Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Who is that masked man?

Can't blog... Playing City of Heroes...

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Sunriver XI - Part 4 of 4

Sunday was our last day of the retreat. With no more longer games planned, we played a bunch of shorter games as folks were going to be leaving at different times throughout the day.

First game of the day was a 3-player game of Schnappchen Jagd. This was the second time I played it, and I won both times. Folks at BoardGameGeek complain a lot about control. I dunno - I sure felt like I had a lot more key decisions to make than in, say, Victory & Honor. This is especially true in the middle rounds, as you start to plan out which ranks you will be committed to for the rest of the game. Definitely a Thumbs Up.

George and Michael went to grind out a game of Thirty Years' War in the side room, so the other four of us played a game of Dos Rios. In the spirit of "what happens at Sunriver stays at Sunriver", let's just say that this game would not have be as half as fun as it was had we not eaten at a Mexican restaurant the night before. I thought the boardplay was original. Downtime will be a problem, especially at a regular game night, and it would seem your chances will depend a lot on how much the guy to your right blocks you (which Doug was great at), and how much the guy to your left undoes your position. Also, the endgame is a bit anti-climatic, with potential for kingmaking. I expected Doug to win due to superior play in the early rounds, but I was surprised to end up the winner. A very fun game, but I am a bit concerned about all the various drawbacks. Looking forward to trying this again at the next retreat.

Matt headed out, so the rest of us played one of my favorite recent releases, Domaine. Chuck had superior placement in the setup phase, but Doug and I fought hard against him to keep him from reaping his rewards. In one corner, Doug cut him off so that he couldn't add more knight; in another corner, I surrounded him by claiming key territory, then played an Alliance so that he could never expand again. However, there was that third corner I had to worry about. I started to expand into his yet-to-be-formed region, stealing potential points. When I ran out of money, I found myself with a Renegade and two Alliances in my hand, and I had to give Chuck one of them! I thought Alliance was the least damaging, so, one turn later, Chuck played it to seal up that valuable corner. In the endgame, I formed the last central region, but Doug was able to steal enough territory I was aiming for, and Chuck - just like at the last retreat - ended up beating me in the tiebreaker. Argh!

Almost all of my previous Domaine matches were 4p games, and, in all of them, having Wall actions was key in the end. In this 3p match, Expand actions were by far the most sought-after, and being able to get them in blind draws was key to staying in it. That's a slight blemish on the game, but Domaine is still an easy Top Shelf selection for me. The comments on the BoardGameGeek ratings are funny; some folks think they dropped all of the fun stuff from Lowenherz (which Domaine is based on), while others think they kept all the fun stuff! Personally, I like the fact they redesigned a 2-hour game into a 1-hour game, while streamlining the scoring rules and improving how the mines work.

With both tables wrapping up at the same time, I proposed Dragon Delta, which I had brought in anticipation of 6p gaming. It's a wacky blind-planning game (keep away from this one, Mike D.), and certain players (e.g., me) know that they are going to be nailed repeatedly. Still, I think the blend of planning, screwing, and dexterity, make it a reasonably fun game, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Chuck was able to run for the victory in the end - well done! I'll probably pack this one for future retreats.

It was almost time for us to leave, so Chuck and George joined me in a quick match of our group's most-played game of 2004, San Juan. George built a Smithy and was able to end the game very early by choosing Builder almost every turn, building a Guild Hall and lots of Indigo and Tobacco, while using a Aqueduct/Trading Post combo to keep the income rolling. I had a City Hall, and drew Triumphant Arch and all three monuments in the endgame, but I couldn't keep up with George and drop the dream hand in time. Very well done, George.

For the last game, Chuck wanted to learn Hansa, and George grudgingly joined us - he has played this game several times before, and has made it known he finds the required mental work painful. In the end, I had won by a comfortable margin, using my regular strategy of saturating the board with all of my market stands at the beginning of the game. I really enjoy this game for the subtle decisions that come up on turns when you don't have big scoring opportunities available. However, I am having a hard time finding players who share my enthusiasm, and I don't think I was able to recruit Chuck with this play.

That was a great retreat. I liked almost every game played, and really enjoyed the company, so it's hard to pinpoint a specific highlight. Candidates would be: my very satisfying come-from-behind victory in Sword of Rome (although I wouldn't have been able to pull it off if I wasn't the Romans); the last Einfach Genial match, which was one of the best plays I have had of that spectacular game; The Big Idea, which was a pleasant surprise in how much laughter it generated. In any case, with all the discussion on our group's mailing list about future retreat logistics, mark me down for continuing the Sunriver tradition, with the retreat extended to as many days as the host is willing to run it.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Sunriver XI - Part 3 of 4

Next up was Saturday, or, as I'll remember it, The Day of the Eternal 80's Playlist. Chuck's iPod provided the day's tunage; while the morning stuff was great, especially the Euro-dance music - and who knew there were so many Depeche Mode fans in our group - I was hoping that "99 Luftballons" was permamently behind me.

