Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Recent Euros I've Been Playing

After the blitz of gaming that was Sunriver for Alex and I, things have slowed down quite a bit. Well, except when it comes to iAscension, which could just as easily be called iCrack. Except a lot cheaper. I estimate I've played about 100 games of this marvelous iPad app, as well as on the iPhone when I've been stuck at the doctor's office. I'm ready for the expansion to find it's way to the app, but particularly I'd love to see achievements and the ability to interact with others in online games (although I just finished an online game that took about a week, and I can say that this game does *not* shine in that situation). I know that the iOS5 update coming in the fall is supposed to coincide with some GameCenter buffs, so hopefully that will help.

Which is not to say that I haven't been gaming, oh no. I've gotten to try out three new games, one of which is an expansion, and I'll almost certainly try out the new Thunderstone expansion solitaire very shortly. Here's my take on these "new to me" games...

7 Wonders: Leaders

I was a little nervous about this elegant game getting an extra mechanism bolted onto it, but actually it turns a game that was fairly tactical into something a little more strategic. Leaders are cards that aren't part of the regular drill but instead let you toss in special mutant powers each era. The cards each give some sort of benefit in points or abilities at a coinage cost. You go through a short draft process at the start to distribute them, with four cards in your hand at the start of the game once you're done. You have the option to buy one leader at the start of each era, and that leader's ability, if persistent, stays in play through the entire game. The abilities I had in my game gave you a one resource discount on blue card purchases, a one time 6 dollar payout (Croesus, hilarious), and two different science cards (tablet and gear).

I based my choices on my wonder, which was the one that gave you a choice of science icons for the second stage. That locked me into a science strategy, or at least the strong possibility of going hard for science, which I did. I ended up with five tablets at the end, which was sadly not enough for me to win but enough to be a strong contender. In general, the wonders give you a fairly good idea of a possible strategy for the game, but you can pick different ones based on your leaders, and even keep a certain amount of flexibility if you choose for a multi-pronged approach.

I don't recommend using these with new players, as the core iconography is going to overwhelm them anyway, but I felt the leader cards gave the game additional heft at a very low cost in terms of complexity and additional time. The core game retains it's charm (largely because of it's brevity). While I only have the one game under my belt, I was impressed enough to buy the expansion and I'll include it in games with experienced players.

Space Hulk: Death Angel 

I'm no fan of Games Workshop. They have a terrible reputation with third-party websites and retailers and like to rejigger their minis games on what seems to be a weekly basis to drive additional sales. Still, I admit a certain sick fascination with the dystopian future presented in their Warhammer 40k line. I do own some minis left over from a brief flirtation with clinical depression/OCD in the mid-90's, but now I limit myself to the occasional game such as Space Hulk and, of course, Dark Angel.

Dark Angel is a cooperative card game that is, for all practical purposes, Space Hulk Lite. The situation is the same (you are a bunch of heavily armored and armed Space Marines, although curiously not Dark Angel Space Marines, or even that chapter's Terminators - forgive me if I'm screwing up the mythology here, I'm going off of a rapidly degrading memory), and you are in a Space Hulk (abandoned space ship) that has been overrun with Genestealers (and I have *never* been able to figure out what genes they are stealing - I think they *implant* their own genetic code, which is a different thing altogether) that are bringing down property values in the neighborhood. Plus if the ship ever crashed on a planet and anything aboard survived, then there would be a problem.

So you and your friends (or just you, as the game is built to play solitaire with few if any changes) are tasked with going in and kicking some Genestealer butt. The bad news is that your butt is almost certainly going to get come kickage as well. This game is brutal.

Each player takes a combat team of two SMs in preconfigured packages. Your team has three action cards that you use to determine what you'll be up to this turn, and each SM has a range that it can shoot at stuff. Your SM also has a facing, which frankly is what turns this from a pretty dull shoot and pray game into a tense and interesting affair. You can't "activate" terrain or shoot at Genestealers unless you are facing them (there are only two directions, but those suckers are *fast*), and you can't change facing unless you move. Which means you aren't shooting.

The turn is pretty simple - pick what your SMs are up to this turn (one choice for both SMs), do it, have GS's mess with you, and draw an event that has a better than even chance of ruining your day. Your choices are to Support (give someone a Support token that can be used to reroll a combat roll when that SM is facing what's attacking it), Move + Activate (change position in the formation of SMs, change facing, and activate terrain if possible), or Attack (pretty self-explanatory). You can't do the same action with the same combat team in two consecutive turns, so no one just sits on overwatch (my term) for the entire game. Each card has a different special action that you can take in addition to the basic action, depending on which team you are playing, such as a skull result from a GS attack changing the result to a miss. Events will do random wackiness plus also add GS's to the formation as well as move some of them around on occasion.

