Archive for Game Previews
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W. Eric Martin
I've already posted an overview of Michael Kiesling's Azul, which Plan B Games will debut at SPIEL '17 in October, but now I've played the game many more times since then — ten total on a pre-production copy and a review copy, four times with four players and six times with two — so let's talk about it some more.
In a recent preview of a new edition of Alex Randolph's Venice Connection, I talked about that game's Nim-style gameplay. Nim is extremely basic: Start with three or more heaps of objects, then take turns with another player to remove any number of objects from precisely one heap; whoever removes the last object wins. Unfortunately, Nim is also solved, which makes it uninteresting to play — but the framework of Nim gives you a great structure upon which other better games can be built.
Azul is one of those games.
Now, the premise of Azul is ridiculous. You're supposed to be a tile-laying artist who has "been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora" in order to impress King Manuel I, but at most you'll complete a 5x5 grid of tiles and in most cases you won't have more than a couple of lines of tiles on that grid with numerous holes throughout, and I daresay that only the daftest of kings would be impressed by such a half-assed display of tilery. Perhaps that 5x5 grid is meant to suggest some larger tile-pattern that will be used throughout the palace, but even then you think the king would look at your unfinished work and suggest that you'd be better off as a sheep herder.
No matter. The premise of the game is mere window dressing on what's going to get you to the table — the wonderfully chunky colored bits — and keep you coming back to the table after that first playing, that being the Nim-style gameplay alluded to earlier.
At the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on whether you have two, three, or four players) with four tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table. You take turns choosing a disc or the center of the table, then taking all tiles of one color from this location and placing them in a single row on your personal player board; if you chose a disc, then you push any remaining tiles into the center of the table. If you're the first person to choose the center, you take the first player marker along with your chosen tiles.
The start of a three-player game; what do you want?
If you can't fit all of the titles into your row of choice, with the rows being 1-5 spaces in length, then excess tiles "fall" to the bottom of your player board, with you being penalized for such waste at round's end. You can add more tiles to a row you've already started as long as all the tiles are the same color.
You take turns choosing tiles until they've all been claimed, then for each complete row on your player board, you move one of those tiles into the matching-colored space on the same row in the 5x5 grid. You score points for each of these moved tiles, and if you can cluster those tile placements, you score more points. Tiles in incomplete rows stay where they are, while all excess tiles from completed rows are placed in a discard pile. Continue to play rounds this way until someone completes a horizontal row on their grid. At the end of this round, the game ends and you score bonus points for completed rows (not much), completed columns (worth more), and completed colors (the best of all).
That's it — Azul in three paragraphs, three dry paragraphs that don't get across the wonderful tenseness that develops during the game. In that first round, you're mostly trying to grab whatever seems best. Can you take three tiles of the same color? Then do that. Can you take only two? Then do that. But wait? Which tiles are being pushed into the middle, and how many of them lie on other discs? Which color did the player before you take, and are you giving them a gift of tiles on their next turn? You feel things out, take this or that, then the round ends, you score a few points, then the game picks up from there.
Now you all have investments, whether tiles in your grid or rows of tiles in waiting, and those claimed colors — both by you and everyone else — start affecting everything else that you do. Does the player behind you need two yellow to complete a row? Take them for yourself! Make them take actions to scratch out only a single tile each turn, thereby possibly dumping multiples of colors in the middle that you can then scoop up.
Not a great first round, having completed only two rows — that dark blue tile will be removed
The same number of tiles are put into play each round (except possibly in the four-player game when the bag runs low because so many tiles have been used), but those tiles needn't be distributed evenly. You want to grab great globs of them for yourself so that you can complete those four- and five-space rows quickly and repeatedly. If you let those rows drag along half-filled from one round to the next, then you have little hope of completing columns or grabbing five tiles of the same color, and that's where you land the big points, so be greedy at the expense of others, and the only ways to be greedy are to:
1. Pay attention to who's taking what, and
2. Take tiles from the right places at the right times.
This latter aspect of the game only starts emerging after your first couple of rounds. You realize that if you had taken that one red tile from the center instead of the final disc then someone else would have taken a tile from that disc, possibly allowing you to grab three blue tiles instead of two since one blue was dumped into the center. Or you see three blue already in the center and realize that everyone else either already has blue in their fourth and fifth rows or is at work on some other color and can't take blue, so you let it sit a round to build up to four or more tiles so that you can complete a row in one go. Anyone who's drafted in Magic: The Gathering or other games will recognize this tension: How long can you wait to take something? Will someone else snatch it first? What's more, can you wait longer so that the pot builds?
Round #2 begins with you going second; what are you aiming to collect?
I picture the ending of each round in Azul as the moment in The Matrix Revolutions when Neo and Trinity briefly rise above the clouds to spy sunlight they would have never expected to see — only to then plummet downward into the thick of battle once again where fresh tiles have been laid out and everyone is fighting and you're not sure what's going to happen. (I apologize for making you think about The Matrix Revolutions.) The rising tension mimics that feeling of when you're reaching for cards in a new round of a trick-taking game: What's possible this time? How can you score what you need and dodge the rest of the time?
