Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sunriver, Days 3 and 4

I'd finally gotten some decent sleep on Saturday night, so I was looking forward to some better gaming on Sunday. Sadly, most of the folks had to leave at some point, but there were a few things I was looking forward to playing.

A Die Macher game had started up the night before and was still going Sunday morning, so those of us not involved (Tim, Carrie, and Dave) played the latest Ticket to Ride game, Maerklin. Maerklin is much like the original with the addition of both long and short tickets and the ability to score points with passengers. I've discussed the basics in an earlier post, so I won't repeat that information here.

I do pretty well in TtR games, as I'm able to focus on what needs to be done, do it, and then move on. In this game, I planned to get my passengers out of the way early and shrink the points later players would get, and this worked to an extent. I was fortunate enough to keep all four of my starting cards, two long and two short, that worked in a fishhook from Frankfurt south, then east, and finally north to Berlin. I had a few options in terms of alternate routes, so I picked up the critical ones immediately then went about picking up others as things got crowded in that particular section of the map.

The biggest drawback was that I had quite a few short routes, and no 8's at all. Also, my passengers were typically scoring only 20 points or so, while Dave managed to score one run at 59. That can be hard to beat, so as soon as my track was completed I began looking for extra short routes to exploit. Of the three extra tickets I picked up, one was already completed, one only required a single linkup, and the third was a problem (and the best choice of the three I'd drawn). It was enough, however, to score the most tickets points.

Sadly, Carrie beat me, despite realizing at two or three points in the game that she hadn't connected to the city she thought she had. I think Dave managed to sneak by me as well, as he had done well in points during the game while I had done well in tickets and was well behind by the time we finished. Still, this is a great version of the game, perhaps my favorite so far, although I'd still consider using Europe to introduce new players because the stations help save busted tickets. This is a franchise that I think still has a couple of good iterations in it.

By now Die Macher had finally finished up, and both Eric and I were interested in trying one of the kinder, gentler, and theoretically shorter 18xx games, so Tim pulled out his copy of 18MEX. Eric and I had at least gone through the motions with other 18xx games (mine is 1835, so I'd seen the private/public shift). At the last minute, George jumped in, so we had to start from scratch with the rules as he'd never played before.

Right out of the box I made a couple of big errors. First, I put a token on the second private to be sold, and someone then put a token on the first company and I ended up only having the choice of the final private after everything else had been taken. This put me at a bit of a disadvantage early, as I was only pulling in $20 a turn for the first few turns. Second, my first major purchase was the black railroad (most of the companies have the word "Mexican" in them, which made for more than a little confusion), and then I set the par value one step too high to be able to float it that turn. I had to get my income on the next turn, and in essence lost one turn to the other players.

To make matters worse, George was the other player in my immediate vicinity, and we don't call him X Factor for nothing. At one point he refused to build rail that would have generated money for him, and I simply built it on my turn and collected the money anyway. This started a pissing match where we were creating problems for each other instead of cooperating, although by game end I'm not sure it mattered much.

Things went along pretty well until the six trains came out, and suddenly I found my prime railroad without any trains and without enough money to buy one. One of the end conditions in this game is that you have to have a train with every railroad, and if the company doesn't have enough money you have to spend your own money, and if you don't have enough you have to sell stock, and if that doesn't do it the game ends. While I had little cash in pocket, I was able to sell three shares of the company in question while keeping three more, was able to buy a 4D that doubled income, and bought enough shares back in the next turn at the lowered value to make that company a major producer. A great trick!

Meanwhile, my initial private had become the Big Kahuna in the game, the Something de Something de Mexico. I built up Mexico City, and ended up with a 6 and a 4D and was I bringing in about $1000 per turn to my pocket after paying dividends. At this point, we'd been at the game for six hours (so much for short), and since Tim needed to head home we called the next operating round as our last. In the end, Tim scored $2100 and change, and I wasn't all that far behind with $1700 and change. Tim felt that had I gotten a better start and the game had run another operating round that I may well have beat him.

I have to say that I'm just not a fan of these games. I like the overall complexity, but there are just a few too many things going on that I have trouble tracking. With wargames, things tend to fall into at most four or five areas of the board that you have to watch carefully, but in an 18xx game you have to keep your eye on all of your opponent's companies (especially garrison markers), the board, the stock market, and the bank. For me, it adds up to too many things in a financial game where I'm not terribly keen on most financial games (Acquire is a noted exception). Plus, six hours was ridiculous. Tim swears that the game is playable in three, and I suspect that had there only been three of us that we'd have finished in four hours. I'm willing to try one more, given players familiar with the basic system to speed play, but I think that this is just one more gaming system that will stay out of my collection.

By now it was down to just the four of us, George, Eric, Dave, and myself. With a little time before dinner, we pulled out Power Grid and played the French map, closing off the NE and SE sections to put Paris on the edge of the map. Dave started out in Paris, I started on his Western flank, and George started just west of me, making me the jelly in the sandwich. Eric started in the Alsace region on the border with Germany and didn't have much competition for cities early on, although they tended to be more expensive to build to.

