Friday, July 18, 2008

Qwirkle and Stone Age

Our Tuesday session was at Mike's this week, and Ian joined Mike and I for a little three-player gaming. On the table: Qwirkle, an Ingenious variant, and Stone Age, a DALOTGALOP game in the stripe of Pillars of the Earth and Cuba. 

Qwirkle is marketed as a kid's game, set for ages 6 and up, and it showed. Not that I don't recommend it as a family game, mind you, just that I'd take Ingenious over it any day of the week. The goal, as in Ingenious, is to play tiles so as to match up with lines of similar tiles and get points. Instead of dual hex pieces, you have a single *big* square piece that has a colored symbol on it. The color and symbol are not consistent across the tile set, though, they mix and match, so where you would only have purple stars in Ingenious, in Qwirkle you would have stars in each of the six colors. There are six symbols, and each symbol/color combo has three copies, making it easy to figure out if you hope in vain for a particularly good draw.

Play is extremely simple, but much more constricted in some ways than Ingenious. There is no boundary or even board in Qwirkle, you just play on the table top. However, you can't put a piece just anywhere - you must match all of the symbols or colors in a given direction, but once you match color you can't duplicate the symbol in a "line" and vice versa. A line stops when the tiles stop, so a "break" in the line may start another line if the next tile in that row or column is a different symbol or color. You may also play as many tiles as you wish, provided they all exist in a single line (you can't place one tile on one side of a break and another on the other, however, the idea of "line" means contiguous tiles). 

Scoring is simple - you get one point per tile in any line that you extend, including points for the tiles that were already there. For example, were there two tiles on the board, and you placed two more so that they formed a square (following the placement rules, of course), you would get six points. Two for the new line you formed, and two for each of the lines you extended with the new tiles. The previously existing line of two tiles isn't in and of itself extended, so you get no points for it per se, just for the two one tile lines you've extended. Much easier to grasp with actual tiles than in text, I'm afraid. One other quirk - if you are able to get six tiles in a row, you score a "Qwirkle" (imagine that) and get a bonus six points. Since the longest possible line is six (either a single symbol and the six different colors or vice versa), this can be a bit trickier than you'd think. You are always drawing blind, so scoring a Qwirkle has a considerable amount of luck involved, although poor defensive play is helpful. 

As you'd imagine by now, you also have a hand of six tiles, and draw back up to six after your play. Surprise! The game ends when someone plays their final tiles after the draw bag is exhausted. 

Had I not played Ingenious, I'd have really liked this game. If I had a four or five year old (and with the impending grandcritter on the way, I will before I know it), it would be an excellent game for teaching spacial relationships and counting, not to mention shapes and colors. That, of course, assumes that said critter isn't colorblind - this game is nowhere near colorblind friendly, and in fact I had considerable trouble differentiating the blue/green and red/orange colors without direct light, a real problem since you place the tiles on end on the table to see them as they are too big to hold in hand. 

Where Ingenious blows the game away comes in several areas. First, you have the constraint of a limited play area. Second, you have no constraints on tile placement other than a potential loss of points for that turn. Third, you must do well with *all* colors in order to score well. Fourth, the double-move mechanism makes timing a particularly interesting dimension both for the placing player and for defensive play - knowing what your opponent wants to score in to get the extra move is important. Finally, the double symbol/color tiles create the same variety of tiles found in Qwirkle but with the added dimension of orientation on the board.

Of course, Ingenious costs twice as much, but it's a better experience for gamers in almost every way. I think there's even a travel version out there, but I'm not completely sure. For families, Qwirkle is the better bet, although the large wooden tiles also make pretty good missiles if your child is a budding MLB pitcher. My family has one of those...

Mike creamed us, mostly because he had the right tile at the right time (although none of us was playing defensively right up to the point where Mike reminded us of the six point Qwirkle bonus by scoring one). After that, I was trying to collect combinations of tiles to pull off good scoring opportunities, and actually got a 17 point score, which is pretty good. I think 20 points was the maximum score for a single play.

On to the Stone Age! We played this at the most recent Sunriver, and while I enjoyed the game to some extent there, it didn't really grab me. This time, having a better idea of how things worked, and with three players (which limits meeple placement for resources and for the village placement areas) I enjoyed it much more. I will forego the game description as it would take several paragraphs, but the gist is that you have a limited number of meeples in your tribe who can do one of several tasks, from resource gathering to increasing cultivation to popping out mini-meeples to building tools to technology to building more huts. Many of the activites limit the number of meeples that can be assigned, so if you want to increase your guaranteed food for the turn you need to do it before anyone else does. People take turns placing their meeples, and you can put down as many as you want or as are allowed on a single area in your turn. At the end of the turn, every player has their meeples do their assigned tasks in whatever order you wish, although usually this is pretty obvious, and then you make sure everyone eats. When you run out of civ cards, or one of the four stacks of huts has been exhausted, the round finishes and everyone figures out their points.

