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BGG.Con: The Return

Jesse Dean
United States
Orlando
Florida
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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BGG.Con 2012 has come and gone, and was a great time as usual, with an even larger group of people that I gamed with “regularly” while I was there and a bunch of new games that I got to enjoy exploring. The hotel was pretty nice, and everything seemed much more organized then last year though as a vegetarian I found the food options on-site to be strictly worse than years past. Luckily my cousin, who is a local, was gracious enough to bring me to the grocery store where I was able to pick up a large amount of fruit to snack on throughout the week and made the whole situation bearable. I have every intention of repeating that trip next year, and my cousin has already offered to take me. Of course, you do not care about that. You care about the games!

Unlike in years past I do not really have a game of the convention. There ended up being three games I really liked, and I think it will take a bit more play of each of them for me to figure out which one works best for me. Also, unlike 2011 which had some really excellent, breakout games (Mage Knight and Ora et Labora), 2011 seems to have a larger number of generally high-quality tiles but nothing that I found truly amazing. However, by the same token there was very little that was borderline or outright sucked, and there was only one game where I felt the negatives truly outweighed the positives.

The Best

Three games are vying in my eyes for the best game of the convention (and with Dungeon Command for my best game of the year). I was able to play all of them a significant amount of times, but I only achieved enough plays in Terra Mystica to feel comfortable reviewing it (expect a review later this week). The other two will require some additional amount of plays for me to feel comfortable that I understand them enough to properly review them.

Archipelago (Initial Rating: 8; 5 plays)

Archipelago was one that I had some level of trepidation about prior to the convention. While my initial interest was high, due to my appreciation for Earth Reborn, comments about lots of player negotiation and opportunities for screwage, as well as the concealed end and victory conditions, left me concerned that this one would not quite work for me. Luckily, playing the game, and reviewing all the variants afterwards, proved that these are not extremely relevant issues, particularly since it is very easy to calibrate the situation based on your preferences.

Essentially Archipelago is a civilization game that replaces opportunities for war and direct conflict with a shared loss condition, based on the rebellion of the archipelago and the players, as colonial powers, being forced away. This is a very real threat, and three of the five games I played ended with a collective loss based on this condition. What makes the game particularly interesting from this perspective is the fact that it is up to the players to prevent this from happening, either through market management, which requires some level of experience, or luck in regards to what source of resources are demanded by the populace. Some of the actions that players are most likely to advance their own position are also the most likely to cause the island to go into revolt and if one player gets too far ahead the incentives are there for them to tank the game, if they can, bringing it to a halt if they are in an unrecoverable position.

What the ultimate effects are of shared loss are for experienced players is something that I need to explore before I determine what I think about the game, and why I think I will need a significant number of plays of Archipelago before I feel ready to give it a proper review. Even beyond the shared loss condition, the game has a lot of interesting subsystems that tie the game together on both a thematic and a mechanical level. Each of my plays has revealed something new that I appreciated on this level, and I suspect that I have not even seen a fraction of what the game has to offer.

CO2 (Initial Rating: 8; 3 plays)
CO2 was another one that I felt a slight bit of trepidation towards, even though I was much more certain that I would like it then Archipelago. I was expecting that initial reactions to CO2 would be strong enough to make up for the politically motivated low ratings. This did not quite end up being true, so I was mildly concerned that there was, in fact, a problem with the game that I had not foreseen from reading the rules. Luckily this ended up not being the case. I found the gameplay to be quite engaging with only one major area of concern.

Essentially the game is about determining when creating an opportunity for you is worth the costs that come from also creating opportunities for other players. This requires players to remain very aware of game state and thus makes the game very interactive. Each move you make has interesting little butterfly effects across the board. Competition both for control of regions and on the expertise tracks is fierce, and while you can’t control the ability of players to get them, you can influence them and in doing so significantly affect how each player’s position relates to the others. I love this sort of thing, and I really like how the designer implemented it in CO2.

My one concern, which was seen in our third game, is the impact of a single player being in a position where they are unable to effectively build plants. This happened in my third game (second for two others, and first for the fourth), where I was able to effectively prevent one player from building plants for a good part of the game. He came in last place. Of course this was based on our analysis of the game state and our particular calculations on the value of installation of proposals rather than construction of plants. It is possible that I am wrong about how much more valuable plants are then previous steps in the process, particularly considering that we tended to look at the point values of buildings while ignoring their cost (in VP for the supplied money).

Terra Mystica (Initial Rating: 8; 8 plays)
Terra Mystica was the game I was most excited about before the convention. As you can probably surmise, both by my number of plays and my rating, it met my expectations. Did it exceed them? Not really, and this is probably why I am currently undecided about which of these is probably my favorite.

The game is effective and fun, with each of the different factions having a different strategic focus, frequently in ways that result in game play feeling significantly different. Since Terra Mystica is primarily a resource management game, this frequently comes down to varying the efficiencies and victory point games of particular actions, but this is enough that the particular composition of races in the game can have a pretty big impact on how the game plays out.

If I have any concerns about Terra Mystica, it is about the game being a little bit too tight and constrained. I kind of wish that the game’s powers pushed the limits of the engine a little bit more then they currently do, but even then I suspect if that happened the game would end up being less balanced and probably a little less worthwhile as a result.

Good

Al-Rashid (Initial Rating: 7; 1 play)
Al-Rashid’s big hook, to me at least, is how activation works. At its core level it is a worker placement game, but after the placement phase, players take turns activating a location, meaning that it is possible for a particular player to lose out on an opportunity if they are too risky in picking locations for placement. Victory points are largely acquired through the purchase of personages that provide special abilities in addition to their victory point values and through acquisition of more workers, creating a small bit of an economic snowball effect.