The game runs on a timer created by location cards you travel through and "blip" piles for each side of the formation, set by the location card you are currently at. Locations are semi-randomized depending upon the number of players, and you never know what's around the corner. They also determine the terrain card placement among the formation. Event cards will determine GS placement, all coming from the blip piles, among the terrain cards, with the location determining how many. When you run out of GS's from a given blip pile, you "travel" to the next location at the end of that segment (almost always after the Event segment, but not always, which will reconfigure the terrain (if not the GS's in the formation) and some random wackiness will ensue. The final location tells you what you need to do to win the game.

The combat die has six sides, with numbers ranging from 0-5, with an additional skull icon on the middle four numbers 1-4. Combat is pretty simple - if you are attacking, you want to roll a skull to kill a GS (assuming your special mutant Attack card power doesn't override that). If you are defending, you want to roll a number higher than the number of GS's in the swarm you are facing to force a miss, otherwise it's sayonara Space Marine. If you have a support token on that SM and are facing your attacker, you can use it to force a reroll (same with attacks), but make no mistake - this is an unforgiving atmosphere and it is not hard to lose your squad *really* fast.

In fact, it is very possible to lose your entire combat team on the first turn if things go horribly wrong. Even facing a Swarm of One (tm), you have a 1-in-3 chance of getting tapped for that particular SM. In my solitaire game, I managed to do this on the first four combat rolls I made for the GS's, including one that was a reroll. If you are the kind of person that dice hate, this may not be a game for you as the chances of quick death are pretty high.

Four turns in, I was thinking this was a game that was fairly broken based on my death rate of one SM/turn, but I realized that this is part of the design. You are *supposed* to lose SMs at a prodigious rate! Unfortunately, that means that usually someone's combat team is gone pretty quickly, so I'm thinking that while six people might be kind of fun at the same time it will probably also mean someone is out of the game fairly fast. Fortunately, with fewer players you get multiple teams and thus stay involved through the entire game. Certainly you do playing solitaire.

That said, I was averaging about two rounds per location card, and made it to the final location with two SMs left, both from different teams. Really important that you consider *trying* to do this by how you place your SMs in your formation when being attacked by GS's, as if you have only one team left they both have to do the same action and that never works out. One was purple flamethrower guy, who takes out multiple GS's when he Attacks, but it didn't help. I had three or four GS's per swarm (one on each side of the formation) and both SMs were gone in the next turn.

Not a result that was surprising, however. I've heard it's a tough game to win, although less so solitaire because there's no arguing about how to proceed with the mission. Also, I'd randomly selected three teams of the six so I have no idea about how well they worked together.

In the end, I really enjoyed this as a solitaire title, and it would make a fun filler, especially at Sunriver in the late evening. If you can get past the "lose half of your team on a single roll" factor, I think this is a pretty cool little game. Certainly small enough to take with you on a trip, it's the same box size as Red November.

One caveat - the rules are supposed to be atrocious, and in fact I did not find them that way. Yes, things are scattered all over the place, but if you walk through the sequence of play all is pretty clear. What was *not* clear was that things go on one side or the other. Terrain cards are placed based on which side of the location card their icon is on. GS's go to the side with the terrain card. I was surprised that this wasn't mentioned more clearly, as this sort of thing is a little unusual as far as strategy games and Euros go. That said, I didn't think the rules were nearly as bad as many had made them out to be, and in fact the BGG "Things You'll Screw Up" thread applied to me in exactly one case out of 20. Not to say these are great rules, just not Satan personified as some might have you believe.

Spectral Rails

Last game in my wrapup. This one I've actually played twice now. It's a bit of a bear to explain, but I find it to be a surprisingly deep game given it's generally simple mechanisms. The theme is based on trying to take spirits from one ghost town to another so that they can rest in peace. Why one ghost town is better than another is beyond me, but that's your job.

At it's heart, the game is a simple pick up and deliver your load train game but with a few neat twists. The first is that you power your train with Ether cards, of which everyone has an identical deck. The cards range in value from 1-4, with most of your cards being lower valued. You use the same cards to bid to see who goes first in each turn. To make things more complex, the cards are played in order (a point the rulebook makes about 50 times) and you only get them back a handful at a time, and in First In First Out order (a "queue" for those of you familiar with data structures in computer science).

A turn consists of three phases that feel like they were taken directly from Martin Wallace's spare room. You begin by bidding to see who will be the Spirit Leader (really), using the cards to bid. Losers in the process get to take back a card, but the rest stay *in order* (as the rulebook reminds us regularly) in front of you. This Spirit Leader also gets to choose who will *be* the new Spirit Leader and thus go first in the Movement round.

The middle part of the turn consists of repeated Movement phases, which you do until people have spent their limit in Ether cards (13 points) and used their two Coins, or passed. Once everyone passes, you go to a Replenishment phase where you get half the cards in front of you rounded down, taking them from the least recently used cards, and you get your Coins back. Then you go back to bidding for a new round.

