12 people at my place for games at our regular Tuesday session. I may need to buy a new house sooner than later, as at one point we had Alex, Matt, and Carey playing a game on the counter between the kitchen and family room. Wow.
Who was there? Me, Matt, Mike, Carey, Alex, Liz, soon-to-be-official new guy Ian, hopefully-new-guy Zach, Tim, KC, Rita, and Jim. Yikes. A whole lot of gaming going on, no question. I can't really keep track of what goes on in the extra sessions, but I will mention them when I can remember them.
Six of us started out in the dining room playing Ave Caesar. True to form, I immediately screwed up a rule that cost Carey dearly in the first race. I'd hate to think I got a game right the first time (although I did pretty well in Aquedukt later on). This is a reprint of an old title where you are a chariot racer in a Circus Maximus. Each player in turn plays from a three card hand, which in turn is drawn from your player deck. All of the decks are identical, and as far as I can tell without a closer look there are four each of 1's, 2's, etc up to 6's. The game is very simple - you play a card, move your chariot that many spaces, then draw another card from your deck. The track has lots of bottlenecks where only a single racer can stop, along with lots of curves where being on the inside track will move you along faster. You also need to be sure to stop by the pit stop/drive through and wave to King Julie.
Each player plays in turn, none of this weenie "player in first goes first" stuff like in Formula De. You run three laps, get points for your placement, then flip the map over and do it again. If you're really good, you'll play the two tracks again, except going in the opposite direction. Winner is the one with the most points at game end. We didn't really keep track, although Zach and Liz both did well in both races as I remember. One other note - you have a fixed deck to work from, and if you constantly take the outer tracks you won't have enough points to even finish the race!
So how was it? Make no mistake, this is a very light game and one that hard-core gamers may not like. However, the game plays very quickly, and while you may not have quite as many decision points as you might like, there is still a lot of tension both in seeing if the guy right before you will cut you off or if you'll draw a high card that you need to get where you want to go for next turn. While it's more of a ride than a game, it's a pretty good ride. Also, the components are very nice (Carey used the term "over-produced - I'm afraid my rules screw up may have permanently ruined this game for him) - two nice tracks and very detailed chariots. Kind of a big box for what it is, but that's nothing new these days. Perhaps a very good 6 person filler.
We all broke up about the same time, so we mixed up our personnel. Alex, Carey, and Matt brought out Battlelore on the counter, while Ian, Jim, Liz, and I gave Aquedukt a shot. This game has gotten some mixed reviews on the 'Geek, but Matthew Baldwin gave it high praise in a Gift Guide he did (this is the guy who does Defective Yet, one of the best generally-gaming-themed blogs out there). Matt, if you're ever trapped overnight in Portland, give me a call and I'll put you up. I quite liked the game, although I can see why some might really dislike it.
In the game, you play real estate developers who are speculating on services becoming available for a given plot of land. Except it's in Rome. If your land doesn't have a water supply (directly next to a canal or one away from a double canal), you stand a chance of losing your permit. The canals remind me of the streetcars in Big City, and in fact quite a bit about this game reminds me of a very light version of Big City, but I think that's a good thing. The board is a big grid divided into regions with between 4 and 6 squares in each, 20 regions in all.
During your turn, you can do one of three things. First, you can place a spring on the map, anywhere as long as it's five or more intersections (traced orthagonally) from any other spring. Springs are good because they are the sources for canals. Second, you can place up to two canals on the borders between squares. Each spring can have two canals "springing" from it, the canals can't branch, and they can't intersect with another canal from another spring (I don't recall rules about "bowties" as in Wildlife Expedition, so we banned these as well). You can double them up, but only starting from the spring so that all upstream canals are doubled before any downstream ones are.
Finally, you can place up to three house tiles, and this is clearly where gamers might disagree about how good a game this is. You roll a 20 sided die, and then place any one of your house tiles in that space. The house tiles range from one to four in value, and the only rule is that if a space already has access to water you must play your lowest remaining value house in that space. There is no requirement to play in a watered space, but if you do it must be your worst. Also, if by placing a house tile you take the last space in a region, all houses that are not watered are removed and put back in the box. You may choose not to place a house after seeing your roll, but you forfeit any of your remaining rolls for the turn.
This leads to interesting strategies. In our game, I tried to use my one value house tiles to force others out of the game, and also to up my minimum house tile value for when I could play next to a canal. If you have the chance to play a tile so that a future (and doable) double canal could feed it, that's a great time to play one of your four tiles, then double the canal before you lose it to overbuilding. Clearly, the fact that you are rolling a die is what makes people dislike this game, but I don't think it's that much different to Acquire or Big City or Chinatown, and in fact it evens up the odds so that just because someone can build in a specific space doesn't lock you out. The fact that you might lose a four value house tile to overbuilding adds tension to the game, so I'm all for it.
The game ends when all 36 canals have been built and everyone has had an equal number of turns. In our game, Jim finished off the canals, but since he'd gone first, everyone else got to play the lottery - since there are no more canals, you are reduced to rolling the die three times and see if you get lucky. Liz and Ian did, I didn't, and so Ian won with 21, Liz with 20, me with 17, Jim with 15. It's a little hard to parse the board, to be honest, so it may be worthwhile to make up a scoring track to keep track of who has what points - had we been doing this, I think Jim would not have placed the final canals but instead played the lottery until someone else did. Regardless, this is a small nit in what is a very quick and fun three or four player game.
Jim and Ian took off at this point, and KC, Rita, Tim, Zach, and Mike were playing Alhambra in the other room, so Liz and I pulled out Balloon Cup, the much denigrated (by the Point2Point guys, anyway) Kosmos small-box game. I'd never actually finished a game, and I knew it was quick (Liz claimed she was ready to leave once Alex finished Battlelore), so out it came.
One thing I love about LIz, she has a very good competitive streak. Alex's game ended, I was trying to say goodnight to everyone who was leaving, and Liz kept herding me back to the game to finish. It was a nail-biter in some respects. I had a couple of locks on 3 and 4 cube areas, but couldn't draw any gray cards (Liz was hording them), and for a while it looked like anyone's game. However, I was able to take a critical 2 race that gave me two trophies, and had drawn a gray card that gave me the third a round later. As advertised, a quick and light game, but with decent tension that would be great for kids and anyone who's manliness isn't threatened by the word "Balloon".
Thanks to everyone who came, welcome to Ian, and I hope that Zach had a good enough time to come back on a regular basis (and that his class schedule allows for it). Merry Whatever to all!