Sunday, December 07, 2008

Salishan 2008 Gaming Retreat, Part 3

On to Friday afternoon. Returning from the beach, Chris introduced JD and I to a game in a VHS video box called Scripts and Scribes. The game is a set collecting game very similar to For Sale, with a sorting segment that feels like a complex version of Honeymooner's Bridge, and an auction segment that feels remarkably like For Sale. It's a small press effort, with interesting medieval church iconography on the cards (although this game could be about absolutely anything - For Sale has a stronger theme). The entire game took about five minutes to explain and about 15 more to play. While the sorting segment is a bit more interesting than For Sale, I'm not seeing myself taking the time to find this particular title. On the other hand, if you thought For Sale needed a little sexing up, this might be a winner for you. IIRC, I beat out Chris slightly for the win.

The three of us were joined by Eric, and we pulled out Dominion, a game that uses the best elements of CCGs, and played the most entertaining game I've gotten in of this title yet. We used random card decks that included Gardens, the Witch, and the Thief, along with Moneychangers, Markets (they seem to show up in everything), and a few other things that escape me right now. At about the 2/3rds mark in the game it occurred to me that Gardens were a better buy than 2VP cards, and getting very close to being a much better buy than Provinces (which Chris was snapping up at a rapid rate), so I started grabbing every Garden I could, with Eric trying to take the others. However, I didn't think to take the cards that let you discard cards, so I was stuck with my Curse cards at the end. I also had 59 cards in my deck (Ack!), so my Gardens were only worth 5 points each instead of 6. To Chris' great disgust, we ended up tying for the win. Hee hee!

I neglected to mention a playing of Hanging Gardens, a game that Rita taught Pahdame and JD and I. It's a cute little tile collecting game with a fairly clever semi-solitaire point generation system that saves it from being meh, but saves it in a pretty big way. You get to draft cards that are divided into six sections, and one to three of those sections has symbols in them. You must place the card on your existing cards so that the symbols lie on top of other cards, but the blank spaces can extend out. Once you get three or more symbols connected orthagonally, you can place a marker on that group and pick a tile from another draft pile, based on how many symbols are in your set. The tiles themselves also form sets in varying ways, and the point is to score as many points as possible when the card stack runs out. IIRC, JD, Pahdama and I all scored 29 points and matched on every tiebreaker so we all shared the win. Cute, quick, and the card placement section has enough depth to it that this would make a good filler, although it's a bit component heavy for what it is. The board in particular seems kind of gratuitous. 

After all of this gaming and then dinner, it was time for Ben, Ken, and myself to try out Starcraft: The Boardgame. I suggested this because I've more or less lost interest in most multiplayer strategy games in the vein of Twilight Imperium and Axis and Allies, and wanted to give this title a try before selling it off. I'm very glad I did, because this game is much better than those other two for a couple of reasons. First of all, the map scales to the number of players and can be connected via "z-axes" that allow you to more or less prevent any part of the board from becoming a fortress with a single way to get there. Second, you are limited to choosing four orders to assign to various planets over the course of a turn, which you place in a stack on each planet, all players sharing the same stack. If I place an order on Planet X, then Ken places an order on top of it, when we get to the Execute part of the turn Ken's order is executed before mine will be. There are only three orders, but the timing is really crucial. It also means that you can surprise another player by playing a token on a planet they have a base on as your last placement and they may not be able to react to it, so turn order is important (although it shifts rather than using an auction mechanism). 

I have to tell you that this game is a bitch to explain. I must have spent a good 45 minutes on it, and that was with Ben helping me out. And I didn't even *get* to combat. It was insane, and a couple of turns in I was feeling that this was a game that wasn't going to see more play from me. Once we started mixing things up, it did get much more interesting, and we found that it was pretty easy to beat back the leader only to get beat back yourself on the next turn. There are various timing elements in the game to keep it from taking all night (although we did spend a good 5 to 6 hours playing, but mostly because of unfamiliarity), and I'd imagine that three knowledgeable players could cover this within a couple of hours. The sad thing is that I can't imagine that we'd ever have three knowledgeable players unless it was Ken, Ben, and myself. 

