Wednesday, February 21, 2007

SouTu Session, 2/20/07

A lightly attended session this week, largely because so many plan to hit Chris's beach place over the weekend. Sadly, I am unable to attend due to a choir concert, but I expect everyone will have a marvelous time without me. Still, I'm trying to get in as much gaming as I can in the meantime, so I was delighted to learn that the "Far South" session (usually held in Sherwood or Newberg) was going to be held instead at Mike's place just north of the Tigard-Beaverton border. For God's sake don't tell him he lives in Tigard. Also present was Jay Farrell, who has been absent of late, as well as a drop-by from Peter who was apparently in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Peter picked a night to come by and socialize when we were trying out Die Säulen der Erde, or Pillars of the Earth, a recent release based rather loosely on the Ken Folliott novel of the same name. At first blush the game looks quite a bit like Krieg und Freuden, which is another 4-player game where the object is to build a cathedral, and you actually build it as the game goes on. Aside from both games requiring players to think ahead to a good extent, that's about all they have in common. K&F was a neat game with an interesting mechanism, but there was definitely a "hang back and wait for the right time to make a push" element, as the game was determined by who built the most parts in the cathedral and it took a lot of time to build up enough resources to do so.

Pillars, on the other hand, is a game where the cathedral is really just the excuse for playing. It gets built in six turns regardless of how well individual players do - instead, players get victory points for contributing various resources, based on the craftsmen they hire and the resources they collect. I have heard that the game has a lot in common with Caylus, and I think that there is some truth to that statement - Both games have a sequence of things that happen, and you want to be aware of what happens first and what second. Unlike Caylus, the order does not change from game to game, although there are elements that do change and keep things fresh, so you don't have that extra dimension of thinking to deal with. Pillars seems to strike a pretty good balance in my book, and it worked well with three players (although I think it is a much different game with four). Poor Peter - we were so busy trying to figure out our strategies that we weren't very good company for him, I'm afraid.

Here's how it works in a nutshell: Every turn you assign your 12 workmen to collect resources that vary slightly from turn to turn. If you wish, you may also spend money to hire a small pool of extra craftsmen. Next, everyone's Master Builders are drawn from a bag to determine what special actions they will perform on that turn. These actions vary from gaining a free metal resource (more useful later than earlier), more craftsmen, special event cards, protection from bad random events, extra VP, the ability to buy and sell at the market, extra workmen for the coming turn, and getting the right to go first on the next turn.

The first MB may be placed anywhere on the board, but at a cost of 7GP, which is pretty steep in this game's economy. If the owning player wishes, or cannot afford to pay, they may instead go into the "loser queue" of MBs that will be placed later in the turn. The second MB will pay 6 gold if they wish to be placed, the third 5, and so forth. The eighth MB, of course, will not pay any gold at all, nor will any of the rest coming out of the bag. After all MBs are out of the bag, then the loser queue may place their MBs in turn. The starting player also gets one mulligan where they can replace their own MB back in the bag if they drew it too early for their tastes.

Once all MBs are placed, the various actions are gone through in order, which also include playing a random event, getting the resources that your workmen were assigned to collect, paying between 2-5 gold in taxes, and getting gold for unassigned workmen. The order is is fixed, so you will always get your gold for your workmen before you pay taxes, and your goods before you go to market. After all of this folderol is over with, each player may then assign the resources they have in their possession to the various craftsmen they have (no more than 5), and from this they get victory points and occasionally gold. As the game goes on, resources produce more and more VP based on you getting better craftsmen, although there are a few interdependencies. It is how well you choose your craftsmen that has the biggest effect on the game, as I learned quickly. At this point, it is assumed that the next part of the cathedral is built, and it's on to the next turn. After six turns, the cathedral is completed and the person with the most VP wins.

I fell into a pretty good set of craftsmen early. I figured out that money was likely to be pretty tight as the game went on, so I picked up a craftsman who let me exchange two wood for eight gold, as well as the action card that let me keep six craftsmen. I'm not sure that this was a great "buy" for me, as I never really used more than five and never produced a single stone in the entire game (and so never used that craftsman), but I also had a bit more flexibility. As such, the money-making craftsman was a very wise buy early on, and I rarely was low on cash compared to the other players.

