Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I've Invoked Godwin's Law! Or, The Review Nazi

I recently did what I call "buyer's remorse" research on a game I recently bought and played, which is to say I went and looked up reviews of the game post-purchase. One of the reviews I saw was, to say the least, on the muddled side. The game is fully co-operative, or what I'll call an FCG. The reviewer complained that the game was neither a luck-fest nor a skill-based game, which is of course silly - all you *have* in an FCG is the balance of luck and skill. He had also played a single scenario of the game and had dismissed the entire game as too easy to win.

So I wrote in the forum that the OP didn't seem to understand that this was the very nature of an FCG, and (like many others) that a single scenario, which the OP has not come back to say whether or not was actually intended for solitaire play (he says the first scenario, but no details beyond that, and Scenario 1 is solitaire) and his group played it multiplayer. I responded because I thought the OP was far too unaware of the nature of FCGs as well as not giving the game even close to a fair shake, and felt it would be a disservice not to.

For my trouble, I got the usual focus on things I hadn't discussed (he talked about how the games I listed as examples of FCGs were all terrible games and in some cases not in fact FCGs because there was a time element), and a personal note suggesting that it wasn't polite to critique one's opinions in a review. Really.

Of course, I reiterated my points, refuted his, and privately explained that this was a public forum and perhaps he didn't fully understand what those were for either. He responded by saying I was the worst review Nazi he'd ever seen on the "Geek, both the first time Godwin's Law has been invoked (if tangentially) on my behalf, and also as a badge of honor. I would love for Glenn Beck, for example, to call me a commie. Not that this guy is in Beck's league, but he did use a lot of the same arguing techniques.

Of course, if you're a Glenn Beck fan, I've lost your attention right now. Darn. Before you go, could you call me a Nazi? That would make my day!

Back to my point, which is to explain to the general population that understanding how to present a considered opinion of merit is probably something that you don't see a lot of, but at the same time you should learn how to do unless you go into politics, where it's all about quantity and volume and nothing to do with logic or reason.

Let's start with the idea of a public forum. Traditionally, a forum is a place where you present a thesis of some sort, whether it's an idea, a law, or a review. When you do so, you are putting your thesis up to public scrutiny. In fact, that's the entire *point* of a forum, that you *want* people to try to knock down what you have put up and to have it withstand that scrutiny. There are no rules that others have to be overly concerned with your feelings (although on the 'Geek the standard is that you should respect others and not engage in ad hominum attacks, which I did *not* do unless you consider saying "I don't think you understand the essential nature of an FCG" as a personal attack, and in most arenas people see right through those anyway). There is no rule that says because you label something as an opinion that we have to accept it as having equal merit to other opinions. That's antithetical to the entire operation.

Clearly there are opinions that are matters of taste, and opinions that have good arguments for and against on either side. I wasn't complaining about that. If the OP didn't like the heft of the cards or their lack of color, that's a matter of taste to a large extent. Saying that a game can't make up it's mind between randomness and skill-based play in an FCG (equivalent to a solitaire game) is simply ignorant of what drives tension in such a game.

It's probably worth while to expound on what that means, just in case some of you haven't noticed this core element of pretty much every solitaire/FCG out there (which I'll just call FCGs for short, but they are basically team solitaire). In adversarial games, you have an opponent who is making choices to either improve or maintain his position and/or thwart yours. How each game is designed determines how those strategies can be implemented (if at all), but the tension comes from your comparative end result compared to your opponents. In other words, your opponents provide the tension and release in the game, while the game provides the arc of play.

In an FCG, there is no opponent sitting across the table, but instead an AI or system that the players play against. Their success or failure is based on how they do against a fixed system. That system may have random elements, but in the end there's an algorithm and it doesn't vary from it's path. There may be multiple algorithms, but at any given point the system has a very high degree of determinism. Of course, an FCG with no chaos elements is really only a puzzle, a diversion with a single solution set that once understood effectively ends any interest in the FCG. You don't go back and erase your crossword puzzles and then do them again, at least without some sort of OCD or other condition. Let's call this half of the design paradigm consonance, or the part that stays the same.

In order to make an FCG a repeatable and enjoyable experience, the designer needs to throw in chaos elements to keep things interesting. No matter what you do in the game, there is always a chance that things won't turn out the way you hoped or planned. The downside is that even if you play a "perfect" strategy, at some times the game will smack you in the face and you'll lose. At the same time, even an abject beginner can play the game and win with terrible strategy. The design challenge is to figure out how to implement the chaos so that the game remains interesting even for the experienced player but still rewards good play. We'll call this dissonance, or the tension element. You're doing everything right, but is this the turn when the AA over target hits everything it shoots at? When four ghosts pop up on the board? When the random event knocks your aircraft out of the sky for a mechanical failure?

