On Gamer's Games

Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games

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A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011

Jesse Dean
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In mid-2011, A Few Acres of Snow was released to great critical response. It rapidly received a plethora of good reviews and, in short order, won the 2-player awards for the committee International Gamer’s Award and the voters’ choice Wargame Golden Geek award.

Of course, before these awards emerged, A Few Acres of Snow’s reputation began to be sullied. On 25 September 2011, Michael Fitz posted a thread on BoardGameGeek entitled “Can France Beat Britain's "Settle Halifax, Besiege Louisbourg, Besiege Quebec" Strategy?” This created quite a bit of uproar, resulting in a thread with over 867 comments as various people began to argue about whether the game was broken and what to do if it was, as well as numerous secondary threads discussing the same topic. Eventually Martin Wallace promised a fix, and on 30 December 2011, he provided one. Soon after, the main people who denounced the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy as broken determined that A Few Acres of Snow remained just as broken as it was previously. Martin Wallace seemed to agree, acknowledging on 25 January 2012 that, “Yes, it is flawed. It is not something that can be fixed absolutely. The best way forward is to keep changing the rules, with scenarios, to present new challenges.” In a later interview for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, Wallace went a step farther, stating that his intended fixes were largely designed to ensure that less skilled players would still be able to enjoy the game; he also stated that two player games in themselves are fundamentally flawed such that players who try hard enough will ultimately break all of them.

While my feelings on this topic are fairly well known, particularly by those who read my work regularly, what surprises me is how little discussion A Few Acres of Snow’s flaws have generated amongst individuals who are arguably the top reviewers, critics, and pundits in the board game community. This is even more surprising given Martin Wallace’s comments. In most other media or art criticism communities, a prolific and well-respected artist releasing a work that was both initially applauded and later acknowledged as fundamentally flawed would result in quite a bit of discussion and articles. In the board game community? Almost none.

Why is this the case? Why is so interesting a topic not being discussed by those with the biggest podiums in the hobby? After some thought and discussion, I came to the conclusion that a major component of how the more prominent voices in the hobby determine what topics to discuss is how they perceive themselves. I sent out a survey based on this theory to a variety of bloggers, podcasters, and textual and video reviewers, and got an impressive array of responses. However, I now believe the reasons are more complex, and are related to a number of other, interlocking issues. These surveys still ended up being valuable, simply because the respondents provided thought-provoking answers to my questions. What I intended to be a single article about how a voice’s perception of their role affects what they write about is now going to be a number of articles covering a variety of topics that emerged as a result of these surveys.

The primary reason I think that we have seen such minimal discussion on the implications of the fundamental flaws of A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s follow-up comments is simply a matter of incentives. The most popular reviews, both in thumbs for a site like BoardGameGeek and for views and comments on other sites, are highly positive reviews about the newest games. Since board gaming is a very consumer-driven hobby, players are constantly looking out for new games to provide them with both a new experience and a way to share the enthusiasm that comes from trying out a fun and exciting new game. Newer games, by nature of being unknown, allow consumers to create an idealized view of the enjoyment that can be derived from the game. Many consumers particularly appreciate reviews that effectively communicate to them that their original enthusiasm was well founded. Any reviewer or commentator who seeks to maximize their positive attention (and that is true of most of them, including yours truly) will tend to focus on the topic that provides them with the most attention: enthusiastic reviews of new games.

By the time the issues with A Few Acres of Snow came to the attention of the larger community, the game was well past the point where it was new enough to maintain the attention of the more prominent reviewers, who had already moved on to newer and hotter games. The fact that the fall of 2011 was a particularly exciting time for new board games did not help either, as most reviewers were already looking to the hot new Essen releases. The written reviews section on BoardGameGeek for A Few Acres of Snow bears this out, as all but two reviews of the game were posted before the balance issues were first observed. Reviews for A Few Acres of Snow on both Fortress: Ameritrash and the Opinionated Gamers also appeared before the problems were observed. However, positive reviews certainly appeared after the initial problem surfaced, not to mention Top 10 Lists towards the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 that credited A Few Acres of Snow as being one of the best designs of the year. So while the timing of the discovery did have an impact on the amount of discussion that took place in the wider review community, this is not the only explanation. Other factors also impacted why later discussions and reviews of A Few Acres of Snow only minimally touched on the game’s problems.

One of these additional factors is that, to produce a truly critical take on a particular game, a reviewer would need to explore it in enough depth to be able to identify underlying problems, like those eventually discovered in A Few Acres of Snow. But the rewards for producing fast and effective takes on games discourage thorough exploration. Even if a reviewer did identify underlying structural problems, any negative review of a game would likely be controversial, and thus turn off potential readers. Why explore the game deeply to find potential flaws, when an initial enthusiastic review is likely to work much more effectively for a reviewer’s fan base? When you add to this the fact that the most prominent game reviewers tend to be constantly trying out and reviewing newer games, the likelihood of a particular game getting enough play to identify game balance issues is low.

Another reason, beyond simple ignorance of the game’s flaws, is denial that the issue was a problem in the first place. In many instances, this skepticism is reasonable. In my history of gaming, I can’t count the number of times I have heard claims that a game is broken by people I respected a lot less than the designer of said game, and the naysayers turned out to be wrong. Of course, commenters have been correct often enough that I have learned not to completely dismiss complaints about balance issues, but it is natural for those who are playing and enjoying a game to assume that those who are complaining are simply wrong. This is particularly true with fans of Martin Wallace because of the general level of divisiveness that has followed him, first with his conflict with Winsome games, and then with FRED Distribution. These conflicts make it easier for fans of Martin Wallace to dismiss those who are complaining about one of his games as another person with a particular axe to grind against him, and thus not actually relevant to the quality of his work.

Martin Wallace’s late December rules revisions initially seemed to resolve the issue for those who were less involved in analyzing A Few Acres of Snow’s mechanics, including me in Part 1 of my end of year list. At the time, I considered it fixed. However, the same community that originally identified that A Few Acres of Snow as broken was able to quickly prove that the fix was largely illusionary. Martin, to his credit, followed up with an acknowledgement that it was flawed and, less to his credit, with his statement that all two-player games are broken. Yet, despite this, there was still no discussion about the topic among the prominent voices in the board game community. On 25 February, Larry Levy of the Opinionated Gamers released an article about their annual Designer of the Year award, with Stefan Feld winning and Martin Wallace coming in second largely on the strength of A Few Acres of Snow. When I questioned him about this, he said, “I realize that there are some who think it’s broken and out of whack. But the game is played and greatly enjoyed by an awful lot of people. You can try to analyze why they like it despite what some feel is a dominant strategy, but I’d rather take their opinions at face value. When you combine that with the IGA award, it’s got to be one of the bigger titles of the year.”

