Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sunriver, May 06, Day 1

Dave and I arrived at Sunriver sometime around 10:30pm on Thursday night to discover that all of the deck furniture, and there is a lot of it when you see it all in one place, had been put in the great room by the painters and not returned. Plus, our handyman had been doing some work on the wall above the fireplace, and so there was plastic sheeting over the furniture. Just the sort of thing you want to see after driving for four hours. As such, we didn't get started gaming until around 10am the following day after I'd put the furniture back and cleaned up the area.

Dave had wanted to play all six of the GIPF series, and I foolishly agreed. You see, Dave has played most of these games several times, while I have played most of them a handful at most. As such, I was Gipfed, Zertzed, Dvonned, and Yinshed rather handily, although I did have a shot at Yinsh for a while. I was able to soundly Tamsk Dave twice, the only victories I had in games with him the entire weekend. Puenct, which I have to say was too much at the wrong time, coming last in our series of games and coinciding with George and Eric arriving, ended up in a tie, although to be honest I was getting my hat handed to me here as well. All of these games other than Tamsk require learning what moves work and what don't, and two or three playings over a two or three year period isn't going to make for a pleasant gaming experience unless you are into spanking.

Thank goodness that Eric and George arrived to save me from a rematch. Someone, not me, suggested Phalanx's First World War, designed by noted wargamer Ted Raicer. Ted is the author of several WW1 era games, including what is perhaps the most widely played wargame on the subject, Paths of Glory. The game is essentially a series of 11 games of tug-of-war played across the various fronts. Different nationalities of units can be placed in different fronts, and some fronts are close enough to allow unrestricted movement between them, while otherwise there are strict limits on movement. Combat is a matter of comparing lead units (usually the best you have on that front), any additional units you have committed (the defender must reveal all of their units and remove dummies), and a die roll from 0 to 4. As a consolation, 0 rolls get you a chit pull, which may help or hurt you in a future combat. As you lose areas in a given front, you sometimes lose the ability to replace units, and if the enemy takes your base, you may lose the game outright at the end of the turn in a surrender roll.

As an extremely light wargame simulation, TFWW is a success. There are few rules (although the usual Phalanx Dutchglish requires more than the usual read-through to figure out the mechanisms), and the basic tenets of the war are modeled appropriately. You must avoid major breakthroughs that force surrender rolls, a lot of the time everyone loses, and the Germans and German Allies must fight hard early or face overwhelming odds as the game (and the reinforcements) go on. As a euro, or even it is a dismal failure. Tremendous success in all fronts but one can result in you losing the game on a surrender roll, which is not exactly a satisfying win for the other guys.

In our game, which was marred by Dave not realizing that you got all of your reinforcements and only some of your deadpile replacements every turn, the German Allies (me) walked through southern Russia (Dave) to take his home base on the third turn. Meanwhile, both the Western Allies (George) and the Germans (Eric) lost bases as well on turn 3. To be honest, I wasn't paying that much attention to what was going on in the West, other than Italy which saw no action at all. While Dave's mistake hurt him and allowed the Austro Hungarians to win repeatedly in Russia (not so hot in Serbia), it was all for naught when George rolled a 1 for the Western Allies and lost the game. I beat out Eric's Germans by having more VP, after the +3 modifier for balancing, although it is far from clear that this would have been the case had Dave gotten all of the units he was due on turn 2. Winning because of a single surrender roll just left a bad taste in my mouth, and it was just as well that Michael, Alex, and Matt showed up about that time.

I understand that TFWW is an attempt to blend wargames with euros, and in many respects it is successful. However, I can only conclude that the subject matter does not lend itself well to a blend of simulation and light game, and this one is hitting the "sell" pile. The general mechanisms are good, but that surrender roll is just too much of a crap shoot even if one should be trying desperately to avoid having to make one.

Knowing that three more people would be joining us shortly, Eric showed us the cute little card game Saboteur. Think of it as a cross between the Clever Pipe Game and Shadows Over Camelot. Players are trying to play down a path of tunnels between the starting spot and the one of the three destination cards that has the gold, but one or two of the players is a sabotuer. If the Dark Dwarf manages to prevent the group from running a path to the gold, they get the gold for themselves. Right after we'd gotten started, Michael, Alex and Matt arrived, but since the game can handle seven, that wasn't a real problem.

This is a fun little game, the first really good card game to come out since Sieben Siegel and Geschenkt. It scales well, it's easy to teach, it's a lot of fun for a short amount of time, and you can easily get seven or eight players involved. Matt ended up winning by being on the right side of the team in all four hands. While I've yet to be the bad guy in Shadows Over Camelot, I managed to be the Saboteur twice, which was a nice nod to my dark side. Definitely a winner.

Next up, Eric joined Michael, Alex, and myself for a game of Brittania, using the new Fantasy Flight edition. I went over the rules in a minimal fashion to allow people to understand the basics, and this seemed to work pretty well. The only drawbacks are the complicated "submit" rules that are different for different nations and that the Romans really need to make hay while they can and a new player can make suboptimal plays (meaning they don't get far enough to the north). I strongly recommend that anyone teaching the game to new players run through the rules to decide exactly what needs to be taught at what stage of the game. There also needs to be a spreadsheet showing what nations require what areas for points, although I did try to point out the really big point totals for my own nations as they came up.