Art is full of consonance/dissonance, especially in the time-based arts of music and drama. Imagine a movie with no tension, which is called an information film. To anyone not interested in how to assemble an IKEA desk, it's boring as hell. Even documentaries such as Super Size Me had tension in them, as the audience wonders if the subject really *can* eat nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. It's a critical part of how humans view the world. Think of driving to work and now much of it you remember when you get there. Chances are you remember nothing unless something interesting or memorable happens. Most entertainment leverages this idea, and games are no exception, and FCGs by their very nature *must* leverage it or else you have a game that is no fun at all once you've cracked it. The exception is the puzzle, and in gaming there are few more damning terms than to say a game is on a rail or devolves to a puzzle.

As it happened, my complaint that the OP didn't understand this had not been picked up on by anyone else in this thread. They *had* picked up on the fact that the OP really hadn't played enough scenarios in this game to warrant claiming that it was far too easy to win, and one of the responses to my complaint was that others had already noticed that, although the OP had not bothered to explain whether he'd played the solo scenario or not. In my experience, that means he did in fact play the solitaire scenario and was too embarrassed to say so.

I found the OPs response to my complaints to be typical of the average forum junkie. Rather than thinking about my point and realizing that it's pretty obvious, he chose instead to denigrate the games I'd put up as examples of FCGs and say that there was no distinction between an FCG and a semi-cooperative game such as Battlestar Galactica. Hello, this is Number Six calling and we'd like our organic brain back. While BSG has a lot of the same elements as an FCG, which it *can* be in the first half of the game, at some point there is an adversarial relationship between players and the tension comes from that. Shadows Over Camelot, which the OP extolled as a "skill-based" game. Which, again, may be an FCG or may not, but until the game end the players don't know so in effect it might as well be a semi-cooperative game.

The OP also said two other things that amazed me. First was that his complaint was about where the randomness was in the game, although two minutes with the original post showed that he said no such thing. Second, he claimed that in any event his argument was about the lack of theme, which was mentioned parenthetically in the OP and not listed at all in the breakdown list at the end of the review. It must have been the part where he said the game wasn't memorable, which is a different animal.

Here are the problems with the OPs response:

1) Distraction from the main points. A common technique used by children through their teens and often even into their twenties. Find something to complain about in your opponent's argument, and hope they bite. In this case, it was saying that Space Alert wasn't a co-op game because of the time element. Actually, the time element is used both in the chaos and skill sides of the game, it doesn't change the nature of the FCG.

2) Complaining that the issue of scenario selection and number of scenarios played had already been brought up. Perhaps, but not resolved. We still didn't know which scenario was played, and in any event my point that the OP didn't have enough experience with the game to be able to call what he did a "review". I rarely review games on the 'Geek for that reason. Instead, I use the rating system and it's comment field.

3) Rewriting the OP after the fact. Very common. It's almost like people forget that they can go back and see what they wrote in the past. The OPs biggest complaint was theme? Really? Hardly mentioned. It's where the randomness is, not that there is randomness? Directly contradicted by the OPs own words.

4) Claiming that his opinion has merit simply because it's an opinion and thus above reproach. Also incredibly common and also the first bastion of defense when you're 18. Just because Fox News claims to be fair and balanced doesn't mean they are. Far from it. No media is, it's all a commercial enterprise intended to generate money for someone in the end. Just because there are two sides to a story doesn't mean that those points are worth airing. The Holocaust, pro and con. Discuss! This is not to say that the OP didn't have good points, all I'm saying is that you have to demonstrate that the points have merit. Just because you *have* them is not enough unless we are talking about issues of taste. The OP was not saying he didn't like FCGs, he was saying that he didn't like the core design philosophy behind FCGs (albeit in the context of this single game) without seeming to understand that it was the nature of the beast. The effect was to say that he didn't like the circus because the clowns were scary, which is useless in any sort of review of a circus as most people who are afraid of clowns wouldn't go in the first place.