I played one of the Terran factions, and discovered that the units got expensive quickly, even compared to the other two players. We had two resource areas go fully depleted early on, and mine was a gas source, so a good half of my units, mostly the powerful ones, never got built, although I did pretty well with combat. Ken's Zergs looked almost unstoppable, but a combined Protoss (Ben)/Terran campaign did the trick, although we were *one* card away from Stage 3 and a Protoss victory through his special victory condition. On the next turn, Ken and I went after the Protoss and I very nearly met *my* special victory condition, but couldn't attack the sixth resource area I needed because I belatedly realized that Ben had built air defenses and I had to attack from the planet itself (which I could have done had I realized this and added a second Movement action to that planet). 

At this point it was after midnight and time to stop. I think we were probably a turn or two away from finishing, and everyone agreed that we'd done what we set out to do. The game is much much cooler than it appeared at first blush, with the game flowing pretty easily once we started getting through all of those nagging rules questions that required digging through the 48 page rulebook. My god, they are a mess. Still, we all felt it was pretty good, with the very strong caveat that we would not be too thrilled to play a game at a con with people we didn't know, whether they knew the game well or not (I could see major arguments breaking out over tiny rules issues), and it was a difficult game to teach (although I can see ways to streamline it now that I've gotten a game or two in). Major kudos to Ben and Ken for sitting through our play session, and I think they both walked away with the same impression I had - good game, tricky to get on the table. This one I'll keep, and hope that it works well for two players (unlikely, as it's too hard to beat someone up once you've been beat up yourself). 

That was it for Friday. The next and final report will cover Saturday in it's entirety.


dave said...

"Dominion, a game that uses the best elements of CCGs"

Now you're just baiting me. I'll deliver the rebuttal in person.

"[Starcraft] is much better than [TI3 & A&A] for a couple of reasons"

You forgot "because I have to justify my $70 purchase". ;> It goes w/o saying that I'll eagerly play this any time...

mudrash said...

"To Chris' great disgust, we ended up tying for the win."

Sounds like a great game. I don't have the rules in front of me but I think there should have been a tie breaker with the person having the least amount of turns as the winner. This happened to Ian and I a week ago and he had gone first, so I won!

Jon said...

I'd love to see your streamlined Starcraft explanation. It isn't easy trying to teach someone those rules!

Dug said...

I think that the easiest way to teach this game is to dive right into it. Discuss the parts of the various planets, and a brief discussion of the victory conditions. Set it up in a relatively fair manner (or have a preset layout of planets, if you can do it), then preset each player's activity tokens for the first turn, assuming all will do the usual Build/Move to adjacent planet, Research, and Build new base on new planet first move. That way you demonstrate how the various actions work. In general how you upgrade your bases will depend in part upon what resources you have access to, but you can do that on the fly. You can also discuss the event cards that everyone has. Best for the teacher to be the start player in a game like this, although I suspect that being first on the first turn has a bit of an advantage if you don't mind maybe not getting the best resourced or situated expansion planet.

For the second turn, you can talk a bit about how combat works, but ignoring most of the details and focusing on average strength and the idea of support units. Then you let players Plan as they would normally, but reminding people of how that process works (first in, last out) and perhaps demonstrating why you'd do it in a particular order. You are likely to get in at least one round of combat, but if not that's not a problem.

For the third turn, you can start discussing the victory conditions again as a reminder, perhaps some of the more esoteric elements as they come up, etc. If you're thinking about restarting the game at this point, I'd recommend making sure that everyone had gotten a chance to at least try to take an enemy held area so that they've seen how combat works in person and get a better sense of how to sequence your orders.

There's also something to be said for going through the rules and looking for the corner cases, then collecting them so that you don't have to constantly look them up. For example, the Stage is based on the current top card of the Event deck, not what card has been drawn. You reshuffle your combat deck when the deck runs out rather than when you need to draw a card from an empty deck. The rulebook is so big and ill-organized that it's better to try to nail those things down ahead of time, then note the new things you find during the game for next time.

Like most games, you really need to have had to do the 'splainin' once before a more effective plan comes to mind, and that's only more true with a complex game like Starcraft than with lighter games.

I have totally gotten over having to justify a $70 game purchase! Example: Tide of Iron. I knew that was a dog after the first play. Dust is another example - too much samey samey with other MPSGs and not enough to fix the problems. Perhaps the best part of Starcraft is the scalability to fewer players, where as most MPSGs require a full compliment to balance the game properly. Regardless, I'm happy to see, nearly a year after I bought it, that there's a game there. Yay!