It was pretty satisfying, but I am not quite sure yet whether it was good enough to stand above all the other great worker placement resource conversion games out there. (I had a similar problem with Tzolk’in, which I will discuss below). It does have the advantage of having a pretty interesting resource conversion system, and I like the breadth of the special powers, though with a single play I can’t realistically claim to know how balanced they are. The only real problem area I saw was with the relative tightness of the resources. Even with four players it seemed a little bit too loose, and going into the end game, there was no real competition left, making activation order somewhat irrelevant. I suspect it would be better with five players and with more opportunities for players to maliciously activate locations, but these are both things that will require further play to identify. Luckily, a review copy is on its way, so I will be able to effectively explore it and determine how good of a game it really is.


Coup (Initial Rating: 7; 9 plays)
Coup is a relatively simple bluffing game, where players are given two role cards. On their turn they are allowed to take one action from among those that are available to players of any role card. However, there is no rule that says you need to tell the truth about your role, and so there is plenty of opportunity for bluffing and lying while you attempt to accomplish your actions. You can only lose if someone successfully assassinates you, which requires a role card, someone coups you, which requires a certain amount of money, or if you say someone is lying about the role they claim, and you call them on it and are wrong. If any combination of these things happens twice then you are out of the game.

Much of the brilliance of this game is in its simplicity. I am not a huge fan of bluffing games, but with something as fast as this, and as encouraging of outrageous lies, it is hard not to be won over. I regret not picking up my own copy at the convention and if it ends up at Coolstuff I have every intention of picking up my own copy.

The Great Zimbabwe (Initial Rating: 7; 6 plays)
My opinion of The Great Zimbabwe started out strong but decline over the course of the convention. I did not end up playing it after Thursday and I am still trying to decide if I want to keep my copy.

The problem with the Great Zimbabwe was not its quality, it is clearly that there are a lot of interesting things going on in the game, but the sheer amount of enjoyment I derive from it. The first few games of it were dynamic and interesting. But it seemed that with more experience, and the jump-started strategy explanation I gave to players in future rules introductions, that the game eventually lead to players building increasingly destructively located craftsmen that drove the game down to a crawl and resulted in an excruciating grind to the finish.

Now it is possible that the deficiency is not with the game but with me, and I am going to give the game a few more opportunities to prove to me that it is something that is worthwhile for me to explore further.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (Initial Rating: 7; 1 play)
Tzolk’in is well-design polished, and an overall efficient design. The temporal investment aspect that is represented by the gears is quite interesting, as players give up resources in the short term in order to get larger pay-offs in the long term. It also forces a timing element as players are required to retrieve their workers at just the right time, as players are forced to either place or collect their workers each turn. Without correct timing it is very easy to discover that you zigged when you should have zagged and vice versa.

Unfortunately, much of the game beyond that is rather mundane, and I am not quite sure if that system alone is enough to push Tzolk’in from a “good” worker placement game into the realms of “excellent.” Of course it is quite likely, considering how much I enjoy and appreciate worker placement games, that I am being a tad too harsh on Tzolk’in simply because of how many different games I am comparing it to. Regardless, I look forward to delving into it a bit further to see whether it can really run with the big worker placement dogs or not.

Adequate

Ginkgopolis (Initial Rating: 6; 1 play)
Ginkgopolis is, for a medium weight euro, pretty good. Essentially it is an area majority game, where players can attempt to gain majorities by extending upwards or outwards, resulting in an interesting visual effect as well as game play dynamic. Placement is constrained in some respects by card plays, with cards that are used for tiles that are overwritten being added to a player’s collection and opening up a new special power or scoring opportunity. Cards are drafted, with a single new card being given to a player each round, and new cards, based on placed tiles, being added after the deck runs out.

I found it to be a fairly fresh take on the basic tile placement/area majority concept but not so fresh that I think it is a game that I need to own or explore thoroughly, particularly since I can already see that I would only end up playing it five or six times at most before I got bored. As far as light card drafting games go, I do appreciate it a bit more than 7 Wonders due to the spatial element, but that really is not saying much as I only tend to play 7 Wonders under specific situations.


For the Win (Initial Rating: 5; 2 plays)
A fun little two player special power abstract. Kind of reminds me of Hive, though slightly less entertaining. Unfortunately, I am not hugely into abstracts, so the likelihood of me keeping it, rather than passing it on to someone else in my game group is low.

Pax Porfiriana (Initial Rating: 6; 2 plays)
A special power card game from Sierra Madre Games, I tried this one largely on the recommendation of a certain Martin from the UK. I absolutely can see why he would recommend it to me, and I was pretty positive about it after the first play. How the four different types of victory points are tied into actually winning the game, and how a player attempting to screw another player is forced to give another player a victory point are both particularly brilliant and I had pretty high hopes after the first game. The second game effectively dashed those hopes due to how particularly tedious it was.

Now it is quite possible that this tediousness came from either poor play on our parts. In fact I think that is reasonably likely the case, so of the games I rated “adequate” this is the one I am most likely to still acquire. I still consider the potential of tediousness to be a strong warning sign, and I may pass on it for that potential alone.

Not Good

Dominare (Initial Rating: 4; 1 play)
I had pretty high hopes for Dominare. I usually like special player powers, and how they evolved seemed to be both thematic and interesting. Unfortunately, two things kept this game from quite living up to its full potential. The first is the fact that the later powers are so strong that it effectively makes much of the early game irrelevant. The second is how the game encourages a tit-for-tat exchange of cubes used to control particular blocks making the game feel a bit repetitive even before players use special powers to blow up each other’s positions. I still think that a potentially good game could be made with some of the ideas included in Dominare, I just which that they had been included in it, so I would not have to wait.
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