When you review a game, which by its very nature is trying to let people know whether they should invest time or money in it from your experience, you need to understand the nature of the game and be able to compare it to the existing body of work. You also need to have enough time spent with the game to be able to understand the interactions between the mechanisms. Five minutes with any Martin Wallace game will tell you that just because you see the mechanisms doesn't mean you necessarily see how they interact. In a scenario-based game, it's even more critical. The OP also said that he doubted his opinion of the game would change (it would only "possibly change one item" he found lacking, although he neglected to say what that item was. That's like playing an introductory scenario in ASL and claiming the game doesn't have enough tanks.

Those of you have been following this blog know that there are a few games that I have had a strong negative reaction to after one play, or even after part of a play. There are certainly times when you can see enough to realize that a game is either not going to be your cup of tea, or that the designer has made some critical errors. Age of Empires III comes to mind, where the Discovery mechanism, effectively random, throws off what is otherwise a pretty good game. The Kaiser's Pirates, as another, takes the main chaos element (drawing cards) and allows so few card draws during a hand and over such a long time (a hand can last for up to 30 minutes) that there is very little likelihood that an average statistical outcome will be realized. It's like deciding the outcome of a game on a single die roll. Without a compelling literary element (and I will admit that this is a shortcoming of the game the OP was talking about), that small of a sample set is going to be a problem. When you see problems like that, you can point them out. You can say that a car with three wheels is going to be much more likely to tip over than one with four without spending a lot of time in the car.

The lesson is that when you review a game with the intent of helping others decide whether or not to invest time or money in it that it is a good idea to know what the hell you're talking about. The OP in this case clearly didn't. To make matters worse, he couched the review in his Subject line as being of value because he had experience in a thematically related game system. He ended the review by saying that he really couldn't say whether people interested in the related game system would enjoy the review topic game.

That by itself should have been a clue.

I'm not responding to the OP at this point. Calling me a Nazi is a pretty clear indication that he hasn't taken in a single word I've said, which is not unusual. I really have no skin in this game other than to let anyone reading it that the OP doesn't know what he's talking about. A little thin skinned, too.

I have avoided going into detail intentionally, as I have no desire to further embarrass the OP. This is intended as an object lesson in defending a thesis, which every high school student should have learned how to do if they cared to. And I'm pretty sure this is not a high school student from the context of some of his comments. However, it wouldn't take anyone too much detective work to put the various elements together. This was intended to be a case study of how not to write a review and definitely on how not to defend it effectively.

Well, and also to celebrate my admission to the National Socialist Party's game review review wing. I'm a review Nazi, I'm a review Nazi! Woohoo! My mother will be so proud.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Deck Building And Monster Stomping

One of the few pleasures of living out in Wilsonville is the proximity of not only a Hobbytown USA that is well stocked with games is that the owner is also a friend of mine and lives in the area. Strangely, we've had a lot of trouble getting together for games regularly, but we made up for that a bit on Sunday this week when we tried out a bunch of games that are new to me. In the deck-building genre, we have Thunderstone (using the Wrath of the Elements expansion) and Ascension, Chronicle of the Godslayer, and in the monster stomping category we have the new D&D Castle Ravenloft coop boardgame.

First up was Thunderstone. If you know Dominion, you can pick up Thunderstone in very short order. There are tons of comparisons around, so I'll keep it brief: Think Dominion but with killing monsters as the goal rather than buying land, and you choose between gearing up, getting rid of cards in hand, or killing said monsters. Following the theme of compartmentalization, the "Village" cards are subdivided further into heroes you can hire (and upgrade) as well as a set of Basic tools (daggers, rations, torches, redshirts) that are available every game. The monsters come in a variety of flavors, and the game uses them not only as VP (along with a few goods from the Village) but also as a timer. The eponymous Thunderstone gets stuck near the bottom of the deck and when it shows up in the first rank the game ends. There will be three types of monsters in the deck for a total of 30 cards. Like Dominion, there are lots of card types to work your way through, in all categories. There is also an experience subsystem that allows you to upgrade heroes, which I really like as well.

The theme is a lot darker than Dominion, which you'd expect from a dungeon crawl-themed game. The art is nice, typical CCG fantasy stuff, but fairly monochromatic with lots of dark blues, purples, and black. It was perfectly serviceable, just as functional as in Dominion despite the lack of a wide color palate. The cards seem a bit on the thin side, but nothing that will drive me to sleeve all of them immediately. Interestingly, the base game comes with dividers to help you sort the cards, but they are barely wider than the cards they are sorting and while useful, they don't help you set the game up particularly quickly. The expansion game comes with a box that will hold all of the cards, sleeved (!) with designated divider cards for each card type, much nicer. The only downside is that the rules don't fit in the new box, as it's a bit smaller! Glad I have an iPad for that sort of thing.

