Sunday, January 04, 2009

Yet More Gaming!

Mike's holiday all-day game session was so much fun, I decided to keep the party going - especially for those who couldn't make it last Tuesday. A lot of people showed up - Mike, George, Pradeep (a friend of George's), Alex, Chris, Ken, JD, Matt R, Jeff, and myself. That's a houseful, and we managed to stick to (mostly) two tables. We also got through more than three pizzas and a lot of snacks. 

First on the table was a quick round of Mamma Mia!, one of my favorite light games of all time, and one that Dave claims he won't play with me because I'm too good at it. Not today, as I sucked mightily with only two orders filled by game end. George was in the same boat, Matt and Mike did somewhat better, but first-timer Pradeep got seven of his eight orders filled. Clearly we'll need to watch him closely. Jeff, who got my address from our group database (which I did not know existed, and had information from more than six years ago in it), had showed up at my old house about 20 minutes away, but we waited for him to arrive before starting our next game.

Which was Power Grid, using the US map and excluding the NW part. We weren't sure which of the two western areas to exclude, and so we diced for it and the Great Northwest lost out. I will not lie - I consider myself a pretty good Power Grid player, and feel I do well in estimating how much money I will need during the course of a turn, even if I'm placing cities and gathering resources last. And I was - I built one or two extra cities on the second turn, putting me permanently in first place for most of the game. I made good choices when it came to power plants, getting just enough to do what I needed and not a lot more, and was able to power them most of the time (I was short only in the first couple of turns, mostly because I wanted to establish my territory early). 

This strategy worked pretty well for me - I was the second to place my initial city and picked the NE corner near NYC, and never hurt for places I could expand to. It should be noted that you play with only five areas (not six) in a six player game, the trigger to go to Step 2 is six cities built instead of seven, and the game ends when someone has built 14 cities. 

My initial purchases were for garbage (something I rarely had competition for), then a mixed oil/coal plant, and a low end wind farm. Mike was going for the nukes, and everyone else seemed to be running into placement problems as the game went on. Only one person went West, and that was first-timer Pradeep, who seemed to run into cash problems pretty regularly. Not surprising for a new player, but it didn't affect me much as he was firmly established in the Mississippi Valley, while I was on the other side of the Appalachians right up to the end. 

Then came the fateful turn, the one where I realized that at 11 cities built and good income for the past several turns, and the capacity to power 12 cities (and no one within reach who could beat me, although I was a little concerned about Mike), that if I built up to 14 I'd almost certainly win. Even better, I needed two garbage to fill out my resources, and thus had almost no costs above having to buy an extra power plant and replace one of my old ones. I replaced the garbage driven 3 plant with a garbage driven 5 plant to get to eight, and spent a bit more than I wanted to, but was still in good shape. Mike noticed by the time we got to buying resources that I could end the game if I had enough cash, and that was a true statement - I had close to 100 Electro at that point after buying my plant. I was able to build three more cities easily, and no one else was able to power more than 11 plants, and thus I pulled out the win right after we'd gotten to step 3. A really fun game, and I have no idea how I was able to pull ahead and stay there for so long. I blame my opponents. ;-)

Ken, Chris, Alex, JD, and the pizza arrived about this time, so after a little chewage we split up into two groups. Mike, Ken, Chris, Alex, and JD all played Indonesia, the "small" Splotter game from the folks who gave you Roads and Boats, while Pradeep, George, Jeff, Matt, and myself tried out Android. For about five hours. And got through half of the game. 

What to say about Android? It's unusual in many respects - very strongly themed, asymmetrical player characters, bit-rich enough to make Le Havre blush, gorgeous to boot, and some very clever interlocking subsystems. There's the Conspiracy, there's individual plots, there's the whole Light/Dark shifting system that encourages you to screw the other players, the novel vector-based movement system (with calipers, no less). There are two evil corporations to blame, witnesses/suspects to pin the crime on (or gun down), a multi-faceted economic system in the form of "favors", and more options than you can shake a stick at. 

And Fantasy Flight didn't even tell us it was coming. 

