Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday Gaming At Mike's

Snow, a rather stubborn case of cellulitis, the holidays, a new granddaughter, and Chris' gaming retreat at the start of the month all conspired to kill Tuesday gaming in December for me. As of yesterday, I had missed all four sessions (which includes those cancelled because of all the snow we got this month - Portland is not a town that deals with snow in what anyone would term an "effective" way). Thank goodness Mike held an all-day session at his place, which I was so excited about I showed up before anyone else!

While we waited, Mike and I pulled out Dominion (which may be our new "summoning" game while we wait for more people to show up, you can even drop people into an ongoing game without too much trouble, although they'll be behind), picking random action card decks. A quick perusal on my part and it was pretty clear that by far the best strategy was going to be trying to pick up Mine cards and a couple of Cellars and just try to get those Copper cards upgraded as quickly as possible. At least, that was the strategy that looked like it would work to me, and boy howdy did it ever work. I ended with six of the eight Province cards, a good half of the Duchies, and a stack of Estates. Mike never had a chance. I may be getting this game down...

Greg showed up just in time for us to try out the new Lost Cities boardgame, and Mike had explained about half of the game (not much time at all) when Jim arrived as well. The game has gotten a certain reputation as a weak game modeled on a successful card game, but I didn't find that at all. Like the card game, you play a card, then draw a card, and you have to build them up in numeric order. There are no Agreement cards to multiply your total, nor are the high-value cards all that high-value anymore. Instead, each card allows you to move one of your explorers up the track for that suit, with big bumps from -10 to 5 and from 15 to 30 (where there is also a bridge on each track, important for ending each round). One of your explorers has a pituitary issue, and it is worth double the value on that track, even if you're in the negative range. You still discard onto a pile for each of the various suits, and can draw from those piles. There are also spaces on the board that give bonus points, extra moves, and artifact tokens that you collect throughout the game, and these are public knowledge (a good thing) and change from round to round. I found myself ignoring what was on a track in favor of getting my Big Kahuna up to the 50 space in each of the three rounds, and won handily. 

Some of the elements of the card game are simply not present. Because the 10 cards aren't handing your opponent ten points (you now play cards to move spaces, not to gain that many points), that's not a terrible discard, even early in the game. It's still better to discard cards your opponents can't use because they've passed them by, but it's not nearly as critical as in the card game. That means your decisions aren't as difficult - focus on your Big Kahuna (it was the first thing I placed in every round), and use the Extra Move spaces to get it along the track quicker if you don't have the cards. 

What saves the game is the "timer" - the round ends when five explorers have gotten over bridges over the combined tracks, or when the cards run out. In our game, one ended with explorers, one ended with cards, and one ended with both occurring simultaneously. As a result, you are trying to get in as many cycles as you can (just like the card game) before time runs out. Of course, drawing from discard piles can slow the game down a bit, but with four players that isn't going to help much unless everyone is doing it. 

The other high point of this game is that you can explain it easily to non-gamers, unlike the original. I taught my wife to play the card game, and she never did get it (or never cared to). I'm pretty confident she'd get the boardgame version, so it's probably more appropriate for families with kids in the 8-10 demographic. I walked away from the game very excited about it, but then again Cooley's Law almost certainly applies, and as I've typed out the recap I find myself seeing the big problem pretty clearly - for gamers, the decisions are all pretty obvious given your hand. This one will stay on the bubble for now.

By now a few more people had arrived - Rita and KC, and Mike's son Colin wanted to join in (his friend Rochelle came by in the next hour or so, and was a very nice addition to the group). Since there have been so many comparisons between Agricola and Le Havre recently, we decided to play side-by-side games, with Rita, Greg, and myself playing Le Havre. This was my first game, and Greg did a great job explaining the rules to me, so well that I had very few issues during play in what is a pretty involved game when you take all of the buildings into account. Greg won, of course, but that was largely because I got stalled between getting my second liner or the bank when I foolishly used one too many bricks to buy an iron (should have used a cow), and so lost one cycle. Scores were 230 to 200 to 130, with Rita in the rear having to worry a lot more about food than, say, me (I had six ships at the end of the game, enough to generate 16 food a turn!)

The game is far too complex for me to summarize here, but it's definitely in the "resource management" realm. It manages to avoid what is the Achilles' Heel of Agricola, the individual hand of Minor Improvements that can make or break your chances of winning. It was a long game (both took around 3 hours including 'splainin'), but time flew by on both tables and suddenly it was 2pm and no one had eaten lunch! I'm quite taken with the game, and am looking forward to giving it a solitaire outing or three in the future. A definite thumbs up from me, and for an impulse purchase (someone in the group had ordered several and I was the last one to sign on), a big and very pleasant surprise. My only complaint is that the board can become a bit of a mess, but that's a pretty minor complaint. 