Speaking of rules, the game has less than fantastic rules, taking a simple idea like Light Penalties (where the further into the dungeon you are, the more you need a light source to defeat monsters) and makes it nearly incomprehensible. The rules are at v1.4, and my understanding is that v1.0 made no sense at all. AEG is not exactly known for it's clear rulesets, of course, and I'm happy that they are at the very least keeping them updated. That said, the game is extremely easy to learn if you know Dominion already and someone can teach you.

Finally, the card iconography is not what I would call "obvious" but it works once you've played for ten or fifteen minutes. There are several values on cards, from cost to VP value to experience level of a hero, to weight of a weapon, to gold value, to strength, to defense value to light value. Not all cards have the same information set on them, which adds to the confusion, but as I said it works just fine after you've played for a bit. However, I think that because of the many values that this game will be harder to sell non-gamers on, which is probably just as well as games take something like an hour to 90 minutes, a little long for a game like this.

I should also mention that the game supports up to four players, which would make getting some goods or heroes in a given mix a bit more of a trick. There is also a solitaire option.

Like most deckbuilding games, how cards come out for you early can make a big difference in how you progress, and I stalled badly early on, struggling to get even enough cash together to buy even basic goods, and the early monsters were also hard for me to kill. I really struggled with XP early, not buying nearly enough Trainers to convert my nearly useless Militia into XP to let me upgrade heroes, and I was far behind the curve for the entire game. In the end, Jesse had six Horde monsters to my four, which meant a 20 point lead just with those two extra cards, which was about the difference.

Still, I found that I liked the game a lot. There are iPhone apps that will let you randomize the various decks quickly (otherwise you use Randomizer cards similar to in Dominon), and of course how the game plays out will be largely determined by the various interactions of the Village, Hero, and Monster cards that end up in the game, so in that respect it's quite a bit like Dominion - much of the game is understanding how best to use the various tools in this particular toolbox to get where you need to be. However, there is a lot more synergy between the various card types. For example, many of the Elemental monsters punish you for either having a Weapon assigned to a Hero, or for *not* having a Weapon assigned to a Hero. There were also cards that prevented you from using Spells, or requiring at least one number from your attack value having a Magic component.

All in all, the addition of combat and choices of how to spend your turn (passing can be a good way to get those nearly worthless Militia cards out of hand, as well as Disease cards) make this an intriguing alternative to Dominion, plus the capability for Solitaire to at the very least help you get used to the interactions between cards. I liked it better than Dominion two-player, and am glad I picked up the base set and will actively look for the expansion.

Next up was yet another deck-building game that has just come out, this one designed and published by some pretty high-calibre M:tG players, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Now there's a presumptuous title! While this is a deck-building game, it feels a *whole* lot different from Dominion or Thunderstone. For one thing, you can buy or kill as much as you are able during your turn. For another, there are only nine cards available at a time to choose from for combat or purchasing, three of which are always avaialable, although killing a monster or drawing a card results in immediate restocking of that card. The pool of cards drawn from is always the same pool, so variability is driven not by setup but by what cards out of the 100 or so in the deck show up at any given time. The result is a much more free-flowing game, although one that can result in a player turn taking five minutes or so if they have done well in their deck building.

Cards are either Heroes (the Mystic and Heavy Infantry cards you can always buy, as well as the more annoying Apprentices and Militia that you start the game with, as well as "faction" specific heroes), Monsters which generally give Honor (VP) points as well as an occasional effect, and Constructs from the various factions, which are persistent but vulnerable to threats. It is the Constructs that can give you amazing amounts of effects during a turn, from granting additional Runes (money) or Weapons (not sure what this is called, but it's used to kill monsters) to various extra effects such as letting you draw extra cards. And believe me, the Constructs and faction Heroes that let you draw extra cards are the key to winning this game.

The draw deck consists of cards that all fit into one of four factions, useful as it gives you a hint as to what that faction is generally good for. The Void faction helps you get rid of cards in hand, your discard pile, or the central pool of six faction cards, which is nice if you don't want your opponent to get something, or if you are hoping for a good draw. Lifeforce cards generally have a lot of synergistic effects between them, mostly allowing you to add cards to your deck cheaply. Mechana tend to be pretty limited by themselves but very powerful as you combine them, while Enlightenment tends to allow you to draw extra cards from your draw pile.