Michael took the Yellow nations, including the Romans, Alex took the Blue "Wait For Half The Game For Something Interesting To Happen" nations, Eric took the Red "Saxon Steamroller" nations, and I took the Green "You Won't Win But You Won't Lose Either" nations, thinking they would be a good fit for me. What nation you take as a teaching player will really depend upon your players. Green is great for those who get bored, as they always have something going on. Yellow is good if you want to hook someone in by letting them crush everything in sight, Blue is good if someone wants to see how the game works early on, and Red is good for people who complain if they don't win as they are usually strong contenders in the late game.

The Romans did what they were supposed to do early on, but didn't blitz hard enough into Scotland, preferring to control everything in the South before pushing North. The Welsh, on the other hand, had great luck in burning Roman forts, and the Belgae did their usual "We Submit! Never Mind! Whoops, We're Wiped Out!" thing they do so well. The Brigantes did quite well, sticking around and getting lots of points for Eric in the late game until someone woke up and wiped them out.

In the middle game where nations are popping out of the woodwork like crazy, the Saxons did pretty well, but were not as incredibly dominant as I've seen them. The Welsh, despite my warnings of 24 points to be had in York, managed to drive out not once but twice. Tough buggers! The Angles were also successful, but the Scots were merely annoying and Yellow fell further behind. It is important to note that point totals are not scored on a scoresheet, as with the AH version, but use coins (which we immediately replaced with poker chips). While these totals weren't secret, Eric's placing his points on the nation's player sheets, a great idea for seeing how well each nation did, masked his total to some extent unless one was willing to do addition and so we were effectively using semi-hidden scores.

Eric did manage to use his nations to great success in becoming Bretwalda and King at least twice each, his Saxons dominating the south, his Irish sticking around despite not a lot of luck in non-Cornish Wales, and the Brigantes holding on for quite a long time. In the end game, where all of the kings run around trying to kill each other off, Alex's Normans defeated the last Saxon holdout on the last turn while the Danes (who were decimated in their invasions, although successful enough to score points), Norwegians, and whoever it was that Red got at game end managed to kill off each other's kings, giving Alex the final kingship at game end. Critically, Alex also killed off the last Saxon, so Eric got no more points for that particular nation. In the end, that was the difference for me, and I pulled out the win 243 to Eric's 241 to Alex's 237. An astonishingly close game, and one that could have gone either way with just a handful of points scored or not. I attribute the win to my Welsh, who scored almost all of my points, while the Jutes and Caledonians did average and my Danes, while successful in the short term, were too bloodied to give me any serious points. Definitely a winner, even if it did take nearly five hours to play.

By now there were two or three games going at any one time, so I will leave it to the reader to read some of the other blogs connected to Gathering of Engineers for more details on those games. I can barely remember what it was I played.

The next game on the table for me was Titan: the Arena, one of the true classics despite rules issues with the Avalon Hill edition (but not as bad as the color issues with FFG's Colossal Arena reprint). This was Carrie's first game, and Matt, Chuck, and Michael joined us. I started out strong with bets on the Cyclops and Hydra, with my secret bet on the Warlock, and all three were still alive going into the fourth round. Carrie had, based on our general advice of betting on the same critters as the people across the table from you, was also tied up in those two, and had even revealed her secret bet on the Hydra early to take control and end a round.

Once the Hydra was eliminated in round 4, however, I realized that I needed to take out the Titan to kill Carrie's shot at a win, not to mention Chuck. Matt managed to kill the Ranger instead, leaving me with 9 points to Carrie's 10. Matt, however, managed to sneak in with a successful secret bet to tie for 10, and won the tiebreaker by being the last person to play a card. Definitely the closest game I've been in, it's hard to take third being only one point out of the lead! One of my top 10 favorite designer games, almost certainly of all time.

It was getting late, and we wanted to get in one late night game of the new edition of Fury of Dracula. Only Tim had played the old edition, and he was very interested in seeing what had changed and if it was for the better. In short, it was a fun game even though we didn't finish despite some play the next morning. I was Dracula, Matt was Lord Gotterdamerung, Tim was Van Helsing, George was the Good Doctor, and Mina was played by committee.

I started out in the middle of the board and snuck by a couple of investigators quite handily. A couple of events made my position known, and I had to run down the Italian peninsula to Rome to take a ship, running back to Salonika. Unfortunately, I'd been fooled by a figure in my line of sight into thinking that one of the routes I took was a road when it was a rail, so I got pushed down to 10 blood points fairly early.

After leading the investigators on a merry chase through the Balkans, night once again fell and I took a shot at Van Helsing. The dice did not go my way, however, and I was able to escape with only a couple of blood points left despite it being a battle at night. Not a good game for the Drac-meister, but overall a very entertaining game, and one I'll look forward to playing again sometime. I may bring this to Sunriver when my family goes next month, as it is a pretty easy game to teach even if it takes perhaps a bit more time than it should. Tim tells me that the changes to the game (a big change is how Dracula keeps track of movement, it's now done with cards). I wish that there were a cheat sheet for the various icons used in combat cards, but to be honest you only need a couple of rounds before you understand how everything works. I also wish that Dracula's event tokens had icons rather than art, which can sometimes be hard to differentiate unless they are oriented correctly, but these are very minor nits in what is a very strongly themed and entertaining game. As Dracula, I was kept busy figuring out my next move and event pick, as well as demonstrating that I was not, indeed, where they were hoping I was. Good fun, although really more of a ride than a game.

We left the game hanging at 1am as several people were making loud throat clearing noises and unrolling their bedding on the floor.

Part 2 to follow...

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