Monday, February 05, 2007

Another Year, Another Stupor Bowl

Mike is usually the guy in our group who hosts Super Bowl parties, but this year Chris took over the duties. Last year we had a really cool Pizza Box Football tournament (where I got about as far as the Seahawks did this year), but nothing like that to be had this year. I arrived about 15 minutes late to find two games of Combat Commander (both learning games, taught by Tim), and Jesse and I decided to wait a bit to see if anyone else would show up. Sure enough, Ken and his son Brandon did, and we all decided to try out the new Catan Histories title, Struggle for Rome.

And here I didn't even know there *was* a Catan HIstories series! Apparently, in a revised history sort or way, Settlers of the Stone Age has become the first game in this series, despite the fact that it's several years old now, and one of the lesser Catan titles. I found the game had many flaws, the worst being that one player would get in trouble early because of how the dice landed. Out of five games, I found one competitive - not a good sign. I sold my copy to George, and would actively refuse to play if asked - it's far too long for what it is.

However, Struggle seems to have overcome quite a bit of the problems that Stone Age had. The milieu is the "barbarian" invasion of Western Europe, when tribes from NE Europe flooded into Germania, Gaul, Italy, and Hispania and brought about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. As a theme, it's genius and works exceedingly well in this game.

Each player has two tribes, one represented by a horseman, the other by a warrior. The strength of each tribe is represented by a holding box on the side of the board, where you also keep track of what cities you've plundered in each region. Movement is quite fluid - it is quite possible for a tribe to move from one end of the board to another during it's turn, with the only limitation being that you have to have the resources to pay for the move and you can't move to a space another unit occupies.

Once your tribe has moved, it can plunder a city on an adjacent vertex, provided that the tribe's strength is equal to the strength of the city. When you plunder, you turn over the plunder marker on that city, gain gold (a welcome addition), and perhaps cards, and perhaps lose a little strength. You are limited to plundering two cities in each region (of which there are five, eight cities per region) per tribe. There is a 2VP bonus for each tribe that plunders at least one city in each region - considering you need 10 points to win, that is a valid strategy for success.

On the other hand, you may decide that the Romans have fallen far enough and start building your own kingdoms once you have three cities from different regions plundered by a given tribe. Once you do this, you actually start putting your units in cities proper (up to this point you can only be nearby), and start a Kingdom. No more roaming for this tribe, now they expand in a more Settler-like fashion, although no need for roads - in this case you have to start building up both strength *and* wagons to expand. At this point in the game, resources stop being on the scarce side and start becoming plentiful. As such, the game speeds up quite a bit - about 70% of the turns are spent wandering, 30% expanding kingdoms. Also, no need for roads - as long as you have a wagon and the necessary strength, and the city is close enough, you can take it. One big thing about conquering as opposed to pillaging - no more pillage markers as they leave the game instead of being added to your total. If your tribe hasn't gotten five different regions plundered, they won't ever get this bonus. However, you do get two VP if you can conquer four or more cities with each tribe.

Movement is handled in a novel fashion. Some hexsides on the board have blue movement arrows, and you have to spend either three gold or one wheat resource to move across them. There are also sea lanes, which cost one gold to move across. Your first movement arrow is always free, so even if you don't have any wheat or gold you can get somewhere. If you choose not to move at all with a tribe (and also don't plunder, conquer, or play a development card), you can get two gold or one resource card of your choice. It is also important to keep in mind in the early game that wherever you move will dictate what resources you may or may not get on the next rolls. Movement is the tricky part of this game, and learning how to parse the board for the various options you need to be aware of is a skill that takes at least a few turns to develop. as such, expect your first game to take closer to two hours rather than the stated 90 minutes.

Resources and trade also have some changes from other Catan games. First, resources are rolled for once, then all players trade and build in turn, then all players activate their horsemen in turn, and finally the same for the warriors. As such, you are unlikely to spend three turns building up a ton of resources only to have the robber rolled just before your turn and lose half of them. Also unlike other games, the dice are rolled until four different resource numbers are rolled, making it more likely that you will get a positive result than in other Catan games (yes, it's the same number of rolls, but you won't see three 8's when all you have are 6's).

Trading and building also have twists. There are only three types of resource spaces - forests don't produce resources. Also, pastures produce a random resource, either a horse or a cow. Horse and ore let you improve the strength of your tribes (both) by one, good for pillaging and conquering. A gold and a cow will get you a resource card, which give VP, allow you to pillage/conquer on the cheap, grab extra pasture cards, move anywhere on the board, or gain a diplomat (the same as soldiers in the original game). If you have a horse, a cow, and a wheat, you can add a wagon, useful for gaining extra gold while pillaging, and essential for expanding your kingdom once it's established.

Trading is always 3:1 for resources, but whenever you want a horse or cow card you instead have to draw blind from the pasture deck, which makes things interesting. Fortunately, you can spend three gold (earned through inaction, development cards, or pillage) instead of a resource once per turn, so you don't have to draw blind as it's done in lieu of a resource. In the early game, gold will often substitute for either horses or ore to help build up your tribe's strengths as all of the 2 strength Roman cities go away pretty quickly.