Like Race for the Galaxy, the game ends when a pool of common points (represented by some very cheesy plastic gems in the box, but you could always use glass beads or pennies if you chose to) is gone and all players have had an equal number of turns. Add up your gems plus the VP value on your cards (which everything has other than the cards you start with) and whoever has the most wins.

One other note: the art is *really* different. Really. It's mostly colored pencil drawings that some might take as a bit amateurish, but I found I really liked it. In isolation, that is. There is usually a lot of detail, and the nature of pencil media makes it look a bit busier than it is. The result for me in my first game was that the art tended to overwhelm me rather than pull me in, as in both Dominion and Thunderstone. You would think that M:tG players would have a little more sense of what works and what doesn't, but as this is a new company I can forgive it. I will also note that the art was only bothersome in my first game, after that I didn't pay nearly as much attention to it.

Unlike Dominion/Thunderstone, this game plays fast. Our first game took a bit over 30 minutes, but the last two we played were about 20 minutes each. Setup time, being a standard setup, is very fast, the most time-intensive being counting out the gems for the VP pool. With more players, I would expect the game to take longer, probably ten minutes per player. The other big difference is that the pool of cards you can buy to add to your deck can change radically from one player's turn to the next, so the game is extremely tactical as there is no guarantee that the cards you want will come up, or that if they do someone else might grab them. As such, I suspect the sweet spot for this game is two players, possibly three. Even the playing board (really unnecessary for play three minutes into your first game) is obviously made to support a two-player game, belying it's M:tG ancestry. There is no solitaire variant in the box.

A quick note about component quality: cards are nice and beefy, and there is plenty of room in the box for them after sleeving. In fact, the company sells a custom card box and 200 sleeves for $16, which (assuming good sleeves, which I'm not sure about) are about what I pay for quality sleeves now in that quantity. If the box saves a lot of space, I may have Jesse order me one, as this is a *great* lunchtime or filler game for two, possibly for more.

All of that said, despite an initial impression of "hmm" I found myself really enjoying the game. The relative chaos of the system is more than made up for by the quickness of the games and the brisk play once you have the basic ideas down. The art is unlike anything you own unless you are in to self-published graphic novels, but really makes you feel like you're somewhere else, and the four factions (which, I will reiterate, do *not* correspond to specific players) have very different feels that add to the theme. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the proof is in the play, and in this case there is definitely a worthwhile game here if you can get past the relative chaos of a constantly changing card pool. Nothing like drawing 12 Runes in hand when there are nothing but Monsters in the pool, leaving you to buy Mystics and HI that you may not want!

In our three games, Jesse beat me handily in the first, but I won a narrow victory with a strong Void deck that got rid of all but three of my Apprentices making for a very lean and mean deck. Jesse won the third handily with a great set of constructs that allowed him to do quite a bit every turn near the end.

I will be picking this game up, no question. And if you do play, be sure to give it more than one hand to see how you like it. Like most CCG/LCG/DBGs, knowing what is possible makes for a much more interesting experience.

The last game we played was the one I was most excited about trying out, the new Castle Ravenloft cooperative game from Wizards. I love me some Descent, but it can be a bit of a drag for the Overlord player as the players figure out what they are going to do during their turns. That and four to eight hours of play time. And forget the campaign games - great idea that had some success in Road to Legend, supposedly "fixed" in Sea of Blood, but far too much table time required for a hobby that thrives on variety and not a lot of traction in my game group.

Enter CR, based on the old 1st Edition D&D I-series module (that also had a very cool Arabian/Egyptian trilogy that I still want to run someday) based on the players taking out a vampire in his castle. It was iconic enough that it became a campaign in 2nd Ed, focused on the occult and horror. I actually played the adventure back in the day when it was new, losing a level to a wraith in one of my most memorable RPG moments.

The game comes in a huge box, and you'll need it. There are a ton of dungeon tiles, all square (unlike the variety of shapes in Descent) that you discover as you advance. Not a lot of adventurers, just five to work with, and also not a huge number of monsters to fight, something like 12. However, the sculpts are all very nice and have some variance of color (there is no "normal/master" differentiation as in Descent), and they are easy to make out on the board.

I should mention that this is a coop game. You are playing against the system and luck, much as with the old Heroquest/Warhammer Quest system. However, the components are much nicer (I have the Warhammer Quest system, along with both of the expansion campaigns and several of the extra heroes), certainly in the case of the boards, which are nice and thick. There are a ton of cards in this game to generate not only monsters and treasure, but also encounters (think traps and random monsters). There has been some complaints that most of the cards contain only one or two colors rather than full color, and to them I say, big freaking deal. The game costs half as much as Descent. If you want color cards, buy Descent. These cards are extremely functional and aesthetically pleasing aside from color issues, and even that was no detriment in our game. Flash gets you only so far. That said, I'd consider sleeving the cards, as they are very thin, although will get handled much less than in a game where you have a hand of cards.