Make no mistake, this game is a monster. So much so that I wouldn't consider playing with five players again. It took up my entire kitchen table and we had so little space we had to put four of the six suspect sheets on a box full of wine next to the table. Explaining this game is a bear, and I really wish I'd spent about an hour coming up with a cohesive plan as to how to explain it all. Fortunately, everyone seemed to get *most* of the rules down. Strangely, people really struggled with the whole "negative means innocent" thing, despite me explaining that you have to *prove* guilt, and the numbers measured guilt. I must have gone over what the Perjury tokens did about 30 times, pretty much every time someone drew a non-numeric piece of evidence. The thing we didn't have trouble with, or at least too much, was the whole lightshift/darkshift idea, especially since Matt figured out that there was a direction arrow on the top of all the Twilight cards that made it easier. My thematic explanation is that you "bank" up a bunch of light points when you lightshift, and spend them by moving toward the dark side when you play a light card. 

Much of the time was spent figuring out what you could and couldn't do, and reading the cards, and figuring out a few things (like whether or not you draw a card if your hand is full but it's not by your choice, such as with a Dark card played on you - the rules are a bit vague, although there is a reference buried in one section, and most of the other mentions of the rule say you can't draw over the hand limit under very specific circumstances, leading one to suspect that there might be exceptions). This is *very* clearly a game where you need to understand what every detective playing can do, what will bring them success, and what you can do to bring them down. Yes, you get a sheet explaining all of that, but to be honest there is so *much* going on in the game that I was suffering from a certain amount of sensory overload (and I was teaching the game, as well!)

After the first week, we all decided to pack it in. There was a *ton* of evidence on each of the suspects (this was how most of us spent our time), the Conspiracy was almost entirely filled in, with some very interesting paths (some destinations have five, count 'em, five links), but when it came down to it, Mark Henry had gotten the most evidence against him (poor little clone!), giving Matt an extra 23 points thanks to the Conspiracy. He also did quite well with Conspiracy markers. To be honest, I was focusing on keeping my plot going in the right direction, which turned out well, and trying to raise some money for Rachael (which I forgot to add into my final score of 44, which should have been 46). Matt, however, nailed it with 88 points. 

I can see how there was a real rush to fill in the Conspiracy on a regular basis because of the extra VP for filling in a row or column, but at the same time it seemed to me that this also gave everyone enough information that we'd have been vying for the various favors that now had VP during the game as well as trying to kill suspects. Hard to say. I do know that I found this game as difficult to keep track of as a monster wargame, as everything interconnects - the personal life of the detectives, their personal ambitions and flaws, the twilight cards, the conspiracy - it's really an amazing design in many ways, but it will suffer from being a high end game, something that casual gamers might buy, but would only play once. This game is for the hard-core, and you know I'm talking to you.

Now that I've played, I feel like I could get the teaching down a bit quicker, but it will still take 20 minutes or so. Everything hits at once, so no chance to teach a little, then have people learn other stuff as it becomes relevant. I'd also play with three, four tops unless you like a lot of downtime. I missed playing Dark cards several times because I was looking up rules and didn't realize people were halfway into their turns much of the time, and that's a really critical part of the game. 

On the plus side, every character has different strengths and weaknesses, and while that 15VP for nailing the guilty party is a pretty nice bonus, at the same time you can do just as well if you have good happy endings to your plots, maybe more if there are a lot of links to bonuses in the conspiracy. As such, there's an incredible amount of depth in the game (and to the backstory - it's essentially Blade Runner with a space elevator and a moon base added in), and if this is the sort of thing you like (and you have the space, time, and friends to play with), you'll enjoy it quite a bit. 

One last thing - This is not a "figure out who did it" game. It's a "nail the evidence to the person you want to go down for the crime" game, in practice if not in theory. It's a bit like Schroedinger's Cat - some one is guilty, but you won't find out until you end the game, and right up to that point no one knows who it is and in fact *cannot* know who it is - there's no smoking guns, no damning testimony, just a rather abstract system that will drive mystery fans nuts. No, this game is about the detectives, what drives them, and what drives them slowly insane. As a man who sees people as deeply flawed, no matter how good their intentions are, this game speaks to me in a very visceral sense in much the same way that Bstar-G speaks to my occasional paranoia, and I hope to see it on the table often once we start getting a few more people up on the ruleset. 