After a little chow, I managed to convince Colin, Jim, and Rochelle to play Ghost Stories, the new coop game set in ancient China. If you liked A Chinese Ghost Story, this game uses much of the same mythological elements - Chinese ghosts are totally badass. It's also a very difficult game if you have no clue as to what you are doing. I had read the rules ahead of time, but missed the errata about reducing the cost to exorcise a ghost when a Tao marker was on the appropriate villager space BY one instead of TO one, but it didn't help much - we still got wiped after killing only 13 ghosts (20 more in the deck before Wu Feng, and our boards were all filled up). Note to self - you must start exorcising ghosts *very* quickly, as Colin had one run where he ended up placing four ghosts in *one* turn! I hear it's a tough nut, much like Pandemic, and I look forward to trying it out solitaire. Note that the rules are a hard parse, as they use white text on black paper with dark blue notes that are tough to read (although more thematic), and the icons on the cards and village tiles were a bit difficult to get used to. Still, I do like coop games right up to the point where it comes down to how the cards come out, which is the Achilles' Heel of *this* particular genre (semi-coops such as Bstar-G and Shadows Over Camelot excepted), so I'm not sure how much play this will see in the group, especially given how totally awesome Bstar-G is. Having a solitaire variant is a big plus, however, so I'm still glad I got it. 

Last up was the latest (fifth, by my count) edition of Cosmic Encounter, most recently redone by Fantasy Flight. I have the Eon (original) edition, although I never did get the last two expansions (kickers, flares for the later aliens, etc), and later the Mayfair games that were more or less a reprint of the Eon set but with all of the parts and the moons and lucre separated out into the More Cosmic box. The new set retains most of the elements of the original, tweaks some powers, excludes lucre and moons, and adds in a few new powers. The components are awesome - no more System Hex, now you just have five discrete planets in your color, and the art is the usual flashy stuff from FFG, plus really cool flying saucers for your tokens that look remarkably like nipples. Yes, I need to seek professional help, thank you for caring. 

Explaining this game took a lot more work than I'd remembered, but people seemed to get into it very quickly. Greg was the Mirror, which could transpose the digits on an attack card (from 04 to 40, for example), but it was done for both players and had to be done before cards were revealed. Dave was the Cudgel who removed extra tokens when he won, which sounded really great except he hardly ever won a challenge (he started and ended the game, so I think he ended up having exactly four challenges). I was the Vulch and got to pick up all of the Artifact cards (Cosmic Zap, etc) that other people discarded or played (an OK power), Colin was the Warrior, who got bonus attack points with every combat he won or lost, and Rochelle was the Pacifist, and as such those Negotiation cards were very useful for her (she won challenges if she played them).

Two high points of the game (at least for me) - Rochelle attacking me with a Negotiation card, me Cosmic Zapping her power, her Card Zapping my Cosmic Zap. Well done, madam, well done! The other came at the very end of the game, when everyone had four off-system bases, and Dave invited everyone to ally with him to take one of Greg's bases (note that Dave was down to just two bases, so lost his power pretty early, but was frequently invited to ally). Greg swapped the digits, but Dave had the wild Pacifist flare and played a Negotiation card, so he ended up with the same value card as Greg, and since everyone was allied with him but Greg, all of us won - but Greg. I guess Dave could have forced the two of them to negotiate a deal, and thus he and Greg could have won, which is *totally* what I would have done in his place. I actually had thought that he had some card that sent your allies back to their planets, then realized he had just drawn a new hand just before he'd chosen an encounter card, so that wasn't something he'd have planned.

All in all, this is the set to get. The gameplay is the Cosmic you remember (which may or may not be a good thing - this is old school gaming, which means things are completely random in many ways, and while good play will help you win, at the same time it's extended wackiness), the components are awesome, the rules and powers are very clear, and the whole feel makes it seem like an entirely new game. One nit - FFG apparently felt like it had to change almost every term in the game - compromise became negotiation, challenge cards became encounter cards, the hyperspace cone became the hyperspace gate, etc - and so I found myself using incorrect terminology frequently. Since many of the powers require precise terminology, experienced Cosmic players might take some time to adjust. I will say this - I don't see the older editions coming out ever again. This one is far too pretty. 

And with that my brain started to spiral down the drain after ten hours of gaming goodness. In fact, it was so much goodness that I decided to host another full-day session at my place this Saturday just to keep the party rolling. Because I've *got* to get Android on the table at some point, and this may be my only chance before Lorna's big Eugene Games Gala in about a month or so. 

Thanks again to Mike for hosting, who went out of his way to provide everyone with yummy food, not to mention a great space for gaming.

1 comment:

Greg W said...

Glad to play, it was quite fun! I'm curious to hear how Android turned out.