Gameplay is sequence driven, but very easy and intuitive after a couple of rounds. Your hero can move and attack in either order, or substitute an extra move for the attack (but not the other way around). An attack can also be used to use an item or to try to disable a trap. After this point, if you are next to the edge of the world, you add a new tile, drawing a monster card to place on it. If it has a black triangle (used to orient the tile) then you draw an encounter card. If you don't draw a new dungeon tile, you draw an encounter card regardless, so there's some incentive to explore quickly. Finally, any traps or monsters that *you* have triggered are activated in the order discovered, although *all* monsters of a given type of card get activated, so if you and other players have the same monster it's in your best interest to take them out quickly.

Combat is very simple, each monster and character and trap has a modifier (and very simple AI to tell you how the monster reacts) that is added to a d20 roll. If that number meets or beats the target's AC, it hits for the amount listed. It's very fast and effective. Characters typically get to pick a set of skills specific to their class, and at least one of those skills dictates their modifier and damage. Some skills can only be used once, although there are treasures and encounters that let you get them back. The party also has a set number of Surges that are used like bandages to get some of your hit points back.

You can also level up, although it requires a certain amount of luck. If you roll a natural 20 when making a roll on your behalf (not on behalf of a trap or monster), and the party has killed enough monsters, you level up, which means more HP, a better AC, more skills, etc. I got the sense that leveling was mostly for the larger scenarios, as it's unlikely that you'll want to spend your XP on leveling when it's so much nicer to wave off an encounter card that will screw the pooch instead. However, it's probably more of a priority if you're going to eventually be facing the villain, Strahd.

Although I had purchased and punched a copy of the game, I had not yet read the rules. We were playing within about three minutes, with very little in the way of rules lookups and screwups throughout. Jesse had chosen the second scenario, which was the first intended for multiple players (a couple of the 12 scenarios in the box are solitaire, mostly intended as learning devices). Mike must have been in the area, because i rolled terribly the first several rolls I made (four of my first ten rolls were 2's), and we found ourselves using both surges within ten minutes and three monsters of play.

After that, though, we managed to do some real damage, and I didn't need to use my Dagger Blizzard (or whatever it was) with my rogue until much later in the game. Interestingly, our task was to find the Chapel and gain the Icon of Ravenloft, but we weren't sure if we were also supposed to get *out* of the castle as well. So we ran for it, and nearly made it. in fact, Jesse's Dwarf Cleric (sorry, that combo just never seems to work for me thematically) got within sight of the stairs when he was cut down. Curse his stubby legs!

Play time was about 90 minutes. Wow. This will see some table time on Tuesdays, no question. Descent typically is limited to weekend or retreat play with my group, and you have to be pretty interested in having a group willing to put in the time. With CR, that's no longer an issue, and there's as much replayability here as with Descent. There are even additional games planned that can be linked together in various ways, from the monsters to the boards, so I think it will be a very successful franchise, at least as successful as Descent.

Again, as with Ascension, I did not read the rules for this game so can't speak as to how well they are written, although Jesse had good things to say about it.

I'll also note that the monster AI is done in a very appropriate scope. Range in this game is by tile, not by square, and so exact placement is not quite as important as it might be in other games. Frankly, this made things much more elegant just by elevating the scope a titsch. There's a lot to like in this game!

When my nieces and nephews were a bit younger, we'd play D&D on our family trip to Sunriver, and it was something the kids looked forward to quite a bit. I'll never forget Alex's face as a child when, as the dwarven warrior at about age 5, he struck the killing blow on the evil wizard in our first game. Some of those same nieces and nephews have suggested that perhaps we're getting close to a point where their kids would be interested in something similar, and while I don't know that some of the four year olds will have the patience to sit through two hours of anything other than Kung Fu Panda, I think most will do very well with a little math help from parents. Heck, a cousin's son was able to add two digit numbers fairly quickly when we played Pickamino, so there you go.