I'll say this - there is no way I'm teaching this game at a con, or even playing it unless I know the parties involved. Take that as you will.

The Indonesia game (which had morphed into an Acquire game) upstairs finally broke up, and we were back down to six, with Ken taking the place of Jeff in our initial group. Ken and Pradeep hadn't played Medici before, and Matt did a great job of explaining the rules. Off we went! I started with a focus on fur and cloth, but Mike screwed me up by collecting fur as well. Since he would bid after me in nearly every auction, that didn't bode well. What really nailed me, however, was mis-remembering my color (I was black, but thought I was green for 20 seconds), and when Ken bid 26 on a very nice Gold/5 Fur/5 Cloth set, I thought I wouldn't have any money left for future bids (I would have one slot remaining), so I passed. In fact, I had 32 points, and this would have fit my hand quite well. I ended up having to draw at the end of the round, and drew utter crap. My own fault, but it killed me in the game and I ended up a distant last. I can't quite remember who won, but I do know that four players (Matt, Ken, George, and Mike) all finished within a few points of each other, perhaps one or two points separating each one. A phenomenal game, just one I played about as badly as I've played ever. 

However, there were many cries of "21!" throughout, so my now legendary overbid from years past lives on. Yay.

George, Matt, and Pradeep all took their leave at this point, and Mike, Ken, and myself played one last game: Ticket to Ride: Go Home Santa, The Freakin' Holiday's Over Edition. Mike and I had played at Salishan in early December, and Mike won by consistently drawing routes that fit in with his Oslo/Stockholm/Helsinki axis. This time, I went for the same route as Mike had before, and it was clear we were going to compete for these routes regularly. I would steal one from Mike, then he'd steal one from me. Ken, meanwhile was running the other arm of the X from us, going from Helsinki in a northwesterly direction, the only person really going into northern Sweden/Norway.

At least, he was right up until Mike played 15 cards to take the long Murmansk route. Ken realized that he too needed to get into Murmansk, and snapped up the other route into that city, screwing Mike up to no end. We were all drawing tickets like madmen, so much so that there was a single ticket in the deck at game end. I got kind of lucky with my draws - the initial draw gave me four similar tickets, and I was able to get two out of the next one, and singles out of the next two (although the last one gave me a bit of a scare as time was clearly running out). Ken ended the game by playing all of his trains, literally, including a one-spacer for the very last turn of the game. 

At this point, Mike had a commanding lead, and if he could generate the most tickets he's be a winner. Imagine my surprise to realize that both he and Ken had unfinished routes, while mine were all completed! In fact, I'd been able to lay five or six more trains down during the last couple of rounds, which is unusual for me (I'm usually finding out about that time that I'm not going to finish what I started). Mike got up over 100 points in the final tally, Ken was behind him about 15 or so points, and we stopped counting my points once I got to Mike's score and still had five tickets left to score. I guess I done good. 

Ten more hours of gaming, with barely any time wasted on managing the dogs, eating, eliminating, all of those pesky distractions. Thanks to all who attended, especially Pradeep, who got thrown in the deep end in a big way, and took it all in stride. It was also nice to game with George and Jeff again, but to be honest it's a great group and just about anyone is my favorite partner when it comes to the Rip City Gamers. 

Of course, we were having all of this fun as the news of Israel invading Gaza was coming over the airwaves. I do not pretend any favoritism in this conflict - I think both sides make good points as well as bad - but I do know that this part of the world will never know peace as long as Israel exists as a state. I have a rather uncomfortable feeling that had the Confederate States managed to secede successfully (and in many ways, they actually *did* after Reconstruction failed and they set up an apartheid system that lasted for nearly 100 years - I *do* "read books" from time to time), that we would be fighting the same kinds of battles with them. We are all deeply flawed, and sometimes it just breaks my heart.

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