the same power to whoever is in second. The major office winner also has to turn half of their face up cards face down, but the minor office doesn't. In some respects, it's almost better to take 2nd in this case.

The rub is that if there is a tie for first, the players involved now bid for the right to get the office, and no one takes second. Going last in this case is a huge advantage, as you can decide where you want to devote cards from your hand. If there is a tie for second, players bid as for first. This is where having money left over from earlier bids and building can really pay off, in some cases more than the points for the largest city if you can get all five majors.

I will note that we did play the game incorrectly in a couple of spots. First, I'm not sure that you use the Special Mutant Power as soon as you get it, as the rules have you getting points for these powers at game end, which would not make any sense if you already scored them as we had. Second, the rules are incorrect in that they say you skip all of Phase One (where you get money and building cards) if there are not enough cards in the deck to go around. The correct rule is that you get money, but the cards that are usually discarded are dealt directly from the deck and no one increases their hand until you bid. This had a huge effect in our game, as Dave was the only one with money, and thus got all of the cards for cheap. Seeing as he won by a few points, we shall deem our first playthrough as "tainted". Or, as Mike so colorfully puts it, a "bogey". I personally don't see what golf has to do with it.

Dave and Chuck both felt that there was a lot going on, perhaps too much for "what the game was," a position I normally tend to agree with. I think that there is a lot going on, and that perhaps three isn't a good number, and that I'd like to play the game with the correct rules before giving an honest verdict. My gut impression, however, is that if you can stomach the relatively weak components and slog through the poorly translated rules, there's a pretty good little game here. Having to decide between playing cards for city points vs office points, managing the endgame, the various uses for money, all play a role. Despite all of the stuff that's going on, the rules are very straightforward, and there was very little downtime. I'm ready to give this a couple more shots, but that may be Cooley's Second Law (Your initial impression of a game is strongly affected by whether or not the copy in play is yours).

The Rescuers of All Things Innocent was still going on at the neighboring table, so we figured that we'd pull out the game we play when we know someone is about to show up - they almost always do right about the time we get through the first round of Wyatt Earp. I have to say, this game drives me nuts, especially playing with Dave. Just when I think I will go out, Dave lays down 50 cards, scores a bazillion points, and wins. Bastard. Plus, I keep learning that there are rules I'm unaware of. For example, we learned last night that it isn't that you can't get any points if you only have one card showing in a suit, you simply need 4 points which means that only Photo cards qualify (assuming there are other points on the board). Another "new" rule for me, which should be on the danged card, is that if you go dumpster diving in the discards with Wyatt, you can play the card immediately, even if it's another Sheriff card. I've played about 12 times, and I never knew the rule. PUT IT ON THE CARD!

Plus, I really hate Old West themes.

Still, this game sucks me in. I grew up playing quite a bit of Gin Rummy, which this is at it's core. I'm sure that next time I play, I'll forget some other rule.

As if to taunt me, I scored a whopping 2 bucks in the first game, compared to 8 for Chuck and Dave (where is Vera when you need her?) However, the score was considerably closer after round two, with me only 2 points behind. I managed to dump my last card in the third round, but used Wyatt to dive in the discards. Only Butch and Jesse were left there, so I tried a two-pointer to force the Billy points to get divvied up between us, as things looked very close. As it was, I finished with 24 points, Dave with 25, and Chuck with 27, another close game.

Should have sold my copy when I had the chance, but then latecomers would never show up at my place.

Thanks to Matt for hosting, and to Dave and Chuck for trying my Latest Game Purchase. You are absolved from playing Fury of Dracula at Sunriver.

Next up, apparently, is Chris for a South Tuesday session next week. Ah, nothing like a trip to Sherwood from the Greater Portland Area during the tail end of rush hour!

Friday, April 07, 2006

South Tuesday Session, 4/4/06

South Tuesday at Mike's, and eight people showing up, including Chris and his friend Jim from Indy, and new guy Ben at his first regular session. Hope we didn't drive him off...

Three games on the table for our subset of Dave, Ben, George, and myself. First up was Beowulf, the push your luck game based on the historic epic. I am the first to admit that I do not get how to win this game at all, I almost always come in last. Still, I love it. I love the Risk mechanism, where you can draw cards to try to boost your auction bid on the cheap, but at the risk of falling out of the auction and taking a scratch. I had a strong start, but wasn't getting the necessary draws. Ben, on the other hand, was taking up the diplomas (the round tokens that can be gold or VP), and half of them were 3 VP snags. He ended up winning handily over the rest of us, while I came in (wait for it...) dead last. Obviously, I need to brush up on my Middle English lit. Regardless, I really like this game, and will bring it to Sunriver when my family is there next summer.

Next up was Pueblo, which is a great abstract game that is lots of fun when played relatively quickly, especially with four players. Fortunately, we did so. I was first, and while I seemed to take a lot of hits early, by the midgame the points were pretty tight. By the end game, I had no 3 level or higher blocks showing, and felt pretty good about my chances. Sadly, I came in third when Dave managed to hide nearly all of his blocks. George came in second by a few points, with Ben just a couple of points behind me. This game is pretty unforgiving with competent players, and this session was an excellent example. A good game that should come out more often.