Three games, three winners. If any of these games are of the type that you are interested in, I highly recommend you check them out! Thanks to Jesse for introducing me to them, and I'll be picking up Ascension at the soonest opportunity.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Settlers of America: Trails to Rails First Impression

Last week I finally got out to Matt's again for Tuesday gaming, and despite a warm day and no A/C at Matt's, we had a good turnout and a great time. Matt's is always nice because we get so many old-timers who date back ten years or more to the very early years of Rip City Gamers, and while I like the new people too, it's always nice to relive that old skool vibe.

So how apropos it was to play the newest iteration of one of the most venerable franchises in eurogames, the newest Settlers variant Settlers in America: Trails to Rails (I will call this one America, after the country of my birth), the most recent in the Histories variant line that started with Settlers of the Stone Age and continued with Struggle for Rome.

I should note that while I thought there were some cool features in Stone Age, it sure seemed like it was easy to get cut off and in an untenable position through the luck of the early dice throws, made worse as Africa dried up. I was clearly in that position once, and it soured me for the title. I have played Rome a couple of times, and it was my favorite Settlers major variant, although it still has the basic problem of Settlers: the dice can kill you. Will America stand proud and free and break the chains of dice tyranny? The answer is a qualified yes.

The Histories line tends to emphasize maneuver rather than build it and forget it, which I think is a good thing. One of the biggest problems with vanilla SoC is that once you get blocked in you are done, which is forgivable in a short game that takes an hour or so. And, since the way the resources roll early has a lot to do with how boxed in you can get (as do your opponents), there tends to be a problem if you are the person actually *going* first in the game when playing against experienced opponents. It's actually worse if you are playing against people who don't know what they are doing, as they can often throw the game inadvertently to others. Or to you. Regardless, it tends to be a somewhat less than fun situation.

So maneuver is good, if you can do it. In America, there are two forms of maneuver, one that uses Settlers (wagon trains) to get to preset city sites (no building cities here, you build the Settlers and they move to an open site and that's it). Settlers can't stop on an open city site without building, nor a vertex with another Settler, nor can they stop on an opponent's city, although they can stop on your own. They can move up to three vertexes per wheat card played. As you can imagine, how your cities get placed can be critical for reasons that will become clear later.

Settlers equal Trails, so of course Trains equal Rails. Unlike Settlers, Trains can only move along Track, the rough equivalent of roads. They lie along edges and channel where the Trains can go. They get built when you have a city or existing track adjacent to the edge you are building on. once you get past the Mississippi, if you build track on an edge with a track symbol, you get to build one more track adjacent to the track just built, which can speed things up quite a bit. Trains have a stacking limit of two trains per edge, although you may always move through "full" track segments. Moving along your opponent's track costs one gold per turn to move along all of one player's track you wish. As with Settlers, movement is between one and three edges and takes a coal and can be done multiple times during your turn.

So instead of towns, cities, and roads, you are building settlers that eventually form cities, tracks, and trains, and using resources to also move settlers and trains as well as buy the ubiquitous Development Cards. The cities are in preset locations, some of which give you a gold bonus if you build there. What else is different?

Borrowing a mechanism from Stone Age, America starts out with the 9, 10, and 11 resource spots randomly placed in the eastern half of the board. As players build cities in the west, those with ?? symbols, the easternmost "floater" resource spots pick up and move west. This is a very important mechanism to understand well, as it tended to stall some of our players, including me. I had thought that a 10 was a great number for me until I figured out that all of my coal production had tapped out and moved to Montana and Arizona. Understanding which resources are at risk will drive your decisions throughout the game, from initial city placement to new city placement. And make no mistake, coal is a critical resource at game end, as critical as ore in the vanilla version.

The key, of course, is how you end up winning, and this is perhaps the largest diversion from the standard Settlers VP system yet. You don't get VP in this game. Instead, you are trying to deliver goods cubes to other player's cities by moving your trains next to their cities, and the first person to deliver all of them wins. You start with one cube in your "roundhouse" and every time you build a city you add one cube to this pool. In other words, you have to build all of your cities in order to deliver all of your cubes.

Gold is also added as a resource. If a given non-7 resource roll doesn't garner you any points, you get a gold. Two gold can be traded for a resource, but only during your turn. They are also used to move along other player's track. There are no ports, although you can trade three of one good for one of yours, again only on your turn.

America also uses the "extra" turn idea from it's five and six player variants, where once the active player has built and traded the other players can now build, but only build. No moving, no trading, and no playing of Dev cards (which you can only do on a turn where you haven't just drawn that card). This requires a certain amount of alertness on the part of all players, as one person doing the boardgame equivalent of picking flowers when they should be playing 4-year-old girl's soccer is all to possible. Brisk play! We did OK once everyone got familiar with the various building/moving formulae and understood the board better, but be prepared to have long and convoluted "extra" turns the first several rounds.