While I generally find Larry’s criticism to be interesting, and value his contributions to the community, this sentence highlights what I believe is the next reason why we have not seen much discussion about the implications of A Few Acres of Snow and Mr. Wallace’s statements: a lack of willingness to subjectively judge whether a game is good or not in any criterion beyond whether people enjoy it. This also expresses itself in a similar lament about the game being fine if you just ignore the broken strategy. Both lines of thinking ignore the implications of giving a designer a pass for releasing an easily broken game. If the game continues to accumulate awards, climb the rankings, and enjoy good sales, what sort of message does this send to designers? That it is okay to release games that are initially pleasing and work as long as you do not attempt skilled play, because the customer base does not mind games that are ultimately broken? That effective playtesting is not important? I like to think that Martin Wallace has learned some important lessons from this, but the lack of accountability does not bode well for the future of our hobby.

So, the primary reasons that we have seen so little discussion on the implications of the fatally flawed A Few Acres of Snow are: the way that board game consumers reward quickly produced enthusiastic reviews; the general tendency to not play games exhaustively enough to identify balance problems; an inclination to dismiss those who claim a game is broken and trust that prominent designers will not make a flawed design; and a general desire not to dismiss the enjoyment that players derive from the game. I also think a broader reason is related to the low level of development of board game articles in the review community. There are very few articles providing any sort of critical analysis of board games or the community as a whole, and without this infrastructure, there is little in place to create a real dialogue about the many interesting topics that A Few Acres of Snow and Martin Wallace’s comments bring to mind. We do see some of this sort of analysis scattered around the BGG blogs section, Fortress: Ameritrash, the Opinionated Gamers, and a few podcasts, but this is relatively small compared to the volume of discussion on board games as a whole.

I have a few theories about the current lack of critical infrastructure, some of which are related to the topics I noted above, but that is going to have to wait for my next article.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ben (chally), John Broky, Joel Eddy, Larry Levy, W. Eric Martin, and Matt Thrower for their help in this article. It was great discussing this topic with them, and they really helped me crystallize my thoughts. The views expressed in this article are entirely my own, and while some of them will probably agree with my points and my ultimate conclusions, I suspect that some of them will have very different conclusions from me on why this has occurred and if it even matters.

Edit: This article first appeared on www.2d6.org. Since I have been kindly added to their set of staff content producers and they are pretty excited about this series of articles I have agreed that this set of articles will appear on that web site first. I encourage everyone to check out the site!
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Thu Mar 22, 2012 11:53 am
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Board Game Adaptations of Video Games (and Dragon Valley)

Jesse Dean
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Board Games have been the target of media adaptation and tie-ins for a long time. Themed versions of monopoly are endemic, but even in the realm of quality board games, we have seen such noteworthy franchises as Dune, Star Wars, and Lord of the Ring adapted into well-received board game since the late 70s. Board Games have similarly been adapted to video game form, with Sid Meier’s Civilization being one of the earliest and noteworthy examples of this, but Europa Universalis saw a similar treatment, and the rise of iOS devices this trend has accelerated as accurate facsimiles, rather than reimagining, being increasingly common. I don’t have a particular problem with either of these sorts of adaptations, but neither particularly thrills me. Media tie-ins are only marginally interesting to me, because I generally care about the overall tightness of a game’s theme then what theme it has. I have been largely disinterested in board games directly ported into video form, simply because I prefer to play them around the table with my friends. Adaptations can be good, I love Europa Universalis, but I think it is important to create an experience that fits the strengths of the medium rather than trying to recreate it directly.

There is a recent trend in adaptations that I find more exciting however, and that is adaptations of video games into board game form. These are preferable to board games translated into video game form mostly because of the forced innovation; due to the limits of board games in both physical components and preferable play time it is impossible to directly translate most video games into board game form. This has resulted in a variety of board games that, while not necessarily good games or good adaptations, are at the very least interesting and provide an indication at the various ways future video games can be turned into board game form.

Dragon Valley
While this one is not a directly licensed adaptation of a video game, it shares the same general style of the tower defense genre. Unfortunately, rather than going with a super tense struggle for survival that is prevalent in the sort of tower defense games I prefer, where you are trying futilely to overcome hordes of enemies before ultimately failing, they have gone with a less tense design that focuses instead on survival and more on harvesting enemies for victory points either through direct combat or by using walls to direct them off cliffs. While this is a perfectly valid decision, both creatively and from a marketing position, as few people like to fight hard before ultimately being the person who fails the least, I admit this almost certainly unfair expectation did leave me a little bit disappointed. I have just written a new review of it which focuses on the game’s particular merits and flaws, rather than my unfair expectations, here: You Split! I Choose...Orcs?

Dungeon Lords
While I never, ever want to have to teach it again Dungeon Lords provides an interesting adaptation of the “Dungeon Keeper” style of games where players are the evil overlord in a dungeon, fighting off invading adventurers. As it is designed by Vlaada Chvatil, it combines an effective implementation of the theme with an interesting twist on an older method of resource distribution. Unfortunately, this effectiveness is diminished by the level of rules overhead and length compared to the amount of interesting game play. It is nowhere near as bad as Automobile, but it is sufficient that I have not played it since my initial exploration of the game.

Eclipse
Eclipse is another game that is not exactly a direct adaptation, but is strongly inspired by the Masters of Orion series of video game. The best example of this is the ship design system, where Eclipse has a total of four different blueprints available to each of the races, and players are able to take an action to customize their ships based on researched technologies. The game also features a number of other stylistic flourishes related to Master of Orion 3 and a fairly innovative action selection system that is completely unrelated to the original video game. You can see my review here: A Total Eclipse of the Grand Strategy Genre?.

Planet Steam
Inspired by the classic economic video game M.U.L.E., Planet Steam is focused on exploiting the resources of a planet in a science fiction setting, with intense competition for real estate and an intense focus on market manipulation that is fairly true to the original game. A player’s particular action capabilities are severely constrained by available resources, and it is quite possible to end up in an unrecoverable situation. Whether you consider this a perk or a flaw will depend on your perception of catch-up mechanisms.

Puzzle Strike
Puzzle Strike is a fairly typical Dominion clone, with a unique twist directly related to its theme that pushes it ahead of the rest of the pack. Puzzle Strike very effectively implements puzzle fighter style video games, where the players use crash gems to push a steadily climbing pile of gems at their opponents, both protecting themselves and pushing their opponents closer to defeat. This focus on actually knocking out your opponents rather than a race for victory points, and the clever way Sirlin has translated Puzzle Fighters into a deck building games has resulted in a game that is much more tense and exciting then the other deck builders I have played.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game is one of the few video game adaptations that I have played that actually has a license. Designed by Kevin Wilson it is a very faithful adaptation of the Civilization series of video games, with a minimum of mechanical meanderings and a laser focus on producing a board game that is true to the video game experience. Unfortunately, in this case I think it remains a bit too true to the video game, resulting in a design that feels somewhat lacking, particularly since I have become disinterested in this style of games in general as you can see here: Two Different Styles of Civilization Games

Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
Through the Ages is the second Vlaada Chvatil game on this list, and that is no accident, as he really seems to be at the forefront of adapting video game ideas into board game form. Through the Ages is less of a strict adaptation of the Civilization series of video games then Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, but it is an adaptation none the less and a rather effective one. I greatly enjoyed Through the Ages for a period of time, but eventually grew weary of the dominance of certain strategies, and my eventual disenchantment with this style of games in general drove down my appreciation of Through the Ages.