Eric and Dave went for the early nuclear stations, and I went for a diversity strategy with garbage, oil, and coal. George went for the green power strategy, and by the end I believe he was using no resources at all for power, although he was only able to generate for 11 cities. In the final turn, it was clear that Dave would have enough cities and resources to power 17 cities, and I forgot that I would need to actually pay for resources, and I knew I'd have to dump my big coal plant as Dave was going to get to those resources first. I was very sneaky and bought one more garbage plant, screwing Eric out of being in contention, and snuck in for second with 15 cities, all powered. I think Eric was stuck with nine, although I'm not sure.

Dave felt that this game was too easy to win in just the last couple of turns, and I think he's probably right as he wasn't strong at all until the very end. However, I find that this brings a lot of tension to the endgame, and like most Friese games it's really more of a ride than anything else. Still one of my favorite mid-length Euros.

After dinner, Eric showed up Bolide, a momentum based racing game. It uses a clever method of placing a marker that corresponds to how you moved in the last turn. If you moved three spaces in the horizontal direction and two spaces vertical, the marker is placed that many spaces ahead of your car when it finishes movement. On your next move, you place your car within two spaces vertically and/or horizontally of your marker, which is then moved itself. In practice, this means that you can change speed +/- two spaces in each axis per turn, although the momentum marker tends to confuse the general idea. There are rules for hard braking, which we tried out as we got further into the game, but it seemed that good planning was more valuable in the long run. We each played two cars on a single lap, and while it took a while to finish, I'd think that experienced players could play it in a decent amount of time. There is a timer included to encourage fast play, something that Formula De sorely needs, so the whole game feels like it's going by quickly. I will probably pick this one up as it seemed to be pretty fun. My only complaint was the jigsaw-joined board, which puckered a bit at the edges, I'd prefer Formula De folding maps instead.

Our final game of the night was Tower of Babel. No one could believe that the turn order track was as useless as it seemed, so everyone spent time going over the rules to see if there was any purpose to it. Nope. The only thing we did differently from my previous game at our Central Tuesday session was when you tried to build a portion of a wonder and failed. In our first game, you lost your turn. In this game, you got to go again. Is it just me, or are games rushed out too quickly these days?

Regardless, somehow we'd just gotten going and then someone built the final ship token to trigger the end of the game. I'd done poorly in my token collecting (again, four different types, only one with three), and someone other than me won the game. I've soured on this one, perhaps we're doing something wrong and the 'Geek has a clarification.

Now it was time for bed, and while I was in my room by midnight, I slept horribly, with one nightmare after another. In fact, the next day I got a very strange feeling whenever I went into that room. I'm not one to believe in ghosts, but I think I understand how people feel when they say a place is haunted. As such, I was not really in the right frame of mind for gaming the next morning, and was a bit concerned when we pulled out Magna Grecia as our final game of the retreat.

Sure enough, the first tile pull had me going first. Everyone else built off of my city, and the second tile pull had me going last, giving Dave the chance to start a large city in the middle of the board. I immediately saw that I was doomed in this game, and sure enough I was. Think of a game of Settlers where you get cut off from most of the board immediately, and have to sit through the rest of the game unable to do anything to help your position. I made the most of what i could, but that first turn order was too much to overcome and I finished well into last place while Dave cruised to first. I like this game, but when bad luck early kills any chance of success, I have to wonder if I'll be willing to play the next time it's suggested.

On the plus side, my "to sell/auction" pile is getting bigger, making way for more new games that will underwhelm me.

If that sounds cynical, perhaps it is. Britannia, which I thought was a great game, couldn't have been a lot of fun for Michael, who simply hadn't gotten enough points with the Romans to have even a small chance at victory, and it lasted for six hours. Me, I used the downtime in Magna Grecia (as did George) to start getting things cleaned up and packed for the ride home.

This Sunriver started strongly, with only one bad game played in the first 24 hours that we had more than two people, but by Sunday afternoon I was starting to think that we had too many weak games. Perhaps I've been spoiled, perhaps I was just seeing the effects of getting older and crankier leaking into the fun (I simply can't go on such small amounts of decent sleep anymore), but I think it's deeper than that. I think I'm becoming a game snob, and am willing to put up with less slop in a game, from the rules writing to how well it plays to arc to just having a shot at winning. That's a bad sign, and one I hope will be rebutted at the next long weekend. Because I like three full days of gaming, and to think that I'm really only good for one or two is, frankly, depressing.

Which is not to say that this was anyone else's experience. As I've written at the Gathering of Engineers blog, hosting has it's own rewards, and we had very few problems with having too many people crammed into a house built for 8 tops. People told me they had a good time, and in the long run that's my primary concern, but it would be nice to attend a long weekend and not feel like I need several days to recover, plus enjoy myself as much as I want my guests to enjoy themselves.

I've rambled and whined enough, I should save this sort of thing for Fun With Mr. Whiney in the future. Thanks to all who attended and put up with me not at my best and had fun anyway.

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