The resulting game curve looks like this:

Build settlers to build cities, preferable interspersed with other player's cities, ideally with one other player to avoid competition for their city spaces (only one goods cube can be delivered to a single city).

Start building track to get to other player's cities. Gold is a useful resource (you can trade two gold for a resource during your turn as often as you like), but if you can allow another player to build up track that will help you, even better. Conversely, you need to think carefully about what track you build to help them! During this phase, your Settlers continue to build cities.

Operate your trains to get those goods cubes delivered. Which means you need uncommoditized opponent's cities nearby, which can also be a trick if there are multiple opponents in the area. Because you can't win if there aren't cities to deliver cubes to.

Yup, it's a train game.

I'll also mention that the rules are very good, especially for a Catan game where for some reason Teuber felt that having the rules split into two sections would make things easier for people to look up. Right. Here, the Almanac is mostly historical information about the various Dev cards. Since there are no VP, there are no Dev VP, no soldiers, no longest road, so the Dev cards are all about special bonuses, such as building extra track, trading a resource for gold, etc. The rules also take care to be sensitive to the issues of Native Americans, mentioning that the Settlers were Settling land that wasn't really theirs to take. Given the modern German cultural taboos against combat games, I suppose that Klaus was put in a position where he wanted to give a nod to the First Peoples of North America but actually placing them in the game would have not only made the game seem tasteless in the US but also feel a little dirty. The Native Americans are still there in history, and he makes the nod, but they are a non-factor except in the abstract (such as the Cavalry Dev card, which doesn't say who the Cavalry are actually saving the Settlers from). It's a fine point, but for some it might be more of an issue. Recently, some East Coast Native Americans were terribly unhappy about MMPs latest wargame, King Philip's War, which depicts colonial American warfare against a Native uprising. It was a relatively bloody conflict that helped set the stage for not only the Revolutionary War, but also the "French and Indian" War 15 years earlier. The designer went out of his way to be sensitive to Amerind issues, but I don't know that that was ever the point of the protests. The history is there, it can't be changed, we can only be aware and sensitive and do the best we can. For America, i think Teuber has tried to be sensitive, but if my ancestors had been Plains Indians, i might have trouble enjoying this game or any other that focuses on Manifest Destiny in the US in the 19th Century.

Enough political digression.

There's a lot to think about in this game, and indeed our game took abour 2.5 hours after 'splainin'. And it took some 'splainin', even to people who had played several Settlers variants before. Having played one of the other Histories games would probably have helped, since each of them has a similar maneuver element, but the goods cube delivery system is the critical part of this game, and the fact that it doesn't really kick in until much later makes it hard to explain this in a meaningful way to new players and they will forget how important it is.

To be honest, 2.5 hours seems like a long time, although I spent a good three hours playing Catan Express with six at GameStorm last March and almost enjoyed it. I would expect game time to drop with experience down to two hours, probably a good number with four, and 90 minutes with three players, although I'd be concerned about there being a little too *much* wide open spaces in that case, and too easy to build two-player enclaves where you could get cubes delivered easily while locking out the third player, but I'm just thinking out loud. I do look forward to playing this game with three, however.

In the end, I have to wonder if, as my good friend Mike says on occasion, that it's Settlers. Which means you are at the whim of the resource dice. As Rome had it's own way of trying to distribute a more normal statistical curve, America seems to try to avoid the problem by having a lot of resource rolls. We had cards flying around like crazy in the early game, and i can see why the extra build rounds are so important - otherwise everyone would lose resources to the robber very quickly, and there is a lot to build in this game. The curve seemed to be pretty good overall, but I could see how rolls in a small part of the game could temporarily hobble players. That said, in our game Alex had a very slow start but managed to pass Ben when Ben looked like he had the game locked up once his last city got built and all he had to do was deliver cubes. I made a good run myself at the end, unfortunately building a city where Alex could deliver his last cube.

In the end, this is possibly one of the most strategic Settlers games out there, and (political correctness aside) a good game even if it wasn't part of the franchise. To use another venerated franchise in eurogaming, this is Carcasonne: The City, a game where the luck and fluffiness of the original game is bulked up to a much more strategic game by a clever and nicely thematic evolution of the design. If you like the core idea of Settlers and want a more strategic version and don't mind the game length, this may be the variant for you. It sure worked for me.