Wednesday, October 25, 2006

CenTues Session, 10/24/06

Eleven gamers and a reporter! It's clear that I'm going to need a new house if this many people keep showing up.

A freelance reporter from the Oregonian showed up to speak with Carey and KC about their Essen experience and Carey's newly published 24/7 game, as did KC's father who accompanied them on their trip. We played a lot of games and fun was had.

I'm not quite sure what happened in the Temple of Conspicuous Consumerism, but in our dining room we played Vegas Showdown, a couple of games of the unfortunately titled Gemblo, and Balance Duels.

First up was Vegas Showdown, with Liz, Alex, Chuck, Tim, and myself as the would be casino owners. I have to admit that even though this game got decent buzz, I nearly refused to buy a copy after the insult to gamers that was Rocketville (both from the Hasborg'ed AH), but since it was on sale for $20 recently, I decided to invest. As it turns out, there's a pretty good game here.

The components are a mixed bag. You get what is now the standard AH "build your own partitions" box, nice heavy attraction tiles in three sizes, clever transparent minimum bid markers for the premium attractions, wooden scoring markers, a mounted board for the fame track and attraction bidding, pretty cheap poker chips, and ... the flimsiest paper player mats I may have ever seen. I can only imagine that someone somewhere saw what the components were going to cost and made a last minute decision to cut back on the player mats. To be fair, I didn't really notice that the mats were that bad once we started playing, but considering how meaty almost everything else was, the contrast is a bit jarring.

The idea is to get more fame points than anyone else. At the same time, you are trying to generate revenue and population (the people that come to your operation and how much they spend), which determine how much money you have to work with every turn. To generate these three metrics of success, you have to build various elements of your casino and hotel. Many of the attractions require that you have other attractions built before you can put them on your play mat, such as having a Slots room before you can put in a Fancy Slots room.

There are three basic types of attractions in three different sizes. First is the hotel operation, which is mostly food service. These are blue, and you can almost always try to get a standard restaurant, the others being premium that show up as the game progresses. Second are the yellow games, which include slots (again, always available), and thirdly the green bar service, starting with lounges. Attractions can take one, two or four squares of your operation, with blue rooms having to connect to the hotel entrance (each attraction has a varying number of doors to other rooms), yellow having to connect to the casino entrance, and green working either side. There are bonuses at game end for covering the 10 spaces near both the hotel and casino entrances, and for managing to connect both entrances. Each attraction improves your revenue, fame, population, or some combination of the three. For example, slots increase revenue by one, restaurants improve population by 2, and lounges increase fame by 2.

The gameplay is very quick, and easy to learn. First, any premium attractions unpurchased from the previous turn have their minimum bids dropped. Second, a wacky event card is turned over for each of the four premium attraction slots that is empty. The events range from prohibiting bidding on certain types of attractions to bonus income to opportunities to spend money. Each card also has a symbol that describes what size of premium attraction goes in the open slot. Each premium attraction has it's starting minimum bid printed on it, and the marker is set accordingly. Everyone then collects income based on your revenue or population, whichever is smaller, and then it's off to the meat of the game.

The bidding phase is the interesting part of the game. The mechanism is a bit like Evo in that if you are outbid, you must move your marker to a higher bid on the same item or to a different item. Slots, Lounges, and Restaurants are always available (until they run out), and there are two Slots bidding tracks if you are playing with five. Minimum bids for each of these is set throughout the game, and go up by some set value. For example, the minimum bid for Slots is 5, with spaces for 7, 9, 12, and 15. Lounges start at 9, Restaurants at 15. The three "basics" are one, two, and four squares in size, so the price corresponds to how much space each will take up.

The premiums change as the game goes on, and it is deciding when to get these and how much to pay that makes things interesting. Since the price of an unpurchased premium (which start their life with minimum bids from 18 to 52) drops every turn, choosing to wait is sometimes a good strategy. You can always buy a premium, but you must have the correct prerequisite attractions in your operation to place it. Some of the premiums also have partial diamonds in their corners, if you can build such that you form three-quarter or full diamonds, you will get extra points at game end.

Beginning with the starting player, you place your bid marker on the attraction and price you want to start at, as does each player in turn. Money is public, so placing a bid to prevent a competitor from even getting a shot is allowed. After everyone has placed their marker, you continue around the table. If no one has outbid you, you must then pass for now. If you have been outbid, you must either outbid on that attraction in turn, or change your bid to another item. Unlike Evo, you do not respond to being outbid immediately, although in practice that is exactly what happens unless you have two contests going (as often happened with the two Slots tracks, but only in a five player game). Once everyone is on their own track, the bidding ends and everyone pays for their attraction and places it on their mat (or to the side if they need a prerequisite attraction that isn't on their mat yet).

If you are shut out of doing anything, or simply wish to save up your money, you have two options. The first allows you to remove up to two attractions from your mat, then place up to two attractions on your mat. This is mostly helpful when you want to fill up the hotel or casino areas, connect the two areas, take advantage of attractions with diamond parts, or play an attraction that required a prerequisite. The second option, Publicity, simply gives you a fame point. Neither costs any money, just time.

After the bidding and any reorganization, players check their revenue, population, and fame totals and reset their scoring markers. Population and revenue are easy to keep track of, but because of events and publicity, it is more difficult to keep track of your fame. We used extra markers, not included in the game, to track non-attraction fame on the player mats along with population and revenue, and I recommend doing this as it is easy to forget where you are in the scoring and fame is what wins you the game.