We started the day out with another long game we had pre-arranged, A Game of Thrones. As I knew we'd have exactly 6 of us at the retreat, I bought A Clash of Kings expansion so that we could add the Martell faction. We also used the following options from the expansion: ports, which were never much of a factor in our game, except for providing support against invasions into the surrounding water area; the new house cards, which I enjoyed for their various effects, although it might have increased the downtime slightly; and the one-time orders, which I thought added a nice touch. I played House Tyrell. House Lannister took me by sea, House Martell took me by land, and I spent the rest of the game fighting on two aggressive fronts - I nearly cycled through my house cards twice! House Greyjoy won in turn 8.

The folks who played in the southern areas enjoyed the game more, as they were involved in a lot more battles, tactics, and various screwage. The folks up north enjoyed it less, as they mostly turtled and waited to see what they could pick off from their bickering neighbors. I think folks were fine with the new options, but most were hesitant to play with 6 players again; I usually like more players to increase the possibilities for alliances, but having 6 cities as a victory condition instead of 7 could be problematic. There are also too many pairs of players that never interact during the game - you might as well play it with only 3 players.

Four players were eager to try out War of the Ring (the new conquest game that takes place in the Lord of the Rings setting) and Chuck and I were the other two, so we set out to play a couple of hands of Settlers Card Game. I've played the game ~75 times previously, and Chuck just once, so it was no surprise that I won both matches. The first match was with the base set, and the second was with the mediocre Politics & Intrigue expansion, but both pretty much played out the same - Chuck losing too many resources to the Brigands, and me spending often to search for the perfect card for my hand. Always a fun play - still Top Shelf after all these years.

After dinner, George and I taught Matt Einfach Genial; I was able to escape with yet another narrow victory over George. More on Einfach later.

Next, Chuck joined George and I for a game of Goa. I won by a 7-point margin, thanks largely to the two "upgrade w/o ships/goods" expedition cards I drew early on; I won my first match the same way, and I'm leaning towards thinking that these cards are too powerful. In general, I'm not fond of "systems" games, primarily due to the lack of interaction and drama. Goa reminds me of Industrial Waste; while the former is much more polished, the latter has more drama and interesting choices.

For the last game of the day, Chuck, George and I played a game of Einfach Genial. Every once in a while, there will be an EG match that is brutally intense, especially in the endgame, and this was one of those games. Watching George and Chuck fight against me to get red back into the game, while not setting the other player up too much, was hilarious. Final scores were me with 10-11-13, George with 10-11-11, and Chuck with 10-10. The game could have gone any way, and probably wouldn't have gone my way had I not saved a double-orange and double-green tile since the midgame.

I have written about Einfach Genial before at length. Now that I have reached 10 plays of Einfach Genial, I confidently give this a Top Shelf rating, and it has replaced Hansa and Tongiaki as my leading contender for Game of the Year. The game lacks the confusing, geeky elements found in most German games, so I think this could find a broader audience in the United States. The rules are so simple, and the big scoring plays at the beginning so obvious, that it seems almost childish. But the game arc is so beautiful and subtle in its shifts, and managing your tiles and your "geniuses" is very challenging. While there are at least four Knizia games I like better for their quirky elements, theme, and nature of interaction (those being Taj Mahal, Euphrates & Tigris, Samurai, and Traufambrik), I'm tempted to call this one Knizia's true masterpiece. Bravo, Reiner!

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sunriver XI - Part 2 of 4

We were expecting Matt earlier in the afternoon, but he got held up for several hours, so the four of us ended up playing a succession of shorter games. First up was Victory & Honor, a partnership trick-taking game with a Civil War theme. After two plays, I'm not yet convinced that this is a keeper. While I find my decisions forced too many times, the real showstopper is the stilted rhythm of the game. George and I were able to pull off the win.

We continued with another card game, Die Sieben Siegel. This received several plays in our last retreat. Then, 50% of the hands were able to score a perfect 0. This time, the two less experienced players consistently took black seals, and Doug capitalized by taking the Saboteur in the last two hands to win. I had a slight lead going into the last hand; my major mistake wasn't leaving the Saboteur for Doug, but for underbidding at the same time. This game works best when all players at the table are as enthusiastic about is as I am.

After a quick 3p match of Einfach Genial (which I'll write about later, as it received 3 plays during the retreat), we played Moderne Zeiten. The planning aspects of this game remind me of Princes of Florence and Marco Polo Expedition, but the elements of auctioning off blocks of cards and being able to crash the market makes me enjoy this one even more. The only thing keeping this from getting a rating of Top Shelf is the excess of hidden information due to the blind card draws. I was able to get control of the most valuable city (New York), and ended up winning by a comfortable margin. For those you who enjoy the mechanism, but find the long-term planning frustrating or tedious, I highly recommend Knizia's Marco Polo Expedition, which has more short-term planning and less hidden information (although not without problems of its own).

Still no Matt, so we opted for a quick game of Colossal Arena. This is a reprint of Titan: the Arena, which is one of our group's most-loved and most-played games for several years. The new monster powers that come with the reprint made the game fresh, but we all had a hard time getting used to the cards, as some of the shading is very similar for different monsters. Although others were backing the powerful Seraphim, I was able to reveal my secret bet, taking over the Unicorn, and win the game (although I suspect that George's cardplay before me helped a lot). It's a shame about the graphics, but at least this classic game system will get into the hands of more players.

Matt finally arrives, and we get some 5p action going with Desert Oasis. This was my second play of this, and I'm getting close to giving this Chuck's rating of "Will Not Play". There are eight types of "stuff" to collect, and the types go together in four pairs, with your score for each pair being the product of the number of items you collected for each. This is great if you are able to get 4 of each of the pair; it sucks if you are able to get 8 of one, but 0 of the other. The game offers little control; every time I invested heavily in one turn so I could select early in the next round, none of the items I needed would come up - I finished far behind the others. Some folks on the 'net are playing this with open hands so that other players can purposefully feed you the items you need (so that they themselves may select early); I have some concerns about this format, but am willing to give it a try before damning this title forever.

I then decided to teach the group a new game I bought for something different and fun, Cheapass Games' The Big Idea. The strategy part of the game (based on investments with random payoffs) is a bit weak, but is really just a framework for the fun part of the game: creating products by putting Adjective and Noun cards together from a small hand, and then trying to "sell" that product to the other players. As a "party" game, it's not very clear what the objective is, but I find that it liberates you so you can just have wacky fun, and there were a lot of laughs as we played this. Sadly, my pitch for items such as the "Non-Stick Cat" were unconvincing, and I probably came in last.

Michael and Nicole arrived, so Chuck decided to teach us all an old Avalon Hill game, Win, Place & Show. I was somewhat intimidated by Chuck's claims that the statistical outcomes of the races were well known, so I approached it with the mindset of an elderly lady at Saratoga (e.g., picking horses whose names I liked), and enjoyed it well enough at that level. I didn't get lucky in the first race, and, while I did okay after that, it seemed like I always picked the same horses as the established leaders, so I couldn't get back into the game. I think I prefer Royal Turf because you do the betting with some knowledge of what the other players are doing (not to mention the simpler rules, faster pace, etc.). On the ride home, Chuck convinced me that, with sufficient experience, there is an interesting metagame of bluffing and second-guessing that goes on, but I doubt that it would ever get played enough to reach that level of play. Playing this did make me wish there was a good PC sim for horse racing, where you could take the role of a bettor, or a racetrack owner, or a horse owner, or maybe even a jockey!

We split into two groups for the first time, and I got roped into a 4p game of Capitol. It seems that every time I play this, the area that starts with two fountains is fiercely fought over; since the game is about resource efficiency, you don't want to invest there unless you come out winning. As it turns out, Chuck and I were able to seal it by the end of the first round (with Matt being the "victim"), and I put an amphitheater there to give us card advantage. Matt and Michael got the second amphitheater, so all was pretty even until the end, but I was able to snag second place in a couple of other areas with fountains, and eventually I was able to win the game. Capitol is somewhat ordinary as a strategy game, but the way players slowly reveal information about where they are going to invest makes it a fun play.