In the second and third turn I began to get craftsmen who were good at converting sand into VP (glass, I guess, maybe concrete), and soon had a little machine going that would let me grab lots of sand which was cheap for my workman to produce. I also bought a craftsman who gave me one free VP every turn. By the fourth turn I was beginning to pull ahead a bit, producing up to eight VP on that turn. The next turn, I got a craftsman who let me convert metal and sand into 3 VP, plus another craftsman who let me convert every 3 gold into a VP, which was extremely handy given my relatively easy ability to generate income. On the final turn, I had a craftsman who could convert the metal and sand into 4 VP, and do it twice a turn, so I was pulling down 15-17 points each of the last two turns. Despite a few setbacks (losing the use of an MB on turn 4 or 5), and Mike having a card that got him extra points just for putting MBs on the two VP spots on the board, I pulled ahead to an easy lead on turn 5 (I believe Jay's comment was, "Holy crap!"), and never looked back.

In our game, people rarely went to the market (I bought some sand there, as well as sold one metal), and no one tried to be the first player - if no one went to that spot it simply rotated around the table. With three players, there was always something you could put your MB on that was even slightly beneficial - I suspect that with more players there is more of a chance that you will have an MB that is going to market, but on the other hand there are still the same number of resource cards at the start of each turn so I think that some would be harder to get. Going first would be more important as well - that ability to have the first pick of the resource cards and the MB pull mulligan would be critical at times.

In all, I found the game to be much more interesting than Caylus, if only because we got it played and explained in 90 minutes. Good play requires you to understand what resources you need based on what craftsmen are available, not only in your play area but also for that turn. Smart use of your money is also important - if you don't have an income stream you will need to be a bit more frugal - mostly that means you won't be able to buy craftsmen along with the resource cards, as you'll need a good 7-10 gold to pay for potential MB placement, not to mention taxes.

This one is a winner, and I've asked Mike to include a copy for me in his next order from you friendly neighborhood internet game store, as there is no English version available, and may not be (I suspect there may be some copyright issues in the US, similar to those faced by Traumfabrik). Highly recommended for both three or four players, although the games will definitely feel different.

With about an hour left, Mike asked us to play a game he'd won at the recent Eugene game get-together he went to last Saturday, Cobras in the Cockpit. Really. This is a DTP publication that exploits the truly awful and notorious "Snakes on a Plane" movie/phenom from 2006, which frankly I'd already forgotten about. You are one species of snake that is going from the cargo hold to various other parts of the plane, then spooking or harming the passengers/crew and getting points when that section falls into chaos. You can also take out engines by squeezing them (for the Pythons only) or by getting sucked into them. Really. The game ends when the entire plane is in chaos, which I can only assume results in all of the snakes dying as well. Alternatively, you can just not even get started, as this is one of those games that is cute for about 30 minutes, then relegated to the auction/sell/white elephant gift pile. We played for nearly an hour, and with so many wild action cards that constantly changed the game situation there was very little you could do to plan ahead. Strangely, by the game's end, we found ourselves all sitting out at the tip of a wing waiting for me to take out the engine as I was ahead in points and with two snakes in the area was extremely unlikely to get shut out for points.

Really, I've given this one too much press as it is. However, I would play it before Rocketville, especially if there was alcohol involved. With Rocketville, it would require opiates. And high-end hookers.

So there you have it - one winner, one loser. Actually, one winner and two losers, as I won both games. Sure, there were only three of us and you can hardly count CinC as an actual "game" as much as a chance to demonstrate how truly worthless games won in raffle drawings are. Still, I'll take the wins any day. Thanks to Mike for hosting, and let me know if you need to borrow some lighter fluid.


Anonymous said...

Looks like based on the Mayfair Games website Pillars of Earth is due to be released in English. It's in their store marked "Available Soon".


Anonymous said...

Oops, meant to include a link the first time I posted: