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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Suburbia, by Ted Aslpach, is a new game being released by Bezier Games and Lookout Games at this year’s Essen Game Fair. It is a tile placement game, where players are each involved in the construction of the suburbs of a town that is growing into a metropolis. Players purchase acquire tiles and place them on their board, granting some combination of immediate and long-term pay offs based on how they interact both with adjacent tiles and those located elsewhere on the board. Ted was kind enough to send me a pre-finalized version of the rules which allows me to bring you a pre-release prediction of the game now, rather than later.
The game that Suburbia reminds me most of is Glen More, to the point that most of my thoughts about the game are directly intertwined with my reaction to that one. Both of them feature a draft to gain new tiles, though Glen More’s draft felt significantly more innovative to me, as it featured players spending potential turns as their currency rather than the more straightforward financial costs of the Suburbia draft. Both feature a simple select a tile, place the tile, trigger related tiles turn structure but how they go about this differs. Glen More featured “chieftains” that limited where you were able to place tiles, and most tiles triggered based on another tile being placed adjacent to it. Suburbia has a less constrained purchase and place mechanism, but how placed tiles interact with other tiles is more complex, due to the fact that tiles can interact with adjacent tiles, tiles that you have elsewhere on your board, and tiles that other plays have on their boards. The complexity of these interactions is such that I see much more long term potential with Suburbia then I ever saw with Glen More. I became bored with Glen More after 10 plays, while I suspect that Suburbia has more long-term potential.
Even beyond the tile interactions, there are a number of interesting dimensions to the Suburbia rule set that will increase its long-term exploration potential. Perhaps the biggest one is the three investment tokens the player gets. Each of these requires the player to give up a tile draw and spend an existing tile’s purchase price again to place it. In exchange that player gets to double the effectiveness of that tile. It looks like it is possible that a player may be able to ride an early investment token placement to victory, but only if attentive players do not hate draft in response, taking tiles that would allow the investing player the biggest benefit. It is a credit to the game that it is possible to perform this denial without hurting your position, as it is possible to purchase certain tiles or place an investment token while also removing an unrelated tile from the draft. Taking a tile to use as a lake, which is one of the ways that this removal can occur, looks particularly fun as it serves to provide an immediate cash infusion, forcing players to make hard decisions about whether it is more valuable for them to get the instant money that the mostly free lake provides or to actually spend money and get the potentially greater long term benefits of a particular, unique building.
Unfortunately beyond the intrigue provided by the combos and denial strategies, the game looks like a pretty standard economic snowball game. Victory points are represented by population, which can be acquired either through one-time direct infusions, mostly from residential tiles, and through income per turn provided by reputation. The reputation income is restrained by passing over certain “red lines” on the population board; each line decreases the income by one serving to slow down victory point income leaders. Money income also has a snowball quality to it, as you accumulate money that allows you to buy tiles that allow you to accumulate more money or victory points. I am sure that there are going to be trade-offs between money and victory point income as well as from the one time victory point infusions and the victory point income, but I have seen these sorts of tradeoffs enough that I am kind of bored with them. It does not take that long to figure them out, so the real question is whether the interactions provided by the combos and denial is sufficient to maintain my interest in the game beyond the initial phase of learning and exploration.
One thing that points to some long-term potential for the game life is the goal tiles. Each of them provides bonus points at the end of the game if you get the “most” or “fewest” of one of the games conditions, and I like how these provide the potential for a player to pursue strategies that do not neatly fit into a more traditional economic engine arc. Things like the Miscreant, which gives you 20 bonus points for having the lowest reputation at the end of the game, or the Harbormaster, which gives you bonus points for having the most contiguous lakes, both seem to support the ability to build fairly unique suburbs and perhaps break out of the “optimal engine” mold. In a given game, there will be a number of public shared goals equal to the number of players as well as a single goal, picked from two, that the player has secretly for themselves. There is some potential for players to get rather large bonuses for synergies between their secret tiles and public ones, such as those given for having the biggest income and most money, or those given by having the most lakes and most contiguous lakes, but I think that this is something that I am going to have to see in play before I determine how problematic it actually is; it is quite possible that simple knowledge of the goal tile manifest will allow players to interfere with each other’s ability to score for these synergies.
On the whole I am looking forward to trying out Suburbia. While I do not think it will end up being my favorite game ever, if it is able to effectively strike the right balance between the combos and interactions between the tiles and the economic snowball trade-offs then I can see this game having a lot of potential. Bezier Games will be sending me a review copy of the game, and this is the main thing I will be focusing on when playing the game for this review. Hopefully it succeeds for me in a way that Glen More does not, Glen More was close, but it did not quite meet my standards. Having a cool, dynamic tile-laying game would be great and hopefully Suburbia will end up being the game I hope it is.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant is a new board game by Martin Wallace being released by Mayfair at Gen Con (with an official street date of August 23rd). The game is centered on the development of the initial airplane industry, as player’s represent commercial airlines in Europe as they expand throughout the Continent and into Africa, Asia, and beyond.
The game takes place over three eras, effectively game rounds, with five different actions available on a player’s turn: Buy An Airplane, Place Airport Tiles, Claim One Passenger Tile, Buy Advantage Tiles, or Collect A Subsidy. Buying an airplane gives you airports to place and capacity to transport passengers, to claim passenger tiles you need both airplane capacity and airports at the appropriate destinations, advantage tiles serve to enhance your ability to take the take the place airport tiles and claim passenger tiles actions, while the collect subsidy action provides money and serves as a round timer. At the end of the round, and the game, two types of scoring occur. End of each round scoring is based on majorities in the game’s three regions and used airport capacity. At the end of the game you score points based on your collected passenger tiles and airplanes.
All of these actions are largely interwoven, but Buy An Airplane, Place Airport Tiles, and Claim One Passenger Tile appear to be the most prominent due to their relationship to scoring and the amount of decisions associated with them. Even with their relative prominence compared to Buy Advantage Tiles and Collect a Subsidy, Buy An Airplane and Claim One Passenger Tile are largely methods to fuel decision making in the Place Airport Tiles action. Placing airport tiles is mostly what the game is about, while every other part of the game serves to support or provide context as to where and how you are going to place these tiles.
This is not a bad thing in of itself. If how you placed airport tiles was interesting, then the supporting structure would be quite effective. Martin Wallace was able to implement an effective tile placement system in the past with the innovative and fun hand management aspects of Brass, but I think that in Aeroplanes he fails to live up to the standards he has established for himself in the past. In Aeroplanes, players are given a number of airport tiles based on the airplane they purchase. In order to place an airport tile in any but the most accommodating circumstances, a die roll is required. If you want to place an airport tile multiple tiles away multiple successful rolls are required. If you fail a roll, then you have the option of either accepting the failure, and thus end your turn, or to use money or an advantage tile to pay the difference and continue rolling. So rather than having the very involved and interesting level of decision making of something like Brass or Age of Steam, it ends up coming down to a die roll and a decision as to whether to expend the resources to mitigate the roll or to bring your turn to an end.
I do not have a problem with dice. I like both dice rolls then decisions and then decisions then die rolls. I even like lighter dice games like King of Tokyo. However, the dice need to be used in a way that is effective and appropriate for the design and the niche the game is going to fill; otherwise it loses effectiveness and reduces the quality of the game as a result. With Aeroplanes we have what is described as a two hour investment game where whether or not you are able to establish the core part of your overall infrastructure is determined by chance. Of course, it is quite possible to spend money or use one of the advantage tiles in order to make up for any shortfalls between your die roll and the target number, and this implies two things, neither of which are items I particularly appreciate. If money is tight in the game then the game really will be determined by randomness, as those who are able to successfully roll well will have to spend less money and thus will ultimately do better. If money is loose, as I suspect it is, then that does reduce the importance of the individual die rolls but also loosens the game in general, reducing the tension level of any individual decision to the point where the game is significantly lighter than its overall two hour time frame implies. The options for advantage tiles support the latter theory, as you are able to either buy one for a dollar or spend the same amount to roll twice and get the two (or less if any of the tiles are already purchased) tiles that correspond with the die rolls.
Even if I was okay with it being a light two hour game, and I am not, I would have a problem with how they handle engine failures. One of the six dice faces has an engine failure symbol, which forces you to accumulate an engine failure token for that plane. Once you accumulate enough engine failure tokens your turn ends and you lose the airport tile you were trying to place. The problem is that this engine failure mechanic hurts players who are already failing. Each of these icons adds nothing to your die roll, so not only are you having to spend more money in order to make up for your shortfall but you also have to deal with potentially losing an airport too. Why would anyone think it is a good idea to include a mechanic that kicks players in the teeth who are already doing poorly? “Well, it sucks that you did not make your risk roll, let me punch you in the face a few times! I am sure that would make everything better!”
Due to its apparent lightness vs. length ratio, I kind of wonder what the expected audience is for this game. Light games are not going to like it due to its length, heavier gamers are not going to like it due to either it looseness or randomness, leaving perhaps only dyed in the wool Martin Wallace fans. Either that or, for Martin Wallace games at least, I am out of touch with what gamers are interested in. I have not liked a Martin Wallace game since 2007’s Brass and have met his subsequent releases with a mixture of skepticism and indifference, despite some of them doing quite well on BGG, and presumably in the market in general. A Few Acres of Snow was the most promising of these, and we all know how that turned out. I was genuinely hoping that Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant would be a return to form for him, but I think it is about time that I accept that he just is not designing games that I am interested in any more.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Pre-Release Prediction Games List for 2012
Last year I wrote a series of articles that eventually received the title of “Pre-Release Predictions.” These were essentially an expansion in my initial impression geeklists I did in 2010 and 2011 (and will almost certainly do in 2012). Rather than providing some details on why I was anticipating specific games, I went into a deeper look at why I thought the game would be good or not. I found this quite enjoyable, and I expect that I will be doing the same thing this year, though hopefully in an even more comprehensive manner than last year. I am narrowing my focus somewhat, I am going to focus mostly on games that last 90 minutes or longer, but I am going to attempt to be as comprehensive as possible within that timeframe both with these pre-release articles as well as with reviews. This will be limited somewhat, I am not going to buy any games that I think are outright bad based on the rules just to prove my suspicions (and then sell it off at a big loss), but for those I will at least have an article explaining why I have the impressions that I do. I am also working to get review copies of those games that fit in the 90+ minute time range (with some card games and tactical skirmish games thrown in) so that I can give you full, comprehensive reviews prior to or very close to release.
Right now my planned coverage includes:
Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant (not an Essen release, but still going to cover it anyway)
Clash of Cultures
The Great Zimbabwe
The Mystery of the Templars
Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar
Is there anything I am missing?
Looking At My Past Predictions
I kicked off my Pre-Release Predictions for 2012 with an article about CO2. In the comments section someone requested that I write about how my initial perceptions of the games I wrote Pre-Release Prediction articles for in 2011 stacked up almost a year later. So here we are:
Alba Longa was one whose rules almost immediately turned me off. It seemed like the game had little to offer, and that the game seemed a bit simplistic and I felt the attacking mechanics encouraged a bash the leader mentality. I never ended up playing the game, and based on the game’s mediocre ratings and general lack of attention that seems like it was the correct response.
I previewed and stated that, simply put, I did not feel that it added enough to the worker placement/area control genre for it to really be worth my time. Playing it confirmed my suspicion and honestly I am still slightly confused as to why this one did as well on end of the year awards as it did. What am I missing?
I was pretty positive about this one. I declared that it would probably be the best of the “Let’s Put On A Show!” games being released at Essen, with the alternatives being Drum Roll and Pret a Porter. This ended up being correct, as I eventually decided I did not even really want to play Drum Roll, and my single play of Pret a Porter convinced me that it was both a mess and not really all that interesting in the first place. I have not retained my copy, but I still have favorable opinion of it. It is a good game, it just does not quite make the cut.
I was concerned about Drum Roll not being able to entertain me for long enough to justify I purchase. I still ended up buying it, but my indifference eventually reached the point where I sold it without playing it, and have not bothered to seek it out since then.
The Manhattan Project
While I liked this game about as much as I expect to, I was not able to successfully identify how much timing and tempo management would be important to the game. Luckily, I find this to be one of the more fascinating parts of the game, so missing it was an opportunity for me to be pleasantly surprised about the game. I still own it and play it once or twice a month.
I was excited about this one in large part because of how much I was playing computer games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis at about the time that I read the rules. I was deeply interested in a game that effectively implemented a vassalage mechanic and allowed for interesting relationships between vassals and lords. It was able to accomplish this effectively, and I enjoyed my single play of the game, but I did not quite enjoy the rest of the game as much as I enjoyed this aspect of it. I still responded favorably to the game overall, but this aspect has held me back from purchasing the game.
Ora et Labora
I was cautiously optimistic about Ora et Labora, but I was worried that the interplay variability would be not quite high enough due to the lack of variability either in initial set-up or in what came up over the course of the game. Both of these concerns ended up being ill-founded, and while I have not played Ora et Labora recently, partially due to slight burn out after we were playing it almost every single session, I was able to get 28 plays in before we slowed down a bit and would still gladly play. So this one ended up being even better than I was expecting.
I thought this one had a pretty good chance of being entertaining, but when I ultimately played it at BGG.Con, I found it to both be poorly implemented and also a bit boring. We did not bother finishing the game, and this probably stands out at the game I had the biggest shift in opinion between reading the rules and finally playing it.
Upon A Salty Ocean
I was concerned about interplay variability with Upon A Salty Ocean, but unfortunately I was never able to determine if my concern was important as it was roundly rejected by my play group. I liked my plays of it, but with no one else willing to play it with me, I sold it.
I thought that Space Bastards had a pretty strong potential, even though I had some concerns about it. Unfortunately reactions from people who had played it were negative enough that I ultimately passed on picking it up or playing it.
I liked what I saw from the Trajan rulebook, and decided that I would probably like it as much as Macao, which is the only FELD! game that I like. Unfortunately, I have not played the game since then, due to a general indifference towards FELD!’s designs and lack of good opportunities. Currently I am scheduled to try it out at Dice Tower Con.
I was fairly positive about Vanuatu in my pre-release prediction article. I also spent a bit more time in analyzing how the game would work with Vanuatu then I had for other games, probably due to the excitement of my friend John Brier, and I ultimately decided that it looked like a very good game with lots of ambiguity and excruciating decisions. This turned out to be pretty accurate, though it ended up being a game that I like playing every so often rather than one that I enjoy playing all the time. It also is one of the three games that I previewed that I still own.
I thought this one looked bland and rather boring, and decided it was ultimately not worth buying. So of course if ended up winning a big award in Germany. This is another one where I wonder if there is something I was missing or if this is just further evidence I can ignore awards.
Reviewing My Top 10 of 2011
So my Top 10 of 2011 has gone through a few shifts since I published it back in January. A few games were pushed out, either because I realized the game did not quite live up to initial impressions or because I found other games I like better, and a few games switched spots as my relative opinions on them shifted. Here is why my Top 10 was originally:
1) Ora et Labora
2) Mage Knight the Board Game
4) Space Empires 4X
5) Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas
7) Warriors & Traders
8) MIL (1049)
10) Dungeon Petz
Currently, my list is:
1) Mage Knight the Board Game
2) Ora et Labora
5) Cave Evil
6) Blood Bowl: Team Manager the Card Game
7) Space Empires 4X
8) Sentinels of the Multiverse
9) Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas
10) MIL (1049)
So why the shifts? I was right on the borderline between choosing Mage Knight the Board Game over Ora et Labora for my Game of the Year, but I ultimately chose to go with Ora et Labora, because I slightly preferred it over Mage Knight at the time and because I figured that with the attention Mage Knight was already getting it would not hurt to bring more attention to Ora. Further play has convinced me that while both of them are very good games, Mage Knight is without a doubt my favorite game of the year, and has a strong chance of becoming my favorite game period.
Increased play and thought has firmed up my position of Yomi as a very good, perhaps a great game. The increase in ranking also corresponds with an increase in rating, it is now one of my 9s, though it is the first one that is not on my Top 10 list. Space Empire’s drop is almost purely due to me playing some new games that I liked better, namely Cave Evil, with its excellent combination of theme, innovation and sheer craziness, and the compact, satisfying experience that is Blood Bowl: Team Manager. Sentinel’s of the Multiverse is another new addition, and has the distinction of being pretty much the only cooperative game that I enjoy playing. Colonial dropped a bit mostly due to my frustration over and distaste for the fluctuating rules.
I suspect that the current rankings will be pretty solid from here on out. I still want to play The Ares Project and Trajan, but I doubt either one will crack my top ten.
I finished my review! You can check it out here: Getting In On The Ground Floor
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Last year I released a series of articles leading up to Essen where I read and analyzed the rulebooks of games that I thought fell under the title “Gamer’s Games.” They were reasonably popular, and I enjoyed doing them, and I think that I will do them again this year unless there is a general disinterest in the enterprise. In addition to talking about the sort of game the rules present, and my particular reaction to the rules, I will also be talking about my perception of the eventual popularity of the game, both based on the qualities I see in the rules, but also how effectively its marketing is being managed. Since the rules for CO2 were released this week, I will be starting with it.
I will be receiving a review copy of CO2. I chat with Vital Lacerda, the designer, regularly.
CO2 is one of the games that I think will probably end up doing very well, both in sales and in ratings. There are a few reasons that I think this:
1) Vital’s previous game, Vinhos, was generally well received and is sitting in the BGG Top 200, which while not amazing, is still very good particularly, for a new designer.
2) I am convinced that one of the ways that a game can stay in the public spotlight, particularly on BGG, is through periodic releases of component pictures, especially if the game is visually striking and differentiated. CO2 is both, with a pleasing style that is very much out of the bounds of what is normally seen in board games. We have seen weekly releases of CO2 art, and the game has climbed up the hot list every time a new bit has been released. So this part of the marketing campaign has been very effective.
3) It covers a topic that is both rarely covered by board gaming and is somewhat controversial, but does not do so in an overtly political way. This alone would probably bring some attention to the game, but when combined with options 1) and 2) it leads to a potential for this game to be a hit.
4) In the US it is being published by Stronghold Games, which is a publisher that currently has a very good reputation, largely by producing previously released grail games, and a generally effective focus on customer relations. This will increase the number of people interested in trying it, and thus potentially liking it.
Now, even with those four factors, that game would not be successful if the game is bad. And while, I cannot claim with any definitive knowledge whether CO2 is a good game or not, the rule book is promising enough, that I feel that there is a good chance that the game will do well, and has a strong chance of being one of the top 5 best rated Essen releases of 2012, though I am slightly less confident of its success then I am of either Mayan Age or Clash of Cultures.
As can be expect, it is difficult to get a full measure of your enjoyment of a game from reading a rulebook. Still it is useful to read them simply because it gives you an idea of whether you will like a game or not, that is based on something else beyond the game’s marketing and various testimonials. CO2 is one of the games that I was most excited about coming into 2012, and I am quite pleased that they have released the rulebook to the game this early on as it will give people plenty of time to mull over the hints of the game it reveals inside.
CO2 particularly intrigues me because its theme is so far outside of the norm for the sort of themes that we typically see in board games. I actually find myself hoping that it is good, and successful, simply because it might serve as a trend setter in that area. It also helps that the game is thematically well integrated, as I doubt I would care if the game was so abstract that it was difficult to connect it to green energy. Everything fits within the larger green energy perspective being presented by the game, and the game has players doing the sorts of things that you would expect a company involved in green energy to do.
Players have a fixed number of round actions during the game, with the number of total actions depending on the number of players and game length, with only three action possibilities available. Layered on top of these three available actions, are a number of additional options that define both how players relate to the board and each other, creating a much fuller tapestry limited of the three actions would imply.
Essentially the primary focus of the game is the development and completion of projects to place sources of green energy. There are five different types of projects (forestation, solar, cold fusion, biomass, and recycling) each with their own specific characteristics. Each project has three different stages, with each stage providing an increased benefit but also increased costs; only the final stage provides victory points. One of the primary methods of player interaction is through taking advantage of other player’s completion of stages, as there is nothing that can actively prevent you from implementing or completing a project that another player has started.
On top of the three primary action options are a trio of free actions that can be taken that either allow you to either hinder other players efforts to continue a project, purchase or sell one of the primary resources of the game (Carbon Emission Permits or CEP), or take advantage of the benefits of either their initial hand of lobby cards or some of the face up UN goal cards. Each of these actions, and how they relate both to each other and the three primary actions provide additional layers of depth and nuance to the game. Moving scientists can be used as both an offensive or defensive action, allowing players to extend their own expertise in a particular type of green energy while also reducing that of their opponents. CEPs are one of the primary resources in the game, and the ability to buy or sell them allows you to directly impact how other players get access to this resource. And by taking advantage of lobbying, a player can get a surprise bonus resource, thus adding some mystery to the game and preventing other players from having a complete picture of your capabilities while completing a UN goal card is primarily a way to get victory points.
Even with these layers, there is very little in the game that appears to be particularly innovative or new. However, the vast majority of games, including many I like, are not innovative and new. So this in of itself is not a problem. What could be a problem is if the experience that the game provides is not significantly differentiated from that of other games that I have already owned and experienced. I think the game’s thematic impressiveness will help here. While I am certainly not a theme-first gamer, a tightly themed game does help in a game’s differentiation and I suspect that that, plus a few of the more mechanically interesting parts of the game will provide enough distinction to allow this game a chance for a permanent place in my collection.
What I am less certain about is CO2’s interplay variability. Vinhos, Vital Lacerda’s previous game, ultimately failed to find a permanent place in my collection because of this. While there were certain parts of the games that I felt were rather mechanically interesting, after I absorbed the game, individual plays felt a little bit too similar to quite fulfill my needs. So this particular bit of history is sufficient that interplay variability, would be a concern of mine regardless of what the rules indicated. Happily there is more evidence that this is a break from Vinhos then a continuation. For one, where Vinhos only had a limited amount of structural variability (the order of the wine experts and the weather tiles), the structural variability in CO2 is both larger and more impactful. For one, the initial game state is more varied, with CO2 levels, available UN cards, and your hand of lobbying cards all creating variations in a player’s decision process. Additionally, the game appears to be more interactive then Vinhos. Rather than building little vineyards on a player’s individual board, with most interaction being based on how in-synch they are with other player’s action selections, CO2 allows you to send your scientists to interfere with other player’s ability to complete projects and to engage in direct competition over majorities in both green energy expertise and in quantity of power plants in different regions. The benefit of each of these forms of interactions is significant and thus raises the stakes involved. All of these things are positive signs, but I still suspect that this is the place where the game has the greatest chance to fail to meet my expectations.
CO2 remains one of my most anticipated games of Essen 2012. Part of my anticipation is perhaps because I want the game to succeed. Its success could potentially pave the way for an increasing number of games that serve both as effective games as well as a statement from the designer, and even if I disagree with the statement being expressed this is preferable to another game about trading in the Mediterranean, band of heroes bashing in the skulls of orcs, or fighting naval battles in space. I do have some concerns but they are definitely surmountable, and I look forward to seeing if CO2 will both have an interesting theme and be effective as a game.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
I spent the 4th of July weekend in what looks to be the first of what will almost be a series of board game conventions in Orlando sponsored by Tom Vasel’s The Dice Tower called, appropriately, Dice Tower Con. I am mostly an irregular listener to the Dice Tower, and only rarely watch the video reviews, as I vastly prefer written works, but I could not resist the urge to go to a gaming convention that was just 30 minutes from my house, and I did my best to let as many people in my extended play group as possible about it in order to ensure that we would have a good Orlando contingent at the convention. We did.
It is tough for me to really compare Dice Tower Con to the other gaming conventions I have attended because of the general lack of board gaming conventions in Florida. I am thus unfamiliar with the smaller conventions, and typically only attend much larger events like BGG.Con, Gen Con, or the World Board Gaming Championship (WBC). Still, I had fun and will certainly attend again next year, and it will be interesting to get into the convention from the very beginning and see how it grows. Talking to Tom indicates that he has pretty big plans for the convention’s future, and it would be nice to have a pretty big regional or even national convention locally.
I mostly spent time on longer games that I had played before, I played Mage Knight four times at the convention and got in plays of Through the Ages and Cave Evil, but I was also able to play a couple of games at the Convention that were new to me: Mage Wars and Sky Traders.
I am actually surprise that we even had game demos at the convention, considering its size, but it end up working out as I was able to play three games of it over the course of the convention. The first ended up being fairly late in the evening against Tom Vasel. After a day playing a pair of Mage Knight games and Through the Ages, I ended up walking by the demo area and Tom Vasel suggested I come play it with him.
I found the rules to be fairly intuitive, and while I needed some clarifications on how the timing and limitations of certain powers, on the whole it was very easy for me to pick up and run with the game. The match was also tense and exciting. Tom was playing a particular mage, called the Beastmaster, which was focused on quickly summoning animals to rush at the opponent while I was playing the Priestess, who was focused a bit more on board control and healing. Tom tried early on to focus on attacking the Priestess, and while he was able to make some headway a combination of effective defenses and healing allowed me to prevent death while my units were able to destroy his, allowing me to eventually turn the tide and achieve victory. The other two characters included in the game, three of which I played, and two of which I played against twice, also played in a fairly distinct fashion which is something I appreciate. Differentiation is important in games like these, and while there was quite a bit of crossover in particular characters abilities, that did not prevent the characters from feeling strategically and tactically distinct.
Looking at Mage Wars, and even hearing the name really, I was most reminded of Summoner Wars, and they do have some levels of similarity. Both of them are card-based systems that involve players controlling spellcasters of some sort who using a magic point system to summon monsters and casting spells in an effort to kill their opponent. That is where the similarities end, however, as Mage Wars has a significantly more mechanical complexity and has a completely different way of managing the cards that represent the game’s units and spells.
This card management is perhaps Mage War’s most distinctive feature and the one that I think will stand out as the game’s primary innovation. Each player has a binder filled with cards that are used to manage a player’s available spells. They are able to draw out two of these cards on a given turn and these represent the spells that they will have available, forcing players to make some hard choices about not only how they want to go about advancing their position but also how much they need to account for potential actions of their opponent. Similarly, spells can only be cast once, and if they are used, or destroyed in the case of more permanent effects, so when you are going to cast a spell is as important as if.
Players are able to customize their spell book too, with a level both indicating how expensive a card costs to place in the spell book as well as how the card relates with certain other cards. In order to encourage a player to specialize in cards that are thematically appropriate (animal cards for the beastmaster, healing cards for the priestess, etc.) each character has a few schools of magic they specialize in. Cards outside of these specialties cost more while schools that are opposite of the character’s theme can cost triple. I like how permissive this is, as it adds a certain level of potential for players to create a wide variety of decks, but is not a complete free-for-all so we are unlikely to see identical decks across the characters. This also means that if certain cards, particularly ones focused on removal of opponent’s effects, are considered “must haves” we will see them in every deck which I find to be troublesome, but the severity of this will only become clear once I get more experience with building spell books rather than just playing the game. The prebuilt decks did display some of this, as there were certain cards that appeared in most, if not all of the decks, but these decks were also designed to convey a particular experience so I question how optimally designed they were.
The game play itself is fun though nothing about it really struck me as that new. It was well-designed and seemed fairly deep, with this depth created in part by how many different ways you could manipulate the games myriad interlocking parts to smash in your opponent’s face. The core mechanics are pretty straight forward: each unit can be used once per turn, either moving and taking a fast action or not moving and taking a full action. Creatures and conjurations (essentially locations) have armor, hit points, and creatures have a mixture of melee and ranged attacks. The complication comes from the plethora of keyword-defined special abilities and how they interact with each other. For example, some of the human knight style creatures are wearing heavy metal armor which gives some bonus dice to lightning attacks used against them, while some equipment rings give discounts to casting certain types of spells. These are all the sort of things that I expect from a reasonably advanced tactical skirmish game, but I suspect that this interlocking complexity and the fact that you are provided with the entirety of the game’s options at once will make first games seem overwhelming to new players. I could definitely tell that the two people I taught were at least a little overwhelmed by the game, and they both stated that now that they understood the game they would have done things a bit differently, but I think this complexity is worth it. I eventually grew a bit bored with Summoner Wars because of its simplicity; I doubt this will happen with Mage Wars.
The artwork used was a bit inconsistent, but they had the final proofs on hand and showed them to me. I found them to be very well done for the most part, but it was very generic and seemed to lack some of the distinctiveness that I generally prefer. This is a problem that extends to the game in general, in fact. While the special abilities and characters all make sense from a thematic perspective, the theme itself is pretty much “generic fantasy.” I think I would have preferred slightly more world building in order to give the game a distinctive character. It feels slightly less exciting to be playing a generic “Warlock” or “Wizard” then someone who has even the faintest bit of back-story, no matter how cheesy. It would also help to explain why the priestess is wearing the outfit below rather than something more sensible.
Arcane Wonders, the publisher, is going to be sending me a pre-release review copy of the game and I plan to give it a full workout once I get it, with a particular emphasis on spell book building to see what sort of permutations can be constructed, and how similar some of the better decks are. I already know that I find the game play enjoyable, but how differentiation is important enough to me in games like this that I want to ensure that the cost structure incentivizes people enough to create differentiated spell books rather than having a large amount of overlap, with only a few items that are different. I will also see if we can break the game, though based on what I have seen so far of both cost structures and the pricing of creatures, that seems unlikely, and if continues to be fun over the next 10 or 15 plays. Based on my initial plays though, I am quite enthusiastic about the game. It is definitely my favorite of the games I have played that have had a 2012 release date (only 1989: Dawn of Freedom and The Manhattan Project are even close), and I strongly suspect that if it holds up over a larger number of plays that it will end up in my Top 10, or maybe even my Top 5, of 2012.
Sky Traders was my other new to me game that I played at Dice Tower Con. This one was something I purchased myself the day before the convention though after reading the rules I was not particularly optimistic about it particularly when I compared the listed play time (2 to 4 hours) to the rules. There really did not seem to be a lot to it, and I was concerned that the game would drag or get overly repetitive over the course of time.
I ended up having a lot of fun playing it, but I strongly suspect that this was due to group dynamics rather than the game itself. The game is focused mostly on pick up and deliver, buying goods at certain locations on the board and selling them at other locations, with the ships, as represented by giant busts of their captains, flying between steampunk inspired locations to accomplish this task.
Prices are determined by a combination of negotiation and die rolls. You are able to place these dice either in the positive or negative column for the good type rolled (naturally, there are six different types of goods) and the difference in quantity on each side determines how the price moves. On the plus side this emulates a reasonably volatile market where the players, as mercantile magnates, have some influence, on the down side it does make it difficult to plan for whether the cargo of goods you just purchased are going to end up being extremely valuable, marginally profitable, or merely take up space in your cargo hold. With how we were playing, they would frequently end up being money losers as players decided that there would be little interest in pushing prices upwards for their opponent, and instead cratered the market. One of my opponents and I ended up getting in a synergistic position, where we bought and sold similar goods, increasing the odds that we were going to increase our profits, but this also made our opponents more motivated to try to push the market down and ensure that we did not make any money off of our purchases.
A random event deck inflicts negative status conditions, or pirate attacks, on the players though many of these did not seem to be extremely significant, largely costing a turn at most. The most dangerous attacks only came about if the player dabbled in illegal goods, or choose to attack he pirate king, so they were largely avoidable. Players are also able to attack each other, but when attacking players who do not have a bounty are required to demand some combination of goods, crew, and money that allowed them to avoid combat. One of the players in our game turned pirate but kept on demanding a quantity of goods that encouraged their opponents to fight against him rather than accede to his demands. Eventually his ship got damaged enough, and he lacked the money for repairs, and his bounty so high that one of the less able combatants was able to destroy him and collect the reward. This reward was so significant that the player was able to pay for a lot of points (influence) on the track and at that point the game was called as there was little chance for the players to continue.
I think I would probably like the game a little bit better if the market mechanism seemed to actually work. As it stands it seemed much better to focus on low risk items, like minerals or sludge, both of which you can acquire without actually spending money, rather than goods that you actually risk losing money on if you purchase. This drags a game out which should really last more than two hours into what could potentially be three or four hours. This can potentially not be a problem with players who are in the right mood for the randomness of the game, but I suspect that for me at least this situation will come about rarely. I prefer games that are much more consistently good then ones that will occasionally be quite enjoyable and occasionally will utterly bomb. I still intend to play the game a couple of more times, to see if I am wrong and also to build up a deep enough of understanding of the game to comfortably write a review, but I do not see this one having any sort of longevity in my collection.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
In my article A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011, I talked about how the incentives of board game reviewing discouraged individual commentators from exploring games in depth, explaining in part why A Few Acres of Snow was not identified as broken until much later, as fans of the game began to explore the game in more detail. However, the desire to get reviews out early is not the only factor that can compromise the quality of a commentator’s work. Both relationships and material considerations may impact a commentator’s ability to provide authentic content, but I think relationships have a much more interesting and pervasive effect, and one that directly leads to a lot of the material benefits that commentators can receive.
One thing that separates the board gaming community from other entertainment communities is its small size. Publishers frequently have only a dozen people, at most, working for them full time, and there is very little social separation from the top echelons of the industry to the bottom. It is very easy for the community at large to meet some of the more prominent names in the board game industry; a lot of the time, it is simply a matter of attending one of the conventions they also attend. Commentators in particular have an easy time of it, as they usually have had digital contact with designers and publishers in the past, and thus a basis for interaction. It is only natural, and really, unavoidable, that with this level of interaction, commentators and industry people will forge friendships based on mutual respect and shared interest in games. Unfortunately, these friendships can also introduce biases into the commentator’s work.
Designers and publishers are in the business of selling their board games, so it is only natural that, in addition to sending copies of a game to the most popular reviewers, who have the widest influence, they will also send them to commentators with whom they are friends (or, at least, with whom they have a history of positive interactions). If these friends are also popular commentators, all the better. Because each review copy is part of a publisher’s advertising budget, they figure that someone who is already favorably inclined towards them will be more likely to write a positive review, or at least less likely to produce something damaging. This also helps out the commentator, as they do not have to purchase the game, and it helps them to build their audience, as people tend to be most hungry for news about games immediately prior to or following release. Early copies allow commentators to time their review in such a way to maximize this impact.
Even when a close relationship does not bias a commentator towards producing positive commentary for a game, producing negative content can still induce guilt. Writing a poor review of a friend’s game is tough enough, but having to write something negative about a game that a casual acquaintance (or total stranger) sent you for free can also be tough. Because of the relatively small size of the hobby, most game designers are enthusiastic amateurs, and producing a negative review for their game can feel like kicking a small puppy. There is also a strong audience bias toward positive reviews of games, particularly on BoardGameGeek, that tends to reward positive reviews unless the negative review is presented particularly effectively.
I am not immune to the effects of these pressures. When I produced my first “Gamer’s Games of Essen” geeklist in 2010, Vital Lacerda, the designer of one of the games I discussed, messaged me and offered to send me an early copy of the Vinhos rulebook. I looked it over and offered some suggestions, and we have since become involved in various discussions, about gaming and otherwise. While not as many people read my reviews in 2010 as do now, it made sense for Vital to send me a review copy, as I was obviously favorably inclined towards him and seemed excited about the game. Luckily, I ended up liking Vinhos, but if I had ended up disliking it, I would have been in quite a quandry. Do I not write about the game? Do I try to hold back some of my negative opinions? I think the answer to each of those questions is no, but I do not really know, and will likely not know until I am put in a situation where I am forced to answer. I can definitely say, though, that I hope Vital continues to produce games I like, because I would feel bad writing a negative review of one of his games.
None of this changes the responsibilities commentators have to their audience and the board gaming public. However, it is very easy for commentators to get put into a position where there they have to decide between being a jackass to someone they know personally or lying to a generally faceless audience. Odds fall more heavily on the side of the people they know personally when these people are also providing them with material favors that could potentially help them grow their audience. However, these materials also add to the risk that a commentator may damage their credibility to the point where they are useful to neither their audience nor the publishers.
For those who provide analysis, both of gaming trends and games themselves, it is important that they provide authentic opinions, informed by the quality of the product rather than their opinion of the person making the product. If they fail to do this, they lose their value to their audience, as they become proxy marketers rather than fellow consumers. Arguably, they also become less useful for publishers, providing them with less–than-honest feedback and failing to encourage them to do better.
This is why it is important for analytic commentators to maintain a separation between their opinions of a game and the people involved in making said game. Even if it feels like you are hurting a friend or kicking a puppy when you write (or speak) negatively about a game to your audience, it is still important to be honest in order to maintain your credibility for your audience and to provide effective feedback for the people involved in producing the game. Nobody is served well by you praising a game that you do not believe in.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Ground Floor is a worker placement and resource management game by David Short and published by Tasty Minstrel Games. In it, each player represents the CEO of a different company, ranging from web services to industrial production, that is attempting to make their particular company the most prosperous, with prosperity represented by the amount of development that you are able to effectively accomplish to your corporate headquarters. Adding an IT department, establishing extra production facilities, or expanding your marketing all provide both special abilities and victory points.
My opinion of Ground Floor has significantly shifted over the course of time. I have been at best lukewarm to Tasty Minstrel’s previous offerings, and that has been enough that I am initially skeptical of their games. Ground Floor does fit into the general category of “Gamer’s Game” that defines my interests, however, and my general goal of playing, and writing about, as many games in this category as psosible led my to read the rulebook. My impressions from the rulebook, however, were sufficiently positive to cause me to reconsider, and a discussion with the game designer was enough to push me over the edge into actually backing it on Kickstarter, making it the first Tasty Minstrel Game I have purchased since Homesteaders.
Earlier this week the pre-release prototype copy of the game I requested arrived in my mailbox. Reading over the rulebook again I started to experience some level of doubt. It seemed increasingly like a fairly typical resource generation and conversion game with nothing to particularly distinguish it from other games of its ilk. I wondered what I was thinking when I backed it, and that perhaps I should not have requested the preview copy. Luckily those concerns proved to be unfounded, as I found that, while it is true the game is very much in the incrimentalist camp of board game innovation, the game play was quite satisfying. It does not push a large amount of boundaries, but if you generally enjoy worker placement/resource gathering games then Ground Floor will probably appeal to you.
Ground Floor is focused on managing three types of resources: Time, Money, and Information. Both time and money are generated by the player automatically, though the primary way to increase available time, increasing the player’s number of employees, also causes a decline in money income. There are ways to make it so that money and information are each generated automatically, without the use of actions, but this generation is typically incidental, it helps at the margins but will not be decisive for the big costs that are required to get significant victory points. Instead, players have to take no risk actions that will allow for the generation of small amounts of each resource or take risky actions that produce more. I appreciate the fact that you never reach a level of automation with this resource generation, as it largely keeps players focused on difficult decisions and struggles against their opponents, except perhaps for the very end of the game, where opportunities for personalized resource generation are increasingly available and allow for players who have gained a significant enough advantage to push the game to a conclusion.
Hiring employees is done outside of the normal round structure and is one area where I wonder about overall game balance. Employee cost and availability is based on a clever system where the quantity is refreshed based on economic conditions; in a boom year it will be expensive to hire anybody, but in a depression there will be plenty of people looking for work. This is mostly fine, as it provides an extra motivation for players to compete for turn order, but during the first round of the game it seems to provide players who are earlier in turn order, and thus have easier access to workers, an advantage. Of course, I am not yet certain how much of an advantage that really is, as in one of my games last night I was unable to get a second worker (and thus additional time tokens) until the third round of the game, and still ended up winning by a comfortable margin. This is partially because I had more resources to invest in actions early on, and also because I did not end up needing to spend any actions on early training, so the advantage gained by other players was helpful but not as helpful as it might initially appear. Currently I do not think this advantage is that big of a deal, but it is also something I plan to watch closely in future plays to see if it looks like it is actually problem.
I liked the dynamics created by the interplay between the actions you can take on your player board vs. the actions you can take on the main board. Personal board actions tend to be less efficient then main board actions, though the truth of this tends to go down over the course of the game, but have the advantage of an instant pay off, while those that are on the board tend to have a much bigger pay-off but do not trigger immediately, they resolve from left to right, Caylus-style at the end of the round. This allows for the game to introduce some elements of uncertainty to actions, such as with the economic forecast deck providing a variable number of customers and thus goods that can be purchased, and also some opportunities for players to maneuver around each other, either to race for particular actions, or to play a series of potentially weak, but time inexpensive player board actions in order to have an opportunity to either take a main board action later then their opponents, or to see what other players are going to do before having to make a potentially costly decision for themselves. This dynamic manuvering is what I consider to be one of the game’s stronger aspects, and helps to keep me fairly satisfied and involved with what other players are doing.
I can’t really comment very much about the physical components of the game, since I am playing with a prototype copy, but a lot of the graphic design decisions struck me as very smart. I particularly like how as you buy an increasing supply of the big victory point items, that is shows a physical change to your building, with it steadily rising as you get closer and closer to victory. The rest of the design is excellent as well. The symbology is clean and effective, and the game is organized well enough that it is usually very easy to parse game state information without too much effort while at the same time very effectively evoking the theme of the game. This is perhaps the most effectively origanized games I have played this year, though this is partially aided by the simplicity that is at the core of the game, without dozens of variables and resources to track, it is easier to design the game such that people need to monitor everything.
Unfortunately, despite my general appreciation for many of the game’s dynamics, I am not quite sure it is a perfect fit for me. The game feels a bit more forgiving then I typically prefer, but that may simply due to lack of experience on the part of the players; with further knowledge of the weapons the game provides, some of this looseness may fade in the face of more brutal competition. I am also uncertain if the game provides quite enough variability to maintain my interest in the long term. The main source of differentiation between games is the economic forecast deck, which is interesting but mostly supplies uncertainty about tactical decisions rather than any real broadening of the strategic environment. The ability of players to directly impact each other’s positions can also affect the game’s overall level of variability, but I am currently uncertain if that interaction is significant enough to make up for narrowness in other areas. It is quite possible that I will be wrong about both of these potential issues, and even if I am not these will probably be irrelevant to the larger part of the market that might be interested in this game, but these are things that I will be looking at as I delve into it deeper and decide ultimately if this is a game I will simply enjoy exploring in the short term or if it has real long term potential in my collection.
My initial impressions of Ground Floor are largely positive, but the game is more satisfying than relevatory. I have not made any final decisions on the game, as I still have questions about the gameplay, particularly in how effectively players can use the weapons the game provides against each other and how much interplay variability the game really provides. If this makes it sound like my opinion has the ability to change with further play, that is because it does. It is quite possible that my opinion of Ground Floor will grow with further plays or, less likely, drop dramatically, as has happened before, but I think that the most likely outcome is that I will come to the conclusion that this is a good game, and definitely worth investigating if you like resource management and conversion games, just not one of my favorites.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
As promised, the first of what will hopefully be many “the Long View” spots where I am a guest has been posted over at www.2d6.org. It is a three person episode on Mage Knight the Board Game with the main host, Geof Gambill, and CGE friend Paul Grogan. There is also a little bit of a scoop about the Mage Knight the Board Game expansion, which was fun and that I found to be quite promising. I am quite looking forward to seeing what Vlaada and the rest of the team have waiting for us. It was also interesting to hear my recorded voice for the first time, as I am used to only really hearing it emerge from my mouth, where it is too easy for me to ignore “how” I actually say things. We should be recording an episode on Brass next week, and I will be sure to let everyone know when that one is up as well.
Talking about Mage Knight got me into the mood to play again so Wednesday before the others showed up for Hegemonic, Mike and I played a two player game of Mage Knight. It did not disappoint, and this continued play of it has done nothing but further my esteem for the game. Most of my plays of it end up being two player these days; it is my most frequent two player game when we have to wait a couple of hours for everyone else to arrive, but I am okay with that. It provides far more fulfilling of an experience than playing a bunch of shorter games would, and I think I actually prefer it as a two-player game to some of the card-driven war games I enjoy, though I admit that preference is not overwhelming.
With 36 current plays, it is on a fairly varied list of longer games that I have played extensively, joining Agricola (107 plays), Arkham Horror (62 plays), Twilight Struggle (46 plays), Age of Steam (44 plays), Brass (41 plays), Le Havre (41 plays), Tigris & Euphrates (34 plays), Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization (33 plays), Ora et Labora (28 plays), Caylus (25 plays), Puerto Rico (25 plays), Troyes (24 plays), Dominant Species (23 plays), Indonesia (21 plays), and Merchant of Venus (20 plays).
Mage Knight and Ora et Labora have both been played extensively during the last year, but they have only been out during this time period, so my concentration of plays is understandable. Beyond this, Troyes has received the most plays in the last year (with 10). Caylus (8 plays), Agricola (7 plays), Merchant of Venus (6 plays), Dominant Species (5 plays), and Indonesia (4 plays) have both received a reasonable amount of play, but Arkham Horror, Twilight Struggle, Age of Steam, Brass, Le Havre, Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Ages, Puerto Rico, have all received much less. Why is that?
Some of these games were no longer played due to my girlfriend losing interest in board games. Even with all of its expansions I did not feel that I had that much more to learn or explore with Arkham Horror, and with Minerva’s declining interest in board games (this had been her favorite game at various points), I was just not that interested in playing it anymore. Twilight Struggle suffered a similar fate, due to Minerva having been my most frequent opponent previously, but I ended up keeping it because I had not reached the point where I felt where I was “done” with the game, so it has remained. We will see if it ends up surviving the arrival of 1989, however, as these two games have a definite level of similarity.
Others suffered due to me reaching the point where I felt I no longer had much left to explore. Brass, Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Ages, and Puerto Rico all reached this point. Brass, T&E, and Puerto Rico were all aided in this finality due to digital versions of the game; I played a lot of on-line games of Brass and T&E, and I played the Excel version of Puerto Rico at least a hundred times. My experience with these games is one of the main reasons I am no longer interested in on-line board gaming. I do not want to wear out interest in a board game before the locals do, and similarly I do not want to get so far ahead on the learning curve that it is no longer enjoyable for any of those involved to play the game.
Le Havre passed out of my collection for two reasons. The first was simply that nobody beyond me really liked the game all that much. I had one final hope that that would change in the Fall with some new players in my group, but their dislike of the game, and the emergence of Ora et Labora as a superior alternative, was enough to seal its fate.
Age of Steam remains a favorite and yet also remains infrequently played. I don’t have a good reason why this is the case. It may partially be simply due to my shifting tastes. My interest in train games has declined, after a period of intense interest, and I think it may also be partially be an organizational issue. I do not have a strong interest in playing on the regular Age of Steam map anymore, but it is such a pain to bring the game with me to the weekly game night at Coolstuff Games, that I frequently end up leaving it at home. It may also be simply due to changes in group composition. Only one of the people that I frequently played Age of Steam with still comes to games nights, so we tend to play games that are more familiar to the newer people.
I hope that there will not be a similar decline will happen with Mage Knight the Boardgame, but I admit that there is a strong potential. The learning curve for this game, while quite delicious, is also steep, and I would not be surprised if new regulars or semi-regulars are disinterested in climbing the hill. Similarly, experience differentials may be a problem. I am lucky in that most of the other players are fine with playing the game with me even though I win the vast majority of the time (though recently games have been getting tighter, and thus a lot more fun), but that is not necessarily going to be true forever or with everybody. I do think its success in that area has been in part due to how enjoyable the game can be even if you are not able to win. The challenges available are quite entertaining even if you lose.
The Voice of Experience Contest
The Voice of Experience contest is over and for the sake of disclosure, and the fact that I want to encourage you to check them out, I put together a list of what I personally rated as my Top 10 reviews:
1. archivists – [Voice of Experience] Uwe Rosenberg's Agricola: A game of strife and violence?