There is one twist to the game that I suspect puts off some gamers, and that is rolling dice for resources. Instead of just getting a resource for each meeple, you roll a die for each. Each resource has a certain number you need to achieve to gain that resource, and if you roll multiples you'll get more than one. For example, wood costs '3' per, so if you roll a six you'd get to take two of them. If you roll a 2, you don't get any. that means you gamble every time you try to get resources, which normally means chaos. 

There are two factors that mitigate the chaos, however, and they are brilliant. The first is the stitched rawhide cup provided for you to roll the dice in. An utterly unnecessary and frivolous component addition, but I love it. The second is the use of tools. You can get tools in various ways, but you can use them to add pips to your dieroll once per tool per turn. You are limited to a maximum of three tool counters, which you can use as you wish (more than one per roll, if you like), but they can go up in value so that a given counter can go as high as four. That means you are guaranteed a '5' roll with a single meeple/die assigned to stone, enough for one of that resource. However, you'd have to use all four of those points on a single roll. You also get to decide which to use after you make a given roll, but once used you may not get the bonus for any other roles, and any wasted pips are just that - wasted. I'm a big fan of mitigated luck, and in fact Mike was actively pursuing being King of Tools in our game, while I never really got started down that path.

My path, at least in this game, was to try to build as many extra huts as possible for "upfront" points, while collecting the civilization cards that gave me bonus points for said huts. I was also trying to dig through one hut stack as quickly as possible in order to end the game before anyone could build up the exponential points given for collecting the otherwise useless generic civ cards (you try to get one of each of eight types, worth 64 points if you can get them all). I didn't do too bad a job, but because I was placing my initial meeple on the hut rather than on tools, when my luck with the dice went bad (and it did, rather spectacularly, on more than one occasion - try to *not* roll a total of five on three dice!) I managed to even do this twice in a single turn. I essentially blew a cycle or two, allowing Ian to collect most of the civ tiles he needed to simply blow us out of the water. I also made one or two suboptimal plays near the end of the game, and I never got past one tool (through a civ card) or increased my population past my initial five meeples. As it was, I felt I was perhaps a couple of really bad rolls from winning the game, whereas I ended up about ten points behind Mike and a couple of huge tech leaps behind Ian.

The verdict? I'm not sure if it was simply a better understanding of the game or whether it was the number of players, but I really liked this game with three. I like it better than the other games in the general family (Caylus, which is too fiddly; Pillars, which feels too scripted; and Cuba, which just hasn't captured my imagination), probably because of the mitigated luck element. You gamble every time you place meeples on a resource. You gamble every time you place a meeple and hope none of your opponents lock you out of where you want to go next. Actually, I suspect that this was one of the reasons why I liked this game so well with three - you are guaranteed to be able to get one of the critical village tasks (babies, food, or tools) two out of three turns, so long as that's your priority (with three you can only use two of the three areas per turn), and you have a better choice most of the time. With four players, you will be locked out only 25% of the time, but for another 25% of the time you won't have any choice in the matter. 

Whatever. I'm increasingly fussy about the euros I buy these days (and increasingly unfussy about wargames, go figure), but this is one I'll add to my collection. The game is a bit on the light side, but I like games where the idea is to make the most out of the options you're presented with, and in this case everyone is given the same options and ways to mitigate the die rolling if they choose to. I chose not to, it bit me hard in the ass, and I don't mind at all. Highly recommended for three (at the very least - two might be too tactical but I have no first-hand knowledge, and four may just have been playing at the Sunriver Retreat where there's a lot of gaming going on), especially if you're the sort of person who likes this sort of thing.

Thanks for hosting, Mike!


dave said...

FYI, it's "Bunch", but if "Lot" works for you, that's fine too. :)

From what I've read about Qwirkle, it seemed like an "okay" game, much like M. Sounds like you experienced the same. Not every game can be Ingenious, but we needn't play every game!

Stone Age sounds like a game that would be Thumbs Up at best, but I'd gladly give it a go.

Mike said...

Ha, Dave got in the DABOT/GABOP thing first!

Qwirkle is very much an 'OK' game. It plays relatively quickly, and I can see it as a 'gateway' style game, especially for families. In our game I drew like a badger near the end, which is one downside with Qwirkle, although Ingenious does have the same issue to a lesser extent.

SA is certainly a game that isn't ever going to make it beyond the 3/Thumbs Up rating, but it's decent and has a few unique twists on the Caylus/Pillars/Cuba genre.

Dug said...

You say DABOT, I say DALOT.
You say GABOP, I say GALOP.
Let's call the whole thing off.

Apologies to Cole Porter.