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.

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