2. Alex Brown – [Voice of Experience] Yomi
3. leroy43 – [Roger's Reviews] 1989: Looking for Freedom
4. ludovicomartinengo – [Voice of Experience] Here I Strategize
5. sgosaric - [Voice of Experience] Performative Co-op VS. Immersive Co-op, Comparison review of Pandemic and Arkham Horror
6. MrShep – [Voice of Experience] You always remember your first time...
7. huber – [Voice of Experience] 5538 Words About 1846
8. thepackrat – Age of Steam: what, where from, and why you should try it!
9. MisterG - MisterG's Review of Judge Dredd
10. touchstonethefool – [Voice of Experience] Sufficiently Different: Musings on Eminent Domain
I would also like to note my #11:
[Voice of Experience] Space Hulk: The Game, The Legend, The Legacy
I do not consider it to be an extremely strong review of the game, more of an overview, but it is such a comprehensive overview of a genre that I think that people who are looking for an excellent article, even if you are only a little bit interested in said genre, should check it out. I definitely felt that it was extremely informative, and learned quite a bit from it.
In hindsight I should have given better ratings to reviews in the US, in order to reduce the shipping costs for the prizes I am distributing.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
I am actually not quite certain of when I first became aware of Hegemonic, but it was likely as a result of its designer, Oliver Kiley, starting to post on my blog and my natural curiosity over his Game Designer badge. This interest level was increased even more by his comments in my Two Different Styles of Civilization Games article and his description of what made Hegemonic special. When he offered me a chance to get a late stage prototype I eagerly accepted. The copy arrived earlier this week and I got a chance to play two partial games last night, though between the two of them I got a very good idea of the overall scope and essence of the game.
Last night I got a chance to play two partial games. The first was a three player that was stopped due to the third player being put into an unrecoverable position after some very bad early moves, but pretty soon after that we had three other friends show up, so Mike and I joined Chad, Kelly and Scott for a five player game.
Even before we started the five player game Mike and I were pretty excited about the game, with Mike wondering how he could get a copy. The three player was definitely a learning experience but we greatly enjoyed what we had learned about the game, and the five player game did little but enhance our general enthusiasm. Chad, Kelly, and Scott also really liked the game, Chad said it was better than Eclipse, which had been his favorite 4X game up to this point, and Kelly and Scott were also very enthusiastic about it with Scott asking when the Kickstarter was going to begin.
I will let the others explain the source of their own excitement if they chose, but for me personally the primary basis for my enthusiasm is how the game handles conflict between civilizations. Most 4X games, and civilization games in general for that matter, are focused almost exclusively on military conflict. Political influence is merely hand-waved by saying the game is a negotiation game or is extremely abstracted, while economic aspects of the game are almost exclusively focused on building economic power for yourself and using that economic power to build a military. If you want to effect another player’s position you are going to build up an army and send it over to attack their armies, burn down their cities, seize their solar systems, or whatever depending on the focus and scope of the game. While this can make a quite entertaining game, I prefer a more comprehensive approach to my conflict, with both opportunities for direct economic and political conflicts as well as purely military ones.
Hegemonic provides that opportunity, as player infrastructure is focused in those three major spheres: political, industrial, and military. Each one improves your income, and each one provides you with the ability to interact with, either through destruction or conquer, the other spheres of influence. Of course this results in a level of abstraction that many fans of the 4X genre will find to be a bit disconcerting. There are no hordes of plastic miniatures to play on the board, and each player only has 3 fleet markers and 3 agent markers to represent their ability to project military and political force. Still, if you are willing to get past, that I think it is very easy to see past that abstraction and get a feel for how tightly integrated the mechanics are to the theme. Open negotiation and exchange of currency is allowed, but because political conflicts are the ones that allow other players to influence the results, you are more likely to see this negotiation and exchange in currency when political power is on one side of a conflict. Military power’s area of influence and power is directly determined by relative location and size of fortresses, and an increasing focus on military also causes military fleets to scale up in power accordingly. Industrial power can be used to take over locations of types, representing the power of money and economy, while military power and political power can only take control of embassies. How you calculate military, industrial, and political power differs as does how you are able to project power, making it so that even with the level of observed abstraction there is an important differentiation between the different spheres of influence.
The economic system is clever, but does not particularly stand out. Essentially your progress in each of the three tracks associated with either industrial, political or political influence, as you place more complexes, embassies, and outposts on the board your income increases, your costs increase, and the amount of currency you can hold between rounds decreases. Three tiers are associated with each track, and advancing the tiers gives you access to special powers as well as the ability to place more advanced technologies. This is straightforward and utilitarian and most importantly does not get in the way. You will be thinking about your economy and the income and output of the currency you have to spend to expand your position, but it does not interfere with the true central focus of the game: conflict.
The resolution mechanic is both clever and does stand out. Each player has a hand of five cards, each of which is divided into a conflict half and a technology half. Whenever a conflict occurs calculated power is added to the power of the card to determine the winner. Each card has a general power and a specialized power that comes with specific pre-requisites. When playing one of these cards for a conflict it is left face-up and unavailable until the player runs out of cards, takes an action to refresh them, or the round ends, meaning that there is a very strong element of hand management when dealing with a very conflict heavy round. The double nature of the cards also leads to some interesting decisions, as when you get a new technology, you are losing that as a potential card to play in a round. This does not decrease the total number of cards available, you will always have 5 total available active and inactive cards, but it does lead to a potential decrease in the overall level of quality of cards you can play. If you have invested strongly in industrial, political, or military infrastructure this is particularly tough because the cards that have the best synergies with these types of influence are also the ones that provide the valuable level 3 technologies.
Action selection is secret and simultaneous using a hand of cards that is identical between the players. Each action card has up to three potential actions on them, with an individual player having the ability to take either take up to three actions from this menu or, in the case of one card, a single action. Player order, is determined by the initiative value of the card, but plenty of ties will occur and when that happens the arbiter, essentially the “first player”, determines the order. This can be a particularly valuable role on contentious rounds, and bidding wars for the ability to go first are likely in these cases, but in other rounds it is only marginally useful. The individual action cards are comprehensive, allowing for a variety of different ways you can interact with the board, and the ability to initiate a conflict is spread across them making the reason a player selected a particular action delightfully ambiguous.
It is tough to compare it to other 4X games I enjoy because they are doing something quite different. The need to manage fleets and internalize the capabilities of a half dozen ships is removed, but strangely enough, despite its lesser focus on military conflict the total amount of conflict in the game is greater. Conflict aggressors are rarely harmed permanently in the process of an attack, making it so it can be optimal to attempt experimental attacks if you think you have a chance to win, and the fact that victory points are scored in such a way that you are encouraged to expand across the board means that players are constantly driven to be in each other’s proximity, so turtling is non-existent. You can certainly build centralized locations where you are very strong, of course, but these locations are merely a tool for launching game winning conflicts, not as a means to turtle while you pursue victory in isolation. You also see a sort of interweaving of player presence that is virtually unknown in other games of this type. Any individual hex could have up to three different players in it, and it is possible for two players to coexist in the same region in a fairly peaceful manner.
The only real problems I see with it are ones of clarity. As a red-green colorblind person, I found some of the differences between the political faction tiles to be unclear. Additionally you frequently need to add and read numbers from adjacent areas in order to calculate actual and potential powers for different networks. This can be a bit problematic for people who prefer a slightly more visceral play experience, but I did not find it problematic except in the case of political power, where the power contributions are more dispersed, and a wider array of factors need to be considered. Luckily this is something that can be easily solved at a component level, as a track that indicated each players power level across the three political factions would easily allow for a player to consider the possibilities without a lot of AP-induced counting. It is nowhere near the level of permutation that is seen in something like Dominant Species, and most of the down time I saw was from people wrestling with tough decisions rather than attempting to overcome hurdles that stopped them from actually playing the game.
While it is a 4X game, is probably the most “euro” of games of this style. In fact, it probably reminds me most of some of the big conflict-driven eurogames that have had a strong crossover appeal like Dominant Species or Tigris & Euphrates and as such I see this game having a strong potential to appeal to both players who are fans of traditional 4X games as well as those who are not typically into the genre but like big conflict-driven games. I see little opportunity for my opinion of this game to go anywhere but up, and it’s a damn shame that it has not found a publisher yet. Hopefully Oliver will work out a publishing deal so that this one can get into wider distribution. Yes, it is another 4X entry in a crowded market, but it is a very distinct one and one that I think will ultimately be very popular, particularly for those who like big and deep board games.
Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Like many members of our wonderful species, I enjoy novelty. I like to try the new, limited edition ice cream flavors that are offered periodically at Publix (right now we have cartons of Pina Colada and Cherry Cheesecake in our fridge), I like to watch the latest and greatest in cinema, and I like to check out new and different board games. This desire for the new and interesting is what has driven me to play 347 different games since February 2008. This translates directly into my own particular version of the cult of the new; I enjoy experiencing these new games, but typically in great detail and only if they bring something new to the table. Of course, not every game will introduce major innovations, but there is a certain level of “newness” that a game has to offer in order to provide the hook to draw me in. I am still working out what level of innovation works for me, but three recent works, 1989: Dawn of Freedom, Ora et Labora, and Titans of Industry have done a good job in helping me to further delineate what I need.
There appear to be four main levels of innovation in board games: influential innovations, incremental innovations, reimplementations, and retreads. Influential innovators are genre-defining games that have ripple effects for years to come. Incremental innovators produce small scale innovations that push forward particular genres, and create new problem solving spaces, but have neither the importance nor impact of the influential innovators. Reimplementations take an existing game’s core concepts and present them in a new way. Retreads reassemble ideas presented in previous games in a new configuration, without doing much, if anything, to introduce something new.
Influential innovators are games that introduce a mechanic or structure that has the right combination of originality and influence that it causes reverberations throughout the industry. Dominion is perhaps the most recent examples of this sort of game, but even within the last decade we have seen games such as Caylus, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, and Puerto Rico have a similar impact. For me, these are all quite exciting to play and explore. While I do not end up loving all of them, they are usually interesting enough to at least investigate because they help me to better understand why the game is important, and what its impact has been on further games.
The vast majority of games have more incremental levels of innovation, and their level of importance is less based on how effectively they are able to diffuse into the overall consciousness of the gaming public. Many of the innovations introduced by these games, such as the escalating number of workers of Agricola or the two dimensions of area control in Dominant Species, are interesting and fun but not nearly as significant as the ones introduced by the gaming public by the games in the first class. I am sometimes interested in trying out these games because of potential innovations, but these tend to be played much more frequently according to my general preferences; I am much less likely to try out an incrementally innovative light or medium game then I am to try one of a greater degree of complexity or depth.
The third class of games, reimplementations, is a smaller one that I have really only warmed to recently. These are the sorts of games that feature a very strong similarity to previous games, frequently by the same designer, but are implemented in such a way that they produce a different experience. My earliest real experience with this particular type of game was the Command & Colors series. I was looking to get into a tactical miniatures game, and its prominence in the BGG rankings was enough for me to become interested in the series. My focus at that time was more on finding an individual entry in the series that suited my particular desire for a game I could explore in great depth, rather then a desire to explore the series as a whole. Of course, this ability to find a particular game to suit my needs, in this case Command & Colors: Ancients, itself speaks to the strength of this particular brand of reimplementation. By making it so that each of the games in the series is significantly different, it gives opportunities for both dabblers to find a particular game that is right for them, while still allowing those who grow to appreciate the overall Command & Colors system the opportunity to either explore it in more detail or have the ability to play the Command & Colors game that best fits the needs of a particular moment. I have not personally felt the need to dive deeper into Command & Colors, though the Napoleonic game does look interesting, but I do appreciate what Borg has been able to accomplish with the series. It is an impressive body of work.
I have been less impressed with Martin Wallace’s new implementations of older games, and for many years his attempts clouded my impressions of reimplementations in general. Lancashire Railways was reimplemented as New England Railways and Australian Railways, while Age of Steam was reimplemented as Railroad Tycoon and Steam, and Brass was reimplemented as Age of Industry. While I am not that familiar with the Lancashire Railways line, having only played Australian Railways, I found the Age of Steam and Brass reimplementations to be less than impressive. The first reason I think is largely thematic. The reimplementations that I find to be most successful are those that take a flexible basic system and then fundamentally restructure how the secondary aspects of the system work in order to allow the game to successfully implement the new theme. With the theme being fairly consistent within each of Marin Wallace’s reimplementations, there are fewer opportunities for the raw creativity seen for games where the designer forces himself to adapt the game to an entirely new thematic structure. The second reason is simply that I think they are worse as games then previous entries in the series, lacking the brutality and depth that made the originals so engaging and exciting.
So based on my looks at Martin Wallace and Richard Borg’s designs, it seems that in order for a reimplementation to work for me it needs to feature both an attempt to adapt the game structure to a different theme, and the innovation that comes from this adaption, as well as to retain the general depth and effectiveness of the original designs. The Command & Colors series of games is able to effectively accomplish the first part of this equation. Whether it accomplishes the second part or not is something you will have to ask individuals who have more thoroughly explored the series, but there are two very recent games that I believe manage to successfully accomplish both goals: Ora et Labora and 1989: Dawn of Freedom.
Ora et Labora is essentially a reimplementation of Uwe Rosenberg’s well-regarded 2008 release Le Havre. This is disguised better than it is for the Command & Colors games by the simple fact that the dedication to thematic conversion is far more complete then it is in the Command & Colors series of games. I suspect that this is simply due to a desire to maintain a more obviously consistent central mechanism throughout the Command & Colors games; more significant changes in the service of theme would probably change the game enough to reduce the ease of adoption for those who are interested in trying out another title in the series. Regardless of the reasoning, Ora et Labora’s shifts from Le Havre are significant enough to be interesting, and fulfill both of my criterion as to what makes a good reimplementation. It is so effective that Ora et Labora actually exceeds Le Havre in my eyes, though their differences are such that I could easily see playing either of them if it was not for the greater popularity Ora et Labora has in my local play group.
1989: Dawn of Freedom is not the first reimplementation of Jason Matthew’s Twilight Struggle, but I find it to be far more interesting then 2007’s 1960: The Making of a President. This is because, while 1960 is able to successfully achieve the first of my two criterions, by being a reimplementation that uses a new thematic setting to drive innovation, it fails the second one, by failing to be as challenging and rigorous as the original. 1989 successfully achieves both of these criterions; though I am less certain it is a clear improvement like Ora et Labora is over Le Havre. The similarities between Twilight Struggle and 1989, which are mechanically closer than Ora et Labora and Le Havre, have allowed the designers to include some level of refinement and helpful streamlining that is not quite possible with more extensive reimplementations. These are mostly positive but they attempts also reduce some of the tension in the game, and at first I suspected the games were thematically similar enough to make the reimplementation less effective. It ended up working for me, but I imagine there will be people who find that it is not worthwhile to have both games.
Retreads are games that largely feature mechanics introduced before with either slightly different combinations of previous mechanics and generally minimal levels of innovation. Some of these are similar on the surface to reimplementations, but typically they do not display the level of understanding of the original design, and ways to tweak it in interesting ways that reimplementations have. Titans of Industry is a recent example of this. At its core it is a fairly basic worker placement game, with spaces to collect resources, convert resources into money or VPs, get workers, and the like with the only real twist being that acquisition of buildings is handled by a money-based draft at the beginning of the round. While this is marginally interesting, it is not enough of a separation for me to even count Titans of Industry as even an incremental innovator. The game could quite possible by enjoyable, but it does not do enough for me to even consider justifying it as worth purchasing. Unfortunately a lot of games are like this. While retreads are not the biggest category, it is probably the second biggest, with incremental innovators making up the largest categories of released games.
My views on what makes a good or bad game have evolved at a consistent pace over the course of my four years in the hobby. I have gone from wanting lighter games that were easier to teach to my friends and family to being mostly interested in the more deep and challenging games in the course of this time, and I have no doubt the specifics of my preferences will continue to change. My shifting opinion of reimplementations is an example of this and I fully expect my overall opinions both on this subject, and others, will continue to be refined as I think further about what is a good game and about games in general.
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