Once the three Train Wreck tokens have been taken from the board (which happens when someone enters that particular ghost town), you finish the turn and move on to the second round which looks a lot like the first but has some scoring complexities and a new set of Train Wreck tokens. In practice, a round will consist of one or two turns, and you need to be aware of the possibility of the round or game ending.

The really critical part is the movement phase, and it's best to start with how much it costs to move. Your train has a Ether Trail it leaves behind it as it moves, which looks a lot like track in any other train game. The twist here is that you cannot move over a line that has your Ether Trail on it during that particular phase, even if you pick it up, but everyone else can move along it for free. If you move along track that is open, it costs one point per Ether Trail laid down. You can move along both other people's Ether Trails as well as open track in the same turn.

Here's how it works. First, you may pick up one spirit in the ghost town you are currently in, assuming you are. Next, you choose Ether cards to play of some point value, which go down in your queue in front of you. Next, you see if you have enough Ether Trail markers in your pool, which should not be the case after the first few movement phases. If not, you pick up segments on the board that are not connected to your train directly, and if they are all connected directly, you pick up any of them, based on the number you played with the cards. Note that you don't necessarily need to *play* them all, it's based on what cards you played. Next, you move as outlined above, remembering that you can't move over segments you removed your own Trails from. It is very possible to have multiple colors of Ether Trail going between cities - this is not like Ticket to Ride where one person owns a route, nor like Union Pacific where one segment gives you access. You do not need to stop in ghost towns, but it's usually a good idea to. As you move your train, you lay down Ether Trails along the open segments you've moved through. When you finish moving, if you are in a ghost town you can drop off passengers for that town at that time in any number. Note that you *never* drop off passengers unless they are in their town, so don't pick up just anybody. Also, having more than three passengers on your train requires you to burn one Ether card that counts against your 13 point per movement phase limit, so saving a 1 card for this purpose is not a terrible idea.

If you do not spend cards, whether you actually create more Ether Trails or not, you have to burn one of your two Coins. You can use this to sit in a town if you want for a turn without spending Ether cards so that you can pick up the second ghost, or just to see what the other ghost engineers are doing. You only have two per turn, but you get them back during Replenishment.

Depending upon if there are three or four players, there are five or six states in play, each of which has three towns. In the first round, each city starts with up to two spirits in it, but any spirits that start in their own town are removed from the game. In the second round, which has lighter backgrounds on the spirit markers, there is only one per town. That means each town has at the most three spirits that want to go there.

Points are given out at the end of the game as follows: Round 1 ghosts delivered in Round 1 and Round 2 ghosts delivered in Round 2 each are worth one point. Round 1 ghosts delivered in Round 2 are worth two points, so there's some reason to carry a few over. If you have a set of one ghost from each state, that set is worth five or six points. If you have a set of one ghost from each of the three towns in a state, that set is worth three points. If you have multiple sets, each is worth the bonus. Finally, any ghosts still on your train at game end are mad as hell and they're worth -1 point. Tie goes to whoever has the most Ether cards or points on those cards or some nonsense.

As you can see, this is a difficult game to explain well, but once you've played it becomes much clearer. The game requires planning but also flexibility. Trying to collect sets is smart, but so is exploiting your opponents' Ether Trails. Figuring out how you want to proceed and dealing with the other players not cooperating is where the fun is in this game.

I will also note that the rules are pretty clear, but very verbose (like me) and with a lot of "flavor" in them that I found a little grinding the further along I got. However, everything you know is in there if you don't mind someone standing over your shoulder and reminding you not to mess with your queue every paragraph or two.

Components are great, although there is one icon on the map for placing second round Train Wreck markers that shouldn't be there. Easy mnemonic is to remember that the two sets each form a triangle, and both triangles form a six-pointed star. I'd have preferred a different way of tracking points, too, one that would allow me to keep track of sets *and* which round the  Round 1 ghosts had been delivered.

Which makes me wonder why a Round 1 marker would be happier taking longer to get to it's final resting place, but really mad if it didn't make it at all. There I go again trying to rationalize theme.

Fortunately, the game itself is really pretty cool. Play time takes about 75 minutes with experienced players, perhaps less. 'Splainin' time takes about 20 minutes, though - if you followed my explanation above you are smarter than I am. There's a lot of "new" ground in how this game works.

That said, I really like this game. It's got a lot of nice new twists on what is becoming a fairly tired genre of train games, and even though the Old West is my least favorite setting, I really enjoyed trying to parse what my best move was to set me up for the next turn, as well as the various screwage opportunities present. Seeing how the board evolves is always a lot of fun, and it goes from being pretty cohesive early to Ejaculating Skittles by the end. I am very interested to try with three, although I suspect four is the sweet spot (and perhaps the game's biggest shortcoming).

And that, as they say, is that. I'm also looking forward to giving the new Junta game a try in the near future, but not this week.

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