Chuck and I ended the day with a quick game of Mystick Domination. Mystick was designed by the same fellow behind A Game of Thrones CCG, which Chuck and I play regularly. Chuck prefers the theme of the CCG; I'm with him there, but I enjoy Mystick for its lack of "killer" effects, and the ease with which your deck can run out (which is an instant loss) gives it a manageable feel of a puzzle.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Sunriver XI - Part 1 of 4

Last weekend, my gaming group (RipCityGamers) held its semi-annual gaming retreat at a member's vacation home, located at the Sunriver resort in central Oregon. We had a small group this time, which has its pluses and minuses. On the upside: less competition for beds & showers; the kitchen is easier to manage; fewer breaks in the gaming action (as the activities are planned to include all members at all times). On the downside: the risk of less variety in the gaming action, as you have to appeal to a common denominator - along with more grumblings when you do try out something out of the norm. Overall, I found it one of the most relaxing retreats, with no breaks in the gaming action and everybody pretty much in synch the entire weekend.

Doug and I arrived first, and while waiting for the others, we gave Tom Tube a try. My third match, all against different opponents, and all narrow losses for me. It's a game I really want to like, but it feels like the options are limited; it degenerates quickly into a race for the end, with blue and green cubes not playing a part at all (and, in this last match, not even showing up on the board!). I think I need to try a couple of two-handed solo matches to see if the alternate strategies are viable.

Chuck and George arrived, so we dove right into a pre-arranged rematch of Sword of Rome. In our first match, I won as the Gauls by the narrowest of margins over Doug as the Greeks - it came down to a final die roll to see whether my last raid would be successful. This time, I was willing to give someone else the Gauls (as they are in some ways the most fun to play), but asked to take the Romans in exchange. George, who wanted to try again the diplomatic Etruscans/Samnites, smacked me around early, and I got into a big hole, being several points behind when we took a bedtime break after turn 5.

When we reconvened in the morning, Chuck (as the Greeks) continue to threaten automatic victory, but then got wiped out by the Samnites and a raiding Gaul force. Meanwhile, in the north, the Gauls were catching up, but the Estruscans started messing with them. The massive attrition all around allowed me to put resources into building lots of walled cities; by turn 7, I was popping out 9 reinforcements a turn, and with so many units on the board, I was able to take enough cities to get +3 pts for a couple of turns and jump into the lead. The Samnites failed a long-shot invasion at the end, which gave me the narrow victory over George.

The four of us are huge fans of Hannibal, so we certainly enjoy the theme and the mechanisms of the game. However, this is not to be confused with Hannibal. First, it takes way too long for a game of its weight - you can play a 6-turn game instead, but this will overly weight early success/failure, in my opinion. Second, it is a fairly standard multi-player conquest game at its core; the strategies involved are more like Risk than Hannibal. However, the strengths of the theme - especially the difference in the tactics available to the different factions - make up for its shortcomings, and this is a title I'll gladly play (or is that "play gladly", Chuck?), especially as part of a multi-day gaming session.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Next stop, Booker Prize

In the rulebook for the A Clash of Kings expansion to the A Game of Thrones boardgame, they included a FAQ section. On page 11, the fourth question in the House Cards section (the one about Ser Loras Tyrell's ability), is quoted verbatim from my original question on the yahoogroup. It's, like, all glossy and shit.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Eugene Games Gala

I went to Eugene Games Gala 3 yesterday. I went to the first one two years ago, and my experience was pretty much the same both times. I don't like the "open gaming" cons so much because they can be a bit clique-y, whereas event-based cons force more mingling. However, the former are still great places to learn new games (and teach others games), and that alone makes them worth it, especially as my purchasing rate has slowed down tremendously the last couple of years. I was a bit disappointed to not play more longer games, but that's to be expected at a 12-hour event (as opposed to a multi-day event). Props to Lorna for putting it all together. The Gala lacks any kind of special events (which is just how I like it), so this will be more of a long session report.

I started the day out having breakfast, and then playing Too Many Cooks, with KC's wife and 11-year-old daughter. I spent two years in Saratoga renting a room in a house, cohabiting with a girl that age, and I find them so delightful to be around. With a daughter of my own on the way, it was good to spend time with them. As for the game itself, I won easily - I was dealt several excellent hands, and I think my experience in knowing which suits to lead off in paid off. Thumbs Up for this title.

Next, I learned Mermaid Rain, a game that has received much positive buzz on the net. I thought it had many innovative parts to it, but the scoring itself didn't really ring my bell. It seems that you should be able to figure out the expected value of spending two cards to get a scoring chit; then, it should be easy to see whether you should always, or never, spend 4 cards in the initial phase to get 7 points. From a design point-of-view, it seems like the chits should be worth more, and you transition to the hand scoring only after the board dried up, which it didn't do at all in our match. Also, with so many face-down chits in the game, it's really hard to know who to target, and I won the match by a large margin because the second-place player chose the "wrong" scoring chit to collect in the last turn. I'll reserve my opinion until further play.