The game ends when one of the three stacks of premiums runs out and you need to draw from that stack. This is a great mechanism that adds a lot of tension to the game. The game can also end if someone fills up their entire play mat, but this is unlikely in a five player game. In any event, play stops immediately and final scoring is carried out. You get five points for filling up your hotel area, five for filling the casino, three for connecting the two, one for 3/4ths diamonds, three for full diamonds, one for every $10 you have at game end (ignoring fractions), and 5/3/1 points for most population (ties split points for positions, so a three way tie for first means 3 points each), and the same for highest revenue.

I was able to finish the hotel and casino areas, but couldn't get the two connected. I did manage to get a couple of partial diamonds finished, and had $20 left at the end of the game, but I simply couldn't compete with Liz's Sports Book attractions or Chuck's huge wad o' cash early in the game. They ended up a point apart, with the edge going to Liz, and far ahead of Tim, Alex, and myself. Including 'splaining, our game took about 105 minutes, a little longer than the 75 minutes on the box. I actually think 5 players moves along quicker than with fewer as more people will buy premiums.

The game moves along very quickly, with little downtime. Because of the bidding mechanism, it feels quite a bit like Evo, but without all of the fiddliness and heavy play sequence that slightly mars that game. Also, no pink dinosaurs. If you think of it as a somewhat less competition-heavy and stripped down version of Evo, you wouldn't be far off. I also like the "Civ-building" aspect of needing certain attractions to build others. Since each premium deck requires half to be sold first (an A and a B deck), sequencing isn't a problem but will change from game to game, making a "perfect" strategy nearly impossible. Component issues aside, this one is a winner, and a steal at $20 if you can find it at that price.

Next up was Gemblo, a hexagonal relation of Blokus, and in my opinion a superior game. Instead of connecting via diagonals, you connect via hex "spines" (a term familiar to wargamers), and it is somewhat easier to find plays for your pieces. The board scales depending upon the number of players, although it is a bit difficult to see exactly which parts of the board are playable at first. However, with a little study, it became very clear where you could play and couldn't. Our first game was with four (Tim, Chuck, Martin, and myself), and there was a bit of rules confusion in that one hex on the side of the spine must be free in order to connect to another piece of your color (Chuck and I were both under the assumption that you could play "through" another piece, which was incorrect). I won the game, but had at least one play that was illegal, so we called it a bogey. The second game, with just Chuck and Martin and I, felt a lot more interesting as there was less chance that your next play space would be taken by someone, and I suspect this is a very good three-player game (good news for Blokus fans). I won handily in this game as well, placing all but two pieces consisting of a total of seven gems. This one is a winner and will go on my to buy list for sure.

Finally, Martin wanted to try out Balance Duels, a new game he'd gotten in Essen, while the rest of the folks were finishing up a game in the other room. Duels is very similar to backgammon, but adds in a physical balancing element that is really fun. The "board" is a teeter-totter with seven "points" on each end, each of which has two slots for pieces with the exception of the fourth point at the very end, each of which has only one. There are extra pieces that look to reduce some points to only one slot, but the rules didn't really cover these. I will note that the game does handle up to four players, but I was quite satisfied with this as a two player game.

Like backgammon, you bring on your pieces by rolling a die and placing them on the corresponding point. Also like backgammon, you want to get your pieces from your side to your opponent's side. However, there are only seven points per side, and you only roll a single die, with which you can move a piece already on or bring on a new one. Unlike backgammon, while you can "capture" a single piece of your opponent's, you can only do so while they are in their home area, and since most points only have two slots, having multiple pieces in a home slot makes them safe. The four spot on both sides is also safe because there is only one slot. Also unlike backgammon, you start with no pieces on the board, they are all brought in as though they were captured.

The best part of the game, though, is the balancing act. If, after your move, the teeter-totter has hit the ground firmly on one side or the other (if there is any give at all, you are ok), the game is over and the moving player loses. In our game, Martin did make a move that resulted in this happening, but we called it a mulligan and moved on. The game was quite close, with both of us having only one piece that needed to get home, although mine was on my four point and thus safe. I needed to roll a four or six to win, and in fact did roll a six. I moved my piece to that slot, which was my only move (while I had a piece on the one point, the seven was full), and sure enough that proved to be the straw that put the board out of balance, giving the game to Martin.

I'm sure someone out there will say that this is a broken game if your last dieroll can kill you, but I found it delightful. I played quite a bit of backgammon going through high school and college (in one particularly drunken game with the woman who later became student body president of my university, we kept forgetting which direction and even what color we were!), and so this is a very fresh and welcome take on an old favorite. I could even see serious players bringing in a doubling cube (which can, obviously, be used in a wide variety of games, although it helps to be playing for money). The game plays fast, every move is a bit of a thrill to see if the balance is thrown off by too much, and it's relatively small when the game is broken down. Definitely going on my buy list. If I could get one that was build from wood, I'd pay Crokinole board prices for one. I'd also be interested to see how it worked with three or four...

Another great night of gaming, and gratifying to have so many people show up after three weeks of relatively small turnouts, even if I do have to consider buying a house with a bonus room just to fit everyone in! Thanks for coming, everyone, and I'm looking forward to the article on Carey's game and his trip to Essen.

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