Finally, we played what has become our favorite "quickie" game, San Juan. Dave has begun to sour on this game a bit, but it is a hoot when played fast, and we play very fast. Ben did a great job of keeping up, even though we were flying through the game, finishing within 25 minutes. I was doing quite well with my usual strategy of Guild Hall, plus I was getting Silver Mines out quickly. However, I had only one other violet building, and finished with 9 buildings total (although I did manage over 30 points). Dave squeaked by with a Palace as his only 6 building, and I think even George managed to beat me out by 2 points. In retrospect, going for more cheap buildings might have garnered a few more points for the win rather than all of the silver mines, as they end up being 5 points each for 4 "bucks" (my violet building gave me a discount), while sugar (I saw only one tobacco card the whole game), which cost 1, was worth 3 points. Had I build three sugar factories instead of one silver, that would have been a four point difference, nearly enough to catch Dave. Four would have gotten me the game, and there would have been room. Since I rarely sold more than one silver, it would have been well worth it. Maybe next time.

A very entertaining evening, with plenty of jokes revolving around the recent tempest in a teapot that was last week's Gathering of Engineer's blog entry on Podcasts. I hear that Tom, Joe, and Sam had a little fun at my expense on their most recent Dice Tower podcast, I'm looking forward to getting skewered when I listen in! I'm a sucker for publicity...


Saturday Session, 4/1/06

April Fool's Day, and I spent it at Tim and Carrie's game day. They are extremely good hosts, providing food and drink for all, and extending invitations to both hard-core gamers and the merely game-curious alike.

First up was Railway Tycoon, but set on a map of Europe. Doug (there were three of us there!) had built this off of a map available on the 'Geek, and it looked great (with better color calibration than the original map). The rules are pretty much the same, but instead of four tiles you can build per action, it's limited to three. The map has a "gap" of sorts in the northern section right about where Germany meets Poland (it takes four tiles to get from city to city), and there are lots of "ferry" routes you can build that allow you to cross water but at roughly twice the cost. Also, the Alps and Balkans are expensive to build on, and there is a distinct dearth of red cities to build to, at least in the east (where I was). Finally, the cards that each player gets with bonus points at game end are instead public, and anyone who meets the qualifications can get these points if they are the only one to earn them (a much better mechanism, and one that can easily be done in the original game).

Tim got the first player bid for a steal, considering that there was an easy track from Tunis to Palermo that netted him a slug of points right away. I had sadly not been paying attention to what the initial cards were and paid for it all game. I began in Poland and built everything up very slowly. In fact, by the end of the game I had just gotten a 3 train, and the "biggest" train built was a 5. I was also trying to create as little debt as possible, and did great with a single certificate, but chose to go to two in order to build a line from Athens to Budapest a bit quicker. Dumb move, as it netted me three points one turn early, but I ended up tied with Mimi for fewest shares issued and neither of us got the points.

In the end, the Other Doug did a great job of holding off Tim, who seemed unstoppable at the start of the game, although he did have to buy the Orient Express off-board link for E30k to steal a 20 point special card out from under Tim. Tim took third, surprisingly, and I ended up dead last. I like this game, but I have terrible trouble parsing the board to see what goods go where, especially when a city has lots of cubes and it's tough to see what color it is. Thanks to Doug and Mimi for bringing the board so we could try it out, it definitely adds some new twists and eliminates the whole "East Coast" problem with the original. Plus, the new map fits in less space than the original!

By now, others were arriving, so we split up into smaller groups. George had brought his 4 year old son Sean, who had brought a couple of games he likes, so Mike and I joined them for a little reminder of why I don't have children. Actually, Sean is a very bright and articulate little boy, and he's got these great Euro-Indonesian eyes that will almost certainly get him into big trouble some day.

We started out with Crossed Wires, a very simple game where you have a board with six telephones on it, each with a convoluted twisting path of wire to another phone. You roll a die to see what phone you start with, then you play a tile when you know which phone it connects to. If you get it right, you get a point and get to shift a couple of the wire tiles around to (hopefully) mix things up for the next time. Sadly, not a great game to play with children, as parsing the rat's nest of wires is fairly easy for adults and harder for Sean. We all lost interest after about 15 minutes. Fortunately, they'd also brought The A-Maze-Ing Labyrinth, which is a fun game for all ages. Nothing like figuring out how to open a path to the icon you want, only to find out that something else happened you weren't expecting! Sean was doing quite well when he ran out of patience and started wandering around the room, so we called that one too after about 30 minutes. Not bad for a 4 year old!

The last game out was Rocketville, the latest Richard Garfield title from AH, requested by Doug. I didn't do a great job of explaining the game, partly because the rules are kind of sloppy and hard to parse, and the colors on the board don't help either. I was afraid that this game would become an excruciating set of 36 blind bids, and I was right. It seems to me that using the Campaign Planning cards would add some strategy to the game, but instead it was simply a matter of playing a bunch of cards that did me no good, then sitting around and waiting for the damned thing to end. Doug, Mimi, and Mike agreed that this is a waste of perfectly good cardboard. I can only hope that the original design was significantly better and was ruined in development, or else Garfield had some sort of contractual obligation. To be fair, both Chris and KC in my group like this title, but if I had a wood-burning fireplace, this would heat my toes come November.

And no, the preceding paragraph is not an April Fool's joke.

By now, it was time for a little BBQ Beef sandwich, then home for me. Thanks to Tim and Carrie for being such great hosts!