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Designer’s Eye: Nine New Games

Brett J. Gilbert
United Kingdom
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Nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2015
In which I rattle through my reactions to the nine (count them!) new games played over the past week. As in earlier episodes, I won’t formally review the games, but will instead just jot down what my designer’s eye made of them.

Glen More — Matthias Cramer (Alea, 2010)

First to the table at the weekend was this nice little tile-laying game which I’d always liked the look of. Martin warned me of the bizarrely game-breaking tile ‘Loch Oich’, and his prediction that whoever claimed it would eventually win was spot on. It does seem egregiously over-powered, and the speed with which the game accelerated to its end was unsettling.

The game packs a lot in, but felt like it ended, anticlimactically, just as we were getting to the good bit. I did like the tile rondel and the market, but the successive rounds of majority scoring were a bit predictable, and the (necessary) penalty for over-building an unsatisfactory hack.

Gilbert’s Unreliably Insightful Design Evaluation (GUIDE) rating: 3/5

Quarriors! — Elliot & Lang (WizKids, 2011)

We barrelled into this one with rather more enthusiasm than hope, and tried our best, in the face of faltering expectations, to enjoy it. The first game was (of course) random, and felt disappointingly one-sided — a victory of pure skill on Lucy’s part, of course! — but we immediately had a second game to see whether, with a little more care, it was possible to exercise a little more control.

And it was, but only a little. It’s hardly a surprise that a dice game should feel random, and the game does give players some tools to counter this, but without that randomness there’s little point to the game at all, so you just have to go with it.

We liked very much how the cards changed the characteristics of the dice, so there’s plenty of game here… for the right crowd.

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Oregon — Berg & Berg (Han im Glück, 2007)

A very clear and intuitive ruleset smoothed our experience of what is a very neat and engaging tile-laying and meeple-placing family game. The simple card-play and the surprisingly powerful joker and extra-turn tokens did keep things moving, and the way in which the game’s geography developed was fun. There weren’t, however, too many sparks; the game was simply a pleasant-enough journey through a pretty-enough landscape.

I do appear to be damning Oregon with faint praise, but all I can say is that it hasn’t really stuck in the memory.

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Hansa — Michael Schacht (ABACUSSPIELE, 2004)

I’ve always wanted to try this, and just like Oregon, the rules and gameplay are smooth and clear, and gave us plenty to think about. Hansa is certainly a game that does more with less, which is always a good thing in my book, and the game is quick enough that poor choices won’t survive long enough to be regretted too deeply.

Actually, our game was over a little too quickly, and the ending had the same sense of “Oh. Look. It’s over. How’d that happen?” that Glen More had, but I think more plays of Hansa would be rewarded with a better understanding of the game’s tempo, and hence a better feel for how to play the middle- and end-game.

Small, but perfectly formed, the game is an object lesson for any designer.

GUIDE rating: 5/5

Get Bit! — Dave Chalker (Mayday Games, 2007)

This one was a just-one-more-before-bedtime interlude, and something of a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting much — the cards, robots and shark all felt a little cheap, to be honest — but the game did deliver a dose of double-guessing fun which certainly never threatened to out-stay its welcome. And, cheap though they were, the plastic robots and shark did add a certain something (although quite why a shark would be nibbling a robot’s limbs is anyone’s guess).

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Takenoko — Antoine Bauza (Bombyx, 2011)

Despite playing one key rule wrong for the entire game (and by the time we realised, it was too late to make a difference) we all enjoyed this lovingly crafted and produced gem of a game. At first, though, it seemed almost too light to be interesting. Great bits, a fun theme and thoughtfully designed and helpfully explanatory player boards are all well and good, but where’s the meat? Where’s the meaningful interaction?

It wasn’t until we interrogated the distribution of the objective cards at the end of the game that we began to see how the game would have a bit more to offer, once you’d fully understood it. Having said that, there does seem to be the presence of a ‘hit and hope’ strategy at the end of the game, in which players can grab new objectives (specifically, those based on the existing placement of tiles) in the blind ambition of finding one that they can immediately score. This doesn’t break the game, but it has the possibility of rendering the end-game anticlimactic (something of a theme developing here, I think?).

GUIDE rating: 4/5

Emerald — Rüdiger Dorn (ABACUSSPIELE, 2002)

Though firmly in the territory of the family game, with a simple ruleset and clear objectives, Emerald nevertheless offers lots of interest, and would be an excellent introduction to more meaty tactical Eurogames for younger children.

The randomness of the card distribution will easily skew the outcome beyond the realm of strategy, and the capricious behaviour of the dragon will grate with more studious players, but taken for what it is, the game is a light, fun romp.

One thing I really liked was the effortless pressure the game puts on the players to ‘get on with it’. You can’t hang back indefinitely, and you can never retreat. The dragon sits in wait and, whether you like it or not, you’ll have to take your chances eventually. Remember, fortune favours the brave!

GUIDE rating: 4/5

Ora et Labora — Uwe Rosenberg (Lookout Games, 2011)

This is quite the meatiest Eurogame I’ve played in many a long month and though professionally curious, I was really not expecting to be so entertained and so engaged for the full 2½ hours that it took us to play. And yet, entertained and engaged I most certainly was! I am no Rosenberg aficionado, so cannot speak of how this compares to or contrasts with it’s cousins Agricola or Le Havre, but the received wisdom seems to be that with Ora et Labora the designer has continued to develop and perfect his very particular art.

Yes, the game has a multitude of rules and a boat-load of components, all sprinkled with an expansive litany of iconography, but once the game is up and running, everything flows incredibly smoothly, and is wonderfully supported by the excellent graphic design. Quite how any designer tames such a multi-headed beast of a game I am genuinely at a loss to know, but Uwe clearly knows his onions. And a wide selection of other animal-, mineral- and vegetable-based commodities.

What I particularly liked was the degree of player interaction, not something Eurogames are typically famed for, especially those in which players independently build their own tableaux. But through the simple and really rather cunning trick of allowing players to pay their opponents to do work for them, the interest in the affairs of others, and the ability to disrupt their plans, is increased enormously.

GUIDE rating: 5/5

Dragon’s Gold — Bruno Faidutti (White Goblin Games, 2011)

And finally we have this recently rereleased title by Faidutti, which stands or falls on whether you can stand (a) the direct, time-limited negotiation, and (b) the utter chaos of the magical item cards. This is by no means a bad game — although the miniscule numerals and dark, indistinguishable art and card colours of the recent edition are almost unforgivable — but this really is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ games.

I’m certain it will work brilliantly for some, but for others it will be the gaming equivalent of nails down a chalkboard. As one detractor on BoardGameGeek pithily put it: “Bickering in one minute chunks. No thank you.”

I didn’t think I’d like it, and I was right. But as ever, I’m glad I had the opportunity to find out!

GUIDE rating: 2/5

This post also appears on my BrettSpiel game design blog.
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