Yomi
Yomi is another Sirlin adaptation, and another fun and effective translation of a video game genre into card game form. Where Puzzle Strike was an adaptation of the Puzzle Fighter games, Yomi is an adaptation of Street Fighter-style fighting game. The complete edition comes with a set of 10 characters, each with its own distinct fighting style and flavor that remain fairly well balanced. I absolutely love this game, and it really probably deserves a higher ranking in my Top 10 of 2011 then it currently has.

Based on these games I think there is a lot of potential for new translations of video games into board game form, even for particular styles of video games that have already seen excellent board game examples. Through the Ages and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game are good examples of the extremely diverse ways you can present even a specific game series, and it seems that BattleCon War of the Indines is presenting another interesting take on the fighting game genre.

I wonder what other sorts of staple genres we will see in coming years. The most challanging example of these genres will probably the sidescroller. I am not sure how one would be able to translate something like Super Mario Brothers into board game form without losing something fundamental from its character. However, I am not a game designer so it will be exciting to see what sort of other great video game adaptations will appear in the coming years.


Have I missed out on any particularly major video game to board game adaptations that I should check out? What are your favorite adaptations?
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Tue Mar 13, 2012 8:10 pm
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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love A Lean Game Collection

Jesse Dean
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As a child and younger adult I had a strong collector instinct. It started with baseball cards, but by the time I hit my teens I was collecting various Collectible Card Games (CCGs) and role playing games, and I would get things just because they might be useful some day or found something about them to be particularly appealing. Even when I first started into Collectible Miniature Games (CMGs) this habit continued, and by the time I reached the end of my exploration of CMGs I had thousands of the little suckers. I still have a gigantic number of them in my apartment in bins and boxes, mostly due to my laziness in going through the trouble of organizing them by set and then selling them. So based on this history it is pretty natural to assume that I would end up following a similar tack with board games, with a collection in the hundreds. However, with a collection that hovers between 50 and 60 games, and has for years, I have avoided this particular tendency. So the real question is why I have done this and why I would want to do this.

I have never been a real game dabbler. For years, I really only played D&D, with a foray into CCGs in the mid-nineties and a more involved romance with CMGs in the 2000s. However, all of these lifestyle games enabled you to collect within the game. There were always new minis or cards to try with your older ones and new books to provide additional monsters to battle or characters to play. Buying these additions might make you use your older purchases less, but you were able to use as much or as little of the new content as you thought was valuable. I particularly enjoyed the depth of exploration that playing the CMGs allowed. There was a pretty vast game space available there to explore and my enjoyment of this exploration has not diminished (thus my enjoyment of heavier, meatier games).

Board games are mostly different. There are a few lifestyle board games, but most board games are intended to offer discrete experiences that are intended to be explored on their own rather than in conjunction with previous purchases. So while new board games may be able to allow you to enjoy the experience of board gaming as a whole, they do not provide for additional depth to a previous play experience. This of course has its advantages, as you usually do not need to make quite the same investment in time or money to get involved in a board game as you would in a typical lifestyle game, making it easier to involve more casual players or for people who prefer the more varied experience that playing a wide range of board games provide.

Of course there is a downside to this in that the plethora of available games and the constant influx of new games encourage people to just try out a new game rather than continue exploring a particular one, especially if one player in the group is less than satisfied with other players’ favorites. Involvement in any of the prominent board game hobby sites only encourages this further, as the inevitable focus is on discussing new games. People want to know what to buy, what will provide them the greatest new thrill and serve as an excellent addition to their ever growing collections. So it becomes unusual for any particular game to be explored in depth, even if the game deserves this exploration.

I am not immune to this particular affliction, and it has become even worse now that I have entered the world of board gaming criticism, but I have come to discover that keeping a smaller collection allows me to more effectively explore games both in breadth and in depth. By constantly cycling out games in my collection that no longer meet either my particular standards and desires or those of my group I can ensure that even while exploring some fun new games I can also keep both myself and others in my group focused on playing a smaller set of games a lot rather than it being a more scattershot affair. Sometimes this results in me getting rid of games I actually like; I sold my copy of Labyrinth simply because of lack of two player gaming opportunities and I suspect that I will ultimately get rid of Bios Megafauna, Rex: Final Days of the Empire, and Upon A Salty Ocean because of the fact that group interest in these titles is low.

Of course, based on my previous tendencies it is likely that I would have never come to this conclusion if outside forces had not forced me to experiment with how a smaller collection might be good and ways to effectively manage said collection. The first of these pressures is simply based on space. I share an apartment with my long-term partner and while I like board games I do not like the idea of them taking over our available living space. I do have room in some of my cabinets for more games, but I have noticed games that are not in my central bookcase are less likely to come into play and if it is relegated to the cabinets, it probably is one I probably should try to get rid of anyway. The second is the afore-mentioned partner who tends to start teasing me whenever she thinks my collection has become too large. There is some level of seriousness behind the teasing of course, our comfort zones for the quantity of board games in the house is almost certainly very different, but it helped me to keep my collection small earlier in my days as a board gamer when I was more inclined to just let it grow.

Now, of course, my tendencies are so ingrained that we do not even really talk about it anymore. While I am constantly buying new games, every few months I reach the point where I am getting uncomfortable with the size of the collection and I purge any games that are on the borderline between owning and not owning. Originally I handled this mostly through trades, particularly math trades, but I eventually reached the conclusion that the trades were not actually worth it. Since my local game store is also an on-line retailer, and when I do order from others it is usually enough games to get free shipping, the fact that I had to pay for shipping my own game greatly decreased the value of the transaction. Selling, where the shipping is paid for by the buyer simply makes more financial sense for me, and what is what I focus on to this day. Brand new games tend to be much easier to get rid of then older games, so being an early adopter has additional advantages beyond those involved in being part of the initial discussion of a game.

It also helps that my tastes are defined enough that it is usually not that difficult to figure out which games are going to work for at least 30 plays (my requirement for longer games) or 100 plays (my requirement for shorter games). Even if I do not think that I have explored the extend of a game, if I can see a point in the near future where I will reach that extent it is very easy for me to get rid of a game. Of course, sometimes I am wrong and end up keeping a game that does not quite make it to my goal, but that is something I am willing to live with. The only game that I sold or traded and felt any regret afterwards is Puerto Rico, and now I am trying to get rid of my new copy again, so it seems that the reacquisition was the mistake rather than the initial rejection.

The result of this is that the games in my collection have a pretty high total number of plays. Even the less frequently played games in my collection, that are not on their way out, are sitting at 4-5 plays rather than 1 or zero, and almost half of my games have been played twenty or more times. It also has allowed me to dive deeply into new releases that are my favorites; as of today I have played Mage Knight 30 times with other people and have 20 non-solo plays of Ora et Labora.

I am pretty happy with this set-up. It allows me to participate pretty extensively in conversations about the new games I care most about, find great new games for my collection, while still keeping my overall costs fairly low and my plays of the games I like high. I can understand why other people like to have large collections, but it is not for me. A small collection allows me to focus on the style of gaming that I care about most.
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Wed Mar 7, 2012 7:39 pm
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Pirates of Nassau

Jesse Dean
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So Kelly, who got a review copy of Pirates of Nassau and wrote review of it as a result here: Shiver Me Timbers! A Review!, brought over her copy to our weekend game day yesterday and we got an opportunity to play a four player match. I thought it was a reasonable effort, distinct enough on a superficial level that I think it will end up appealing to quite a few people, but its underlying structure (and some component choices) were ultimately enough that I don’t think it is a game that I am going to bother owning and may not revisit it more than once or twice.

The game’s central mechanic is the best part of the game. The game board has three rows each of which is filled with variable ships carrying coins, potential hostages, and a combination of yellow, brown and black goods that have a thematic tie, but one that I did not bother to keep track of during the game as it was essentially meaningless, and static ports. Each round you roll three dice which will determine how many spots you are able to move during the round, with individual dice being also usable to move into “trade winds” locations between the rows in order to give up a potential ship to attack in exchange for the ability to potentially access better ships. Since these dice can be used to travel in either direction there is a lot of maneuvering as you are forced to consider how other people are going to use their dice for pirating and determine when it is worthwhile to sacrifice a pirating opportunity to get access to a part of the board your opponents will not be able to get to. There is an additional level of decision making available with the valuable hostage resource which gives you a different amount of coins based on which level you deliver them to.



Each ship you attack requires certain resource levels in speed and cannons, with an excess of those values allowing you to gain the resources from the ship as well as a certain amount of infamy. At the end of the round each player is required to deal with a ship of the royal navy, with order based on ascending infamy values. Some cards depict open sea, so it is possible by keeping your infamy low you will not have to deal with the royal navy at all.

With the resources you plunder from pirate ships you are able to purchase additional equipment for your ship, additional crew members, and expand your ship. Coins are particularly valuable in that you can trade them in for two of any resource, but they are also useful for scoring, as you can “bury” them in a provided cardboard chest for scoring. In addition to, or instead of, providing a game boost, crew members and extra equipment both provide values that are used, along with infamy and buried coins, to provide end of game victory points. Each category provides victory points based on your relative position, with 7/5/3/1 being awarded in the four player game I participated in.

The previously mentioned action selection mechanic was probably the best part of it, but unfortunately the rest of the game surrounding the action mechanic was pretty standard, leaving me without any particular strong desire to continue exploring it. Essentially the game is an economic snowball game, where on each round you gather resources and reinvest those resources into your ship, allowing you to collect even larger amounts of resources. If you get too far behind in this accumulation and spending it becomes very difficult to catch-up despite the inclusion of the royal navy to serve as a way to slow down the leader. The fact that whomever has the highest infamy is also the first to get access to both ships and purchases does not really help matters, as whomever is highest in infamy is also probably the winner or close to it, leading to a small problem of the rich getting richer. I also disliked the scoring mechanic, as I generally prefer for victory points to be a bit more granular rather than having a chunky distribution system that results in a fairly artificial tightness in scores at the end of the game.

The components were a mixed bag. I thought the little wooden ship markers were pretty neat, and a great idea in general, but the color choices were pretty abysmal, even beyond my problems with green and red, and the art choices had a bit of a bad CGI quality that I found to be somewhat distracting, though forgivable considering that the game is a first time production from a small company.

The included cardboard chest used for hiding treasure was also a reasonable thematic choice, but considering it involves not only hidden, trackable information but trivial hidden trackable information was sufficient to cause me to wonder why they bothered. I would have much rather had them leave the chest out and made improved the graphic presentation a bit.

Still it was not a bad game, and most everyone else who I played it with enjoyed it. It is simply far enough outside of my area of interest that I doubt I will play it more than a few more times, the dice mechanic is worth checking out more even if I find the game to be not that interesting in the end.
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Mon Feb 27, 2012 4:36 pm
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Initial Impressions of Rex: Final Days of an Empire

Jesse Dean
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Rex: Final Days of an EmpireWhen I walked into Coolstuff on Wednesday I was not expecting to be buying Rex: Final Days of the Empire. I have been dissatisfied with Fantasy Flight Game’s for a while, both from a component quality and a game design perspective, and while I admit I was pretty curious about the Dune-style game play Rex offered I was not expecting to buy it. Of course my opinion changed when I saw an employee bringing a copy in the ding and dent section. An additional $5 off the already fairly reasonable $38 dollar base price was sufficient to push me over the edge into a purchase. Luckily I was in early enough that I was able to read the rules and get the game played that night, albeit with some rules errors and with a less than optimal number of players.

Even with just four us, the game was fairly impressive. We played with the rule book’s recommended factions, whose name I frankly do not remember, but it seemed that together they provided an interesting array of options and special abilities. I particularly appreciated how the special abilities of the factions caused an interesting shift in each player’s incentives. For example, during the phase where you bid for strategy cards (essentially special player powers), the faction I was playing, the Empire, had an ability that made it so whenever anyone else won one of the cards that I would get the influence for it, meaning that even if I did not want a card I was encouraged to go ahead and push their values up, while other players were encouraged to let me win, as once I got to four cards (my hand limit), I could no longer bid on it, making it more likely they could get a reasonable cost for it. Similarly, there is plenty of hidden information in the game (though very little hidden trackable information, thankfully), with various factions having an ability to get a hold of this information, giving them information they could both use for themselves and potentially to manipulate other players. This differentiation continues further with victory conditions; some of the factions have their own special ways to win giving them their own little subgoals beyond those that apply to everyone. This combination of varying incentives, powers, and goals results in a very interesting environment that allows for entertaining game play.

Rex is an open negotiation game, but actual deals can only be made during special, randomly appearing, turns called Ceasefires, that allow for the permanent transfer of influence and the forging and breaking of alliances. Alliances (mostly) allow for multiple people to win the game, but only at the cost of a increased requirements to win. Normally control of three fortresses is enough to ensure the win, but with an alliance of two people, this requirement goes up to four, and an alliance of three means that all five fortresses are needed to win. The randomness of the appearance of these cards requires some interesting options for backstabbing and betrayal. Our game saw a pretty entertaining double cross that allowed for two of the three players who were going to lose if the game to conclusion to pull out a surprise win, which was quite entertaining. I suspect with six players the potential for double crosses and alliance swapping will be even higher and I look forward to trying it out.

I have discussed in the past how a game’s incentive structure can create what I considered to be an overly chaotic or destructive environment, but Dune is able to neatly avoid that by allowing negotiation in only very specific situations. Since the amount of times these negotiations will occur or when they will occur is unknown it also encourages players to both work as hard as possible for their alliance, since they do not know if the alliance will ever end, but at the same time be ready for the possibility that there will be an opportunity to switch sides.

I also appreciated the fact that, unlike a lot of FFG products Rex is not overloaded with components. The game’s footprint is really quite light and it does not require a large table like many of their games do. The board is kind of ugly, and reminded me a bit too much of Arkham Horror, but the information on it is fairly clear and the art did not get in the way of the game play. Unfortunately the game came with an errata sheet in the box which confirms my current negative impression of their quality control. I do like that they caught the errors before the games in the hands of customers, but it is disappointing that they failed to catch it before the game went to print. The spaceship they included to represent the fleet bombarding the planet was pretty cool though. I am generally indifferent to plastic figures, but I cannot deny that this added a nice bit of flavor to the game.

There is quite a bit more to the game that I like, but I think I will probably wait to talk about it until if and when I write a review. Currently if you are interested in it I think I can pretty safely recommend you buy it. It was a good time for those of us who played, and I suspect that further plays will only confirm my initial positive reaction. I know now why Dune is considered such a classic, and it seems that Rex has implemented Dune in an effective enough manner that it is still a quality game.
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Fri Feb 24, 2012 5:33 pm
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Structural Chaos in Bios Megafauna and Urban Sprawl

Jesse Dean
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A month ago I asked for recommendations on meatier 2011 games that I might have missed. One of the more interesting recommendations was for Bios Megafauna, a game about the evolution of dinosaurs and mammals in the time period leading up to modern history. I was warned ahead of time that the game had a somewhat high chaos level, since the person responsible for the recommendation was well aware of my feelings on Urban Sprawl, but that strategy was a much more important factor for determining whom the winner was. I have now played Bios Megafauna a bit across all possible player counts and while I do not plan to write a review for the game as I do not think I have that much more to add beyond some of the excellent reviews written so far, but I think it is worthwhile to compare the relative systematic chaos levels in the two games.

My primary issue with Urban Sprawl is how little control you have over your capabilities and possibilities on any given turn; you never know how much money is going to be in your hands when your next turn will occur due to the randomness of income. Similarly the many and varied special abilities can cause pretty dramatic changes in the game state from one of your turns the next. With how contracts and permits come out there is very little you can do about a very powerful effect hitting the board. Frequently a powerful effect will hit the board and be gone before you have an opportunity to take advantage of them or potentially mitigate their effects. As much as half of any given deck will also not be seen during the game, so you never know if a particular effect will even appear. Some cards will vary dramatically in power from game to game, and whether it is ultimately useful or not is essentially random. This adds up to a high degree of variance between turns with very little opportunity to plan. There is little reason to pay attention to the board when it is not your turn and while individual decisions are important, it is very easy to make the wrong decision without having any way to identify it is a wrong decision beforehand since it is so highly dependent on what events, contract cards, and building permits emerge.

With Bios Megafauna the changes between turns are much more gradual. You may occasionally have to reconsider your plans due to a target environment being eliminated but largely there are minimal game state changes between turns, with some exceptions. Periodically there will be a disaster or shift in the green house gasses that will cause a much more dramatic shift in the environment. While at first these dramatic changes bothered me, but now that I have played the game a bit more this tendency to shift and change is something I consider to be a positive, as it helps to “reset” the game, reducing the possibility that a player who has a species with traits that are particularly suited for a particular game state from continuing to dominate.

Bios Megafauna, like Urban Sprawl, features a Through the Ages-style card draft where you are able to spend genes (essentially action points) to purchase cards. Since these are an exhaustible resource, cards that are in more expensive spots typically end up still being available when it comes around to your turn, leaving you with more opportunity to prepare. The cards themselves are also far less dramatic than Urban Sprawl, instead of having big effects they instead change the capabilities of a species, requiring a player to actually implement the effects of the change rather than them happening automatically.

These differences have been pretty significantly affected my relative enjoyment of these games. While you can have wildly varied games of Bios Megafauna that are decided by when and how natural disasters occur or particular biomes are destroyed, there are also games where the game is a bit more stable, there is always some level of structural chaos, but the chaos is low enough to be frequently tolerable rather than distastefully overwhelming like it is in Urban Sprawl. It will never be one of my favorite games, but there are enough positives about it that I am rating it a 7, and am generally willing to keep it in my collection as long as I can find other people who are willing to play it with me.

On its surface Bios Megafauna is a pretty straightforward area majority game. There are four scoring phases in the game, and whoever had the most species markers on the board during each of them will get the highest score, and each other player getting half of the score of the person who had a better presence on the board. The actual score is based on the number of tiles in the tarpit, which is typically representative of how difficult it was to do well in the face of a constantly changing environment. This simplicity is complicated in how different animals survive. Each species can have a number of traits that allow it to subsist in a particular environment or predate on other species that subsist in the same environment. Of course, some traits do not work well with others and if you make your species too specialized it becomes increasingly likely that it will be unable to survive in the face of a catastrophe: each catastrophe eliminates species that equal exceed a particular number of traits. This is combated by speciation, by separating out one of your species into a second, one it is possible to make a species that is able to survive in a new environment without being comet-bait.

A reasonably large amount of the game is creating a suite of species that can survive through a wide array of environmental changes. You will have species go extinct, usually at particularly inconvenient and frustrating times, but the distribution of tiles is such that you will usually have a pretty good idea of what traits are going to be particularly valuable and it is very possible to build a coherent strategy and make informed decisions of genes even if you are only going to see just a subset of the tiles.

I also suspect that my enjoyment of this game is heightened by its very strong theme. Even though a lot of what is going on is an abstraction, I still learnt quite a bit by playing this game, and it was particularly fun learning about some of the crazy biomes that are introduced over the course of the game and imagining how bizarre some of the species that are built would look and act, particularly if one develops a culture like agriculture or projectile based hunting. Of course, despite my enjoyment of the game my group is skeptical enough about the game that I am not sure how much I will ultimately be able to play it. If anything forces it out of my collection it will be that lack of ability to play it regularly, not due to any distaste for Bios Megafauna’s level of chaos.
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Fri Feb 17, 2012 10:47 pm
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It Seems I Made My Best Game of 2011 List Too Soon (Part 2)

Jesse Dean
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There is always some risk that when making one’s end of year list so close to the end of that year that it will end up being inaccurate in some ways. Either you can find that some game you put on their isn’t as good as you thought it was (see: Warrior’s & Traders) or you will happen upon a game that is so exceptional that if you had played it prior to the end of the year it would have definitely made it to your list. This is what has happened to me with Cave Evil, by Emperors of Eternal Evil. It first came to my attention when I saw it on Michael Barnes’ end of year list behind Mage Knight and Eclipse. While I do not always agree with Mr. Barnes about when he is critical about a game his enthusiasm, particularly for meatier games, is enough for me to at least consider a game, and what he had to say about Cave Evil was sufficient to push me over the edge into purchasing it.

I am both happy and upset I did. I am happy because it is a fun and unique game, and I think it is absolutely worth owning for anyone who likes tactical combat games. Before I was a board gamer I played competitive collectible miniature games and Cave Evil definitely scratched the same sort of itch, but rather than the building your squad before the game starts you have a unique and competitive resource system that lets you build your squad during the game, which adds for a fun bit of dynamism that is not present in my favorite CMGs. The fact that they are able to alter the structure of the board during the game itself adds to this. While mastering the environment of a new map was always fun in Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures the ability to create and destroy your own passages is equally, if not more fun.

On the downside, the game does feature player elimination, which can be awkward at times and may eventually kill its ability to be played with most of my group due to their distaste for this particular mechanic. I empathize with this particular distaste, but I think the game is good enough to overcome such an issue, though if they continue to disagree with me it will not matter because I will not be able to play.
Cave Evil is probably the most Ameritrash (AT) game that I have played in a while and I have actually had some of my local opponents express surprise at my interest in this game, despite the fact that it fits well with the sorts of games that originally attracted my attention to the hobby: Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, and Collectible Miniatures Games. When I first got into board gaming I largely focused on eurogames, with my enjoyment of Arkham Horror being the only real break from that general trend, probably due to a fatigue and general dissatisfaction with the sort of AT games I had played up until that point. So I see playing games like Cave Evil and Mage Knight less as a divergent change rather than a return to my roots. Of course the question is why is this happening?

One possibility is that I am just getting over my burn out in that style of games, and thus am much more willing to look at them then I once was and this has resulted in me being more open to play a game like Cave Evil then I was at previous points. Of course this willingness has not extended to an interest in games like Quarriors or Kings of Tokyo; I still retain my lack of interest in lighter games of this style.

It could also be that my natural exploration of boardgaming in general has led me back to AT games as the last big area that requires major definition of my interests. I already have a good idea of what I like in war games and euro games, what works and does not in AT board games is a bit more vague. Since a major part of my enjoyment of board games is about deep exploration, both of individual games as well as the genre in general this uncertainty and lack of definition is alluring.

Of course it is also possible that rather than it simply being about a change in my perceptions of AT releases or my desire for exploration, it could simply be about a change in the sort of designs that have been released. Mage Knight and Eclipse are both hybrid designs more than anything else and Cave Evil seems to be deeper and meatier then a lot of AT designs released in the last few years while at the same time effectively avoiding some of the pitfalls that are common in games that are highly interactive.

As it stands, I expect to continue paying attention to meatier games of all styles in the future and I expect to be paying special attention to AT designs in order to continue to investigate whether it is my preferences that are shifting, if the style of designs is changing, or if it is some combination of both.

If you have not seen it already my review of Cave Evil is here: A Deeply Rewarding Experience

So are there any deeper and meatier AT board games released over the last few years that you have particularly enjoyed? Anything I missed that I should check out?
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Thu Feb 16, 2012 8:52 pm
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Strategic Musings on Ora et Labora

Jesse Dean
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To new players Ora et Labora is a strategically ambiguous game. The decision tree is fairly extensive with enough things that seem to be good that it can sometimes be difficult to identify what moves are good and which are merely distractions. While even at thirteen plays I think I have a lot to still learn, I think I have learned enough that it is worth starting a discussion on Ora et Labora strategy. I have only played the four player game once, and have not played the two player game so I expect most of these suggestions are most useful for the three player game. Additionally, I have played Ireland a lot more than I have played France, and I suspect that my perspective of what is good is warped a little bit based on that. Most of these principles should be useful regardless of player count or scenario though.

Your First Action As First Player Should Be To Take Wood
Using your first action for wood is useful for two reasons. The first is that it immediately clears off a space on your board, allowing you to start planning your settlement placement without being pushed into taking wood later on when there are better options available. The second reason is that it enables you to use your second action to build the Cloister Courtyard and thus trade three different resources into six identical resources. This is useful because there are a number of significant buildings that convert unlimited amounts of a basic resource into useful advanced goods. The Cloister Courtyard enables you to gather large amounts of those resources and thus set yourself up to use these conversion buildings more efficiently.

Your First Action As Second Player Should Be To Take Wood
In addition to enabling you to immediately prepare yourself for the A settlement phase as noted above, taking the two wood puts pressure on the first player, forcing them to build the Cloister Courtyard on their second action rather than allowing them the flexibility to perform other actions before their construction action. If they choose to ignore this pressure then it lets you build the Cloister Courtyard and use it immediately. Otherwise you can build the Priory, which lets you use any building occupied by the Prior, and immediately use the Cloister Courtyard anyway.

Bonus Actions Are Key
In general, each player has a limited, equal number of actions during the course of the game, with the exact number of actions dependent on the number of players. The only way to break this limit is to construct a building and use the prior to immediately take a bonus action. The momentum gained by placing a building and getting an action at the same time is enough that it is usually best to maximize the number of bonus prior actions during the course of the game. The best way to do this is to use up your workers as fast as possible, either by maximizing your ability to place workers on your own board to perform actions or by having buildings that other people want to use.

Constructing buildings that are good places to use your secondary workers helps this greatly. Buildings that provide you with a way to get scenario-specific goods, let you use other people’s buildings while still using up one of your workers, let you clear land while using up one of your workers, or are just easy to use without a lot of requirements are very good for this as they let you easily and efficiently move back to the point where you can place your prior and thus maximize the number of your bonus actions.

Maximize The Use Of Late Game Buildings Through Combos
Particularly later in the game when you are going to have a limited number of worker refreshment cycles to take advantage of the buildings that give you a large number of victory points with a single action, having ways to use the same building repeatedly can be particularly powerful. In Ireland these buildings are the Priory and the Grand Manor. In France they are the Priory, Palace, and Cloister Garden. At first I underestimated the value of these buildings, but now I see them as the primary way to get serious points out of goods, by allowing you to use the Wonder buildings multiple times in a row, or settlements, by letting you use the Castle multiple times in a row. .

You Cannot Ignore The Settlement Phase
While you may initially feel “less pressure” from the Settlement Phase then you do from the feeding phases in Agricola or Le Havre, that does not make the Settlement Phase any less important than the feeding phases in either of those games. If you handle the Settlement Phase poorly you will lose to those who are able to maximize their settlement capabilities. It is important to start thinking about how, where and when you are going to arrange your settlements from the very beginning of the game. This is largely because maximizing the points earned from the dwelling values of your buildings requires you to place them in-between as many of your settlements as possible and being able to do this requires you to not only clear out forests and moors, but also clear them out at the right time. With a bit of planning, it is possible to earn 20-30 bonus points from a high dwelling value building, and even with scores in the 200-300 range this is extremely significant.

The settlement phase really deserves its own article (with pictures and the like) of its own, but for now I will just encourage you to treat the settlement phase with the same seriousness you would treat the feeding phase in Agricola or Le Havre.

The Most Valuable Of The Basic Goods Is Livestock
While other goods can be more valuable with conversion actions, sheep are the most valuable basic good because of their high native food value of 2. A single use of the cloister courtyard for sheep is sufficient to produce enough food for any of the early to mid-game settlements, and a group of them is a useful building block towards placing the Village and Hilltop Village. They are also fairly easy to convert into even larger amounts of food with the Slaughterhouse, and in Ireland can be used to get money without actually consuming any resources using the Spinning Mill. So unless you have a specific need for a particular resource, it is usually best to take livestock due to their high value in their natural state.

Scenario Goods Are Important
While it might be possible to win Ora et Labora without paying attention to Whiskey and Beer (in Ireland) or Wine and Bread (in France), not having access to either of them makes the game much more difficult. This is because these goods are the easiest way to get reliquaries, which are both required to get wonders and very valuable in their own right (worth 8 victory points each). I have done very well both investing a great deal of time in getting large amounts of beer/whiskey and wine/bread and have also done very well simply using the secondary buildings that give smaller amount of these resources, but ignoring them entirely does not seem to be a real option.

Do Not Buy Too Much Land
It is very easy, particularly for new players, to buy more land then strictly necessary. Resist this urge. You will generally only need to purchase two or three land tiles over the course of the game, mostly because there are only so many buildings that can be constructed over the course of the game, but also because the settlement phase rewards you for having lots of buildings close together. If you have buildings randomly spread across a half-dozen terrain tiles you will not be maximizing your settlement points.

The only situation where I think this could be violated is if you are able to put together a strong Irish Festival Ground strategy, which gives you points based on the number of forest and moor tiles that you have on your board, but even then you probably should be using the Bulwark as much as possible to get the additional terrain tiles rather than the just spending money.

Watch For Disruption Potential
Ora et Labora rewards players for successfully executing particularly intricate chains of actions. By maintaining a strong awareness of what other players are doing, and how important it is to them to do it at a particular moment in time, you can take actions with their workers and potentially throw their entire chain out of whack with a potentially big impact on their score. Of course, this only works if you do not have a similarly tight action chain or at the very least are aware enough of points in the game where you have enough flexibility to be a disruptive source.

Abuse The Hospice/Guesthouse
While there are a lot of buildings I am fond of, none of them quite equal the Hospice/Guesthouse. Particularly with the three player game, where a large number of buildings go unbuilt, the Guesthouse allows for an amazing amount of flexibility. This is particularly useful when combined with the Grand Manor/Palace and the Priory, making it possible to use a variety of different unbuilt buildings or using the same unbuilt building three times in a row.

Conclusion
I still have a lot to learn about Ora et Labora, and it is quite possible that in another dozen plays I will look back at my advice here and laugh at a few things. So far I have found these to be pretty good rules of thumb while playing Ora et Labora. This really is an impressive design, and the way the web of conversion chains, actions, and requirements weave together creates a rich and rewarding experience that provides strategic avenues without really giving you one of a set number of paths to follow. Right now I am working with my local gaming partners to experiment with the relative value of extreme strategies focusing on settlement points vs. goods points, and determining if either one is better than a hybrid between them. I suspect after this I will start to look at the Festival Ground in more detail and then see what sort of additional strategies are possible with France. How have your early experienced with Ora et Labora been?
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Fri Feb 3, 2012 7:57 pm
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Two Different Styles of Civilization Games

Jesse Dean
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My absolute favorite style of video game is the civilization game. Something about needing to manage the multiple facets of an empire while expanding and prospering in the face of other civilizations attempts to do the same just works for me, and I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours playing various implementations of this idea. The most well known of these is the Civilization series, of which I have played every game except for the first one, but after a decade of playing that series almost exclusively I have slowly but steadily been introduced to other games, most notably Europa Universalis III (EU III) and Crusader Kings (CK), that have redefined what I want in a civilization game. As a result of this, most board game civilization games, which tend to follow the model seen in the Civilization series, have increasingly felt lacking.

The Civilization series of video games, regardless of the particular bells and whistles associated with each iteration, follow a general model that has been translated into some very popular board games such as Eclipse, Through the Ages, and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game. In it you start with a limited knowledge of your environment, and through exploration learn about the world and its resources. By exploiting these resources you grow from a small nation to an empire and win either through military dominance, technological advancement, or cultural achievements (or some combination thereof).

On the whole it provides for a pretty entertaining narrative, and I completely understand why these sorts of games are very, very popular. However, too many board games hew to this particular narrative a little bit too closely, which is good for the sake of ease of entry, but after so much time focused on the video game, and board game, iterations of this I admit I am a bit tired of it, particularly since most of these games focus on combat at the expense of other, equally interesting styles of conflict.

Paradox Interactive, the video game company that publishes EU III and CK, publishes a large number of video games that are good at appealing to more historically minded gamers. They do follow the general civilization game model, in that you end up managing the economic and military aspects of your empire, but they add additional levels of conflict, in the form of diplomatic relationships and trade, that were very important historically but have been largely ignored or abstracted in games of this style. While wars and alliances are powerful options, they are not the only available tools in undermining and interacting with other nations or achieving civilization goals.

So with my shift in preferences in video games, I have also found a shift in preferences in my civilization building board games. Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game was perhaps the first casualty of this, in that it roughly coincided with the beginning of my disenchantment with the genre; it was such a great distillation of the Civilization series that it allowed me to begin to crystallize my thoughts on why I was no longer happy with games built on that model. My dissatisfaction with that model is also why Eclipse and Through the Ages do not quite work for me anymore. They are both very, very good examples of that model, but when I no longer am particularly happy with their baseline it is difficult to be completely happy with a game built on that baseline.

The best examples of what I want are probably found in some of the two player hybrid card-driven games, many of which are published by GMT. Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage are good examples of this as they have a fairly strong political component despite being largely focused on sieges and battles, but they pale in comparison to Labyrinth: The War on Terror and Twilight Struggle. Both of these games include wars as tools that can be used to help accomplish your national objects, but they also focus a great deal on other methods of conflict, with coups and contests to influence secondary nations that are important to the conflict in Twilight Struggle, and insurgency and counter-insurgency actions in Labyrinth.

Multi-player games that provide a similarly deep look at multi-player conflict are a bit sparser. Of recent games, I find Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas to be one of the better examples of this. While you can and do have the ability to make war on other players, a large part of the game is focused on direct non-military competition. In addition to influence wars over colonies, it is possible to inflict privateers on opponent’s merchant fleets, incite native revolts, and even potentially push other countries into revolution. The importance of trade is highlighted rather than either ignored or abstracted away, though I admit even with my appreciation in how Colonial handles it, I would appreciate slightly more differentiation in this area then is actually present.

Because of its comparisons to EU III, I was quite optimistic Warriors & Traders would also work for well for me. With a focus on country unifications I was hopeful that it would end up providing a multi-faceted look at how these countries founders used a combination of diplomacy, bribes, and force in order to bring their burgeoning nations together. Unfortunately, it mostly ended up being a somewhat scripted, with a focus on combat that is maintained by the sheer difficulty of fights against barbarians and how quickly they escalate in power. It seems that this was meant to make the game challenging, and in that it is succeeds, but it also makes the game a bit too narrow, with only a few reasonable options available at any given moment of time. It does not help that most of the conflict is against the game itself rather than other players. You can trade, and I do very much like how different levels of trading technology can make a trade valuable to both players involved simultaneously, but otherwise interaction is limited to forcing barbarians to retreat into territories your opponents want, and thus make them difficult to impossible for them to claim, or declare war, which is so costly in actions that it is frequently not worth pursuing.

Here I Stand, also fits this model well and with a great deal of depth, but at the cost of extended game length. There are opportunities to politically influence third parties, fight out religious conflicts, compete for the new world, and even engage in piracy in addition to engaging in extended wars. The costs and opportunities of the conflict are very well handled with the card play, and the diplomatic opportunities are heightened by the ability to make mechanically meaningful deals, particularly as the game is designed so that other players will have things that you want that cannot simply be claimed by taking one of their cities.

The fact that probably the best example of a multi-player implementation of this style of game, Here I Stand, is so lengthy is probably a good indication that to have the full experience I desire will require a game that is outside my typical comfort zone for time. I can spend dozens of hours on a single game of EUIII or CK, and distilling it down into something that is similarly rich, yet still playable in a three or four hours is a daunting task. Some additional levels of abstraction are required, but at some point this abstraction shifts too far from something that is useful, and you end up with something like Age of Empires III or Endeavor, which discard what was interesting about these conflicts in favor of something that is bland and largely uninteresting.

It will be interesting to see if someone is able to reach this perfect midpoint between playability and breadth. Colonial and Here I Stand both come close, from opposite sides of the spectrum, but are not quite there. Still, I am pretty happy that I have finally been able to identify what I want in a civilization game and why I find games such as Through the Ages and Eclipse, which are generally well loved by the gaming community, to come up short. They are very good games for their particular style, but it is simply a style that I am just not that interested in anymore.
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Thu Feb 2, 2012 5:24 pm
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Jesse Dean
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Reviews and Wrapping Up 2011
In case you have not seen my review of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Tempo, is up. As my previous post on worker placement games indicated, I am quite pleased with the game and we have seen enough positive reception for it locally that I expect it will continue to get played for quite a while as a shorter option, though I do wonder how well it will end up competing with all the other great, new releases if I am no longer actively pushing it. It shall be interesting to see regardless.

So now that I have finished reviewing the “big” games of 2011 (Ora et Labora, Mage Knight, and Eclipse) and the two games I recently received review copies for (The Manhattan Project and Mob Ties) I admit I am not sure what game I want to review next. As part of my desire to make sure I experience the best of what 2011 has to offer, I went ahead and purchased BIOS Megafauna, based on some specific recommendations from On Gamer’s Games commenters, and also ordered Cave Evil due to its description over at Fortress: Ameritrash as one of the best thematic games of 2011. I also have a few other 2011 games that I have already played a few times and it would be a simple enough matter to play enough additional times to make writing a review worthwhile including Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas, Dungeon Petz, German Railways, and Vanuatu. I will probably just end up reviewing whichever of these games is first able to inspire me to do so, but I am open to suggestions both to as which game I should review as well as other games from 2011 that I may have missed.

Being Wrong
So when I made my “The Best” List for 2012 I included a game that I probably should not have. I had played it once a couple of days earlier and I was in love enough with theme and overall look and feel of the game that I did not give it due diligence before I put it on my list. This game was Warriors & Traders. Now a lot of the basic mechanics and ideas in the game are solid, and had a lot of interesting potential, but the lack of luck, static set-ups, the difficulty of meaningful player interaction, and the brutality of the barbarians combined in such a way that the game probably does not have enough interplay variability for my tastes and while I did not play the game enough to determine this for sure, I would be unsurprised if either the tech trees or the starting positions are imbalanced in rather significant ways. So I made a mistake in including it on my list and will try to avoid that mistake in the future. As it stands, I expect that in about June I will probably make a post giving a broader update on my evolving opinions on the 2011 crop as I play them more and continue to hit the games that I previously missed, both things like BIOS Megafauna and Cave Evil which I intentionally seek out, and things like Kings of Tokyo which I fully expect to play eventually even if I am relatively indifferent to the idea.

Staff Reviewer at 2d6.org
I am being added as one of 2d6.org’s staff reviewers. What does this mean? Mainly that my reviews will be posted on their website in addition to BGG, with the overall goal of making the website an excellent repository of reviews from a pretty broadly different group of reviewers.

I expect that there will also be collaborative works and discussions from the various staff reviewers in the future. If I am involved in any of them, I will be sure to let you know!

On The Table
As can be expected from my recent review, a large proportion of my gaming time in the last week or so has been spent playing The Manhattan Project. Eclipse, Mage Knight, and Ora et Labora have also all seen play, though I admit I am no longer interested in playing it twice a week like some of my the other locals are. I have also been slowly introducing some of older favorites to locals who are unfamiliar to them and Hansa Teutonica, Indonesia, and Race For the Galaxy have all hit the table recently. Unfortunately Indonesia largely flopped but I expect the rest will see plenty of play in the near future.

Two player gaming opportunities remain slim. I would really like to play Sekigahara (and Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War, and Twilight Struggle, and Hannibal, and Command & Colors: Ancients, etc.) more, but in my current game environment that is just not possible. However, I had a glimmer of hope in this respect on Wednesday as it was determined I might be able to have at least semi-regular game nights with a local starting in mid to late February. If that happens I expect to be writing a bit more about Sekigahara, Hellenes, and 1989 (when it comes out).

How has everyone been enjoying your recent plays? Any particular surprises lately?
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Fri Jan 27, 2012 5:55 pm
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