Finally, there is a legionnaire, analagous to the robber with a couple of changes. First is that the legionnaire can't be placed in the barbarians' starting area, so no need for an early game "no-whammies" rule. Second, there is no hand limit to worry about when a seven is rolled. Given that the odds are good that a seven will come up every turn, this is a good thing. Instead, if you ever run out of resources to hand out after a given resource roll, that's when *everyone* has to lose half of their cards! This did not happen in our game, apparently it's a rare occurence.

It's hard to give a good account of how the game went, as tribes went all over the board early, and after that it was a matter of trying to build up strength to attack the stronger cities. Everyone started their kingdoms after getting to three regions plundered with the single exception of me, who went for having one tribe conquer early and the other go for the 2 point bonus. In retrospect, this makes for an interesting strategic choice. On the one hand, if you are going to do this with one tribe you might as well do it with both, as you are unlikely to get the four-cities-per-kingdom bonus and might as well get 4 points total. However, you are also left with fairly bad choices for where to place kingdoms - the better resource spaces tend to be hard to take (having strength 4 cities on them), and there are fewer unplundered cities as the expanding kingdoms remove any plunder markers in their path.

However, it turned out to be a good strategy in this particular game. I had my horsemen tribe going great guns in Central Gaul, blocking off Brandon's tribe on the Bay of Biscay. Meanwhile, my warrior tribe managed to get to 5 plundered regions, then settled down near Denmark, although they were only able to expand to a single city. Expansion is tough, as you use up both a strength and a wagon to expand, so if you're able to expand at one city between both tribes per turn you're doing well.

What helped me out was a Culture card that gave me an extra VP, so with my bonuses I only needed seven cities to get to 10 points. Of course, everyone else gets the chance to finish the round, and Brandon expanded with his warrior tribe in the penultimate move (I went last) to get the 2 points for four cities in each tribe. However, since I didn't need to do anything with my warriors, I collected 2GP for inactivity and won with the gold tiebreaker! Ken had six points (having lost the Diplomats to Jesse), while Jesse was very close behind with nine points but nowhere to expand.

Cooley's Law states that I really like this game, and it's true. In fact, I will go on record as saying it's my favorite of all the Catan games so far. I think there is less chance of getting shut out early as compared to the other games (Brandon had a slow start and nearly won), the game is much more fluid early, and the theme is tightly integrated into the mechanisms. Once players have had a chance to get used to the board, I think the 90 minute playing time is about right.

One knock I can see being made is the randomness of the plunder tokens. While you always gain a gold (and a plunder token to move the game along), if you gain a resource or pasture card or extra gold you also lose a strength point. However, there is no correspondence between the strength of the city and the rewards you get. Also, if you want to trade three wheat, say, for a horse, you actually end up rolling the dice to see if you get a horse or a cow. Fortunately, cows are useful for getting development cards, and development cards will almost always help you in some way - more gold, more pasture cards, all sorts of stuff. There is a limit of playing one development card per phase per player, which is another good design decision, but in general you have enough options to allow you to at least do *something* that aids your position, even if it's just drawing a resource card that you know you'll need next turn.

I can't imagine pulling out any of my other Catan games anymore, other than maybe a Das Buch scenario. This game does for Catan what Carc: The City (or Discovery) did for that venerable but flawed franchise, and takes it into the realm of greatness rather than solely commercial success. Kudos to Klaus for finally producing a great Catan game that I will want to play over and over.

After we finished our game, I wandered downstairs to see if I couldn't get in a game of Combat Commander, but Mike was actually waiting for the football game to begin, so that was it for gaming for me.

A few notes on the Super Bowl (as that was the excuse for the party):

1) The game was literally two plays from being a complete snoozer: the Bears touchdown runback on the opening kickoff, and the long Bears run to set up a TD in the first quarter. Without these, the game would have been over by halftime. As it was, the outcome was in some doubt until the end of the third quarter, when it became clear that the Bears had no offense. A big part of the Bears' success this year was their powderpuff schedule, and the league must do something to prevent strong teams with good records from the previous year playing nothing but bad teams. If I wanted to see this sort of thing, I'd follow college ball. At least the game was exciting in the sense that neither team could hold onto the ball for long.

2) The president of the Colt was a dolt. He began with a solemn "our thoughts are with those in Central Florida who have lost their homes and/or lives" statement and without taking a breath he then started whooping about how the Colts had won. It was a bit jarring to be sure. To put the icing on the cake, he then thanked God for the win, perhaps the most short-sighted and dumbass statement made regularly by jocks. Here's a hint to the long line of players, coaches, and owners who seem to think that the Creator of the Universe gives a rat's ass about who wins an over-hyped game played with any seriousness in one country of the world - He doesn't. You were not more pious, not more faithful, not more deserving in any sense other than that your team won the right games at the right time with the right people. Don't get me wrong, I love NFL football and follow it through the entire year (the only pro sport I devote any attention to). But this strange egoistic fascination with mistaking prowess in ritualized mock combat for some sort of Divine favor makes me ill. Get over yourself. At the most you can thank God for the opportunities She has given you personally and for inspiration, but don't think for a second that He has had even the slightest influence over your piddling little game.

There's my little rant. Not that anyone in pro sports will read it, but it makes me feel better.

Thanks to Chris and Julie for an awesome party, great food, wonderful company, and a very nice HD picture on their TV!

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