Next, I learned Theophrastus, the alchemy game from Mayfair. It reminded me of something that Eight Foot Llama would publish, except for a less goofy theme. The action-point system gave you a lot of choices, but I'm not so sure that many of them are sensible. All of the players were getting frustrated at one point or another, as the suit distribution wasn't even at all. Three rounds of this makes for a very long game, but it seems okay enough as long as the play is brisk. With so many other good card games out there, this ends up on the short side of the bell curve.

Next, I was excited to join a match of Thor, as I played the game in its other incarnations (Quandary, Flinke Pinke, Loco), and I heard that Thor added action cards to the mix. Turns out that they only get used in the "Advanced" game, and as there were several folks new to the system, we stuck to the "Basic" game, which is the same as the others I've played. I prefer the game with fewer players, as you have both more options and more control; with five, there's little opportunity for bluff, and the game proceeds more predictably, as one only has time to invest in a few shares, and must go for the ones that they are able to control. Still, this Knizia design remains one of my favorites among his lightweights.

Next, I casually joined a Ricochet Robots game against some real sharks. Every round, most everyone was able to find the quick path eventually, so it became a real speed game where experience paid off. I lack the experience, but have the speed; I was usually the first to discover the shortest path, but I had a hard time remembering it when it came time to retrace it. Halfway thru the match, I was tied for the lead but dropped out due to burnout; as with Weboggle, I can only play a few rounds when up against other pros.

Patrick and I went to get some lattes, and when we returned, all of the others were in the middle of longer multi-player games, so we switched to some 2-player action. First, he taught me Call of Cthulu CCG. I collect and play A Game of Thrones CCG by the same designer and publisher, and saw some similarities. I really like all cards being potential "mana" sources (something I've heard more CCGs are transitioning to), and there were some minor innovations in what was a pretty familiar game structure. Seemed pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as design goes, but I'm not big on the theme, so I'll likely pass on this one. I was greatly appreciative of Patrick teaching me, though.

Next, we played Blue Moon, using the new Khind and Terra factions. I won both matches as the Khind, with the latter match requiring me to scramble at the end to use my card advantage to wrest several dragons from Patrick. The Terra faction doesn't bring much new to the table, but the Khind deck is a lot of fun to play, as you hope to collect members from the same gang in your hand. Thumbs Up for this title.

Next, Patrick taught me Super Tic-Tac-Toe, a Pressman release designed by Alan Newman. We split back-to-back games, taking less than 10 minutes. Okay as a filler, I suppose, but I prefer Sid Sackson's Solo Dice for a quick dice game.

Before dinner, I taught a few folks Einfach Genial, one of the better releases this year, and I'll dedicate three paragraphs in this entry to discuss it. In general, I'm not a big fan of giving strategy tips before playing, primarily because part of the fun of learning a game is discovering these aspects for yourself. Also, there could be some local groupthink influencing these "tips", and I prefer seeing whether a fresh look at the game will bring new insights. In this match, Mimi rushed to complete three of her colors at the expense of the other two, but those two colors were still open enough on the board that she was still considered a contender. I had the same two weak colors as Mini, but I worked more on my defensive play, closing opportunities off for two colors that Doug and KC were so-so on. This left me and Mimi as the main contenders in the midgame, and I used tactical play to defeat her by a slim margin.

Afterwards, I briefly lectured on some of the subtle points of the game. First, you have to recognize when a color is in jeopardy of closing off; in these cases, it's best to get a couple of points in this color now, rather then going for the big score in colors that may be out a bit longer - Mimi's play definitely reinforced this. Second, you have to identify which colors are potential problem areas for your opponents, and then balance closing them out with getting points for yourself. Last, knowing when to complete your colors is key; it's best to get your score for a color just shy of 18, and then only close it when you need the other hex on the domino to pull off a one-two scoring combo; sometimes, I'll also close it when multiple tile plays allows me to quickly seal off an area before an opponent can play there. It was this last point that gave me the edge over Mimi to win.

Einfach Genial's combination of light gameplay and lack of theme will keep it from getting a Top Shelf rating from me. However, I think it's one of the more underrated releases of the year; the masturbatory nature of the big scoring drops hides a clever system that starts manifesting itself in the midgame.

After dinner, we had time for one last game, and Doug requested that I teach him and Mimi Royal Turf; it's a good thing Knizia is my favorite designer, as that made five of his (lightweight) designs I played today! Doug crushed us in all three rounds - curse you, Red Fox! They were appreciative of learning the game, but agreed with me the game will shine more with more players.