Azul is even tighter at two players because you know that whichever tiles you don't get, the other player will, and this makes the Nim comparison even more evident: If I take this tile, then you'll likely take those two, which means I can take these and possibly set myself up for those the turn after. I might want to take these four tiles, but if I can leave them and force you to take them when you have no room, then you'll lose six points, which is pretty much the same as me gaining six points.
You can still do such things with four players, though, and this can be even more satisfying. You see that the next player likely wants a black tile and the person after that a yellow, so if you take this blue (when otherwise you might not have cared which color you took), then player #4 gets stuck with lots of tiles they can't use. Yay, collaborative kneecapping! We used similar tactics in my most recent game to ensure that a player couldn't grab two black tiles to complete a row and therefore trigger the end of the game. (He was the only player who had four tiles in a row.) We hadn't counted out the endgame bonuses, but that player seemed to be in the lead, so we wanted more time and took turns pushing him away from the door.
Possible trouble ahead
I haven't even mentioned the gray variant game board — not advanced, mind you, but "variant", although I'd advise playing on the colored side for your first game or two. When you play on the gray board, you place tiles under the same restrictions, with each row and column of your 5x5 grid allowed to have each color only once, but outside of that you have the freedom to place a tile anywhere in a row.
What has happened in my games is that scores are higher since you can cluster the tiles as soon as you place them, but you also tend to box yourself into corners that will be increasingly unpleasant as the game continues. In the image above, I'm on my way to completing a column — assuming that I can finish the second and fourth rows before the round ends (or the game, really) — but if I place black in the fourth spot in that column, then I'll need to place black in the fifth spot of the adjacent column, but I can't even start working on that black row until I clear out the yellow, and that yellow's not going to score my much anyway, but I've started it, so now I need to end it. If I instead place the black in the fourth spot of the middle column, then I can't place both the light blue and yellow in the second column or else I doom myself to never completing the column since black would have to go in the fourth spot and can't.
Whenever you take tiles, as with those yellow in the bottom row, you can choose to dump them on the floor instead of placing them in a row, but that's like purposefully stepping on a nail. Better to get small points than negative points, right? Maybe?
83 points, despite flubbing the top row
My only regret with Azul right now is that I have many more games to preview ahead of SPIEL '17, so I won't be able to play it as much as I want. I realize that might sound like bragging rather than an actual regret, but it's not. To do a good job in this space, I can't post over and over again about the same game, but thankfully Azul will wait for me until I call once again. That waiting time for the tiling shouldn't be a problem given the king's low expectations...
W. Eric Martin
Game designer, escape room expert, and director of the Brantford Games Network Scott Nicholson recently tweeted the following:
How true! Rare is the game that includes rules like "The player who just opened the box has won." or "Whoever has the largest hands wins." (Exception: Start Player) After all, a game that doesn't push you around is hardly a game at all. The rules of the game constitute an artificial environment, and when you undertake the playing of a game, you submit yourself to those arbitrary, yet ideally internally consistent rules that comprise that world. You lay down cards that punish you, move into spaces that deny you, and contemplate choices that discomfort you — all in the service of trying to come out ahead of your fellow travelers.
Almost every game presents you with choices, and your willingness to engage those choices is what it means to play a game. Even the simplest games — in this case Bandido, by Martin Nedergaard Andersen and Swiss publisher Helvetiq — are driven by a designer's choice to make your life more difficult. An (apparently invisible) bandit is attempting to tunnel out of jail, and you and your fellow players need to stop him.
Why would you do this? This bandit doesn't even exist, and even if he did, you're probably not employed by a law enforcement agency and have no responsibility for maintaining this person's incarceration. On the off-chance that you do belong to a fictitious police agency, you'd probably gas the tunnels with a sleeping agent or tear gas to render the bandit unable to attempt any further tunneling.
But no, that's not your way. Instead you will each take three cards in hand — cards that represent both the tunnels being created and the dead ends that prevent further movement — and you'll take turns laying down a card to extend (or stymie) this tunnel network. You might not want to play one of the cards, but you must. You have engaged this game, perhaps even on your own since solitaire play is possible, and now you must follow through.
Naturally as you take turns, the tunnels must observe some minimal level of verisimilitude. You can't abut a tunnel with a wall of dirt. If you could do that, you could negate play by stacking the deck of cards on top of the bandit and asphyxiating him. Follow the paths, narrow the routes to freedom, and hope to plug the holes.
Don't do this
As the game progresses, you realize that in some ways you're simply counting holes. How many ways can this guy reach freedom? Five? Can I make a play to cut that number down to four? Can I keep the holes close to one another so that someone else can bring that number down to three?
Bandido is a simple game, marketed for players aged six and up, and I've now played the game on a purchased copy a half-dozen times, with players counts from 1-4 and with players as young as five. You might think about figuring out the odds of making this play or that, but I've hardly memorized the deck after six plays, and you're just playing the odds over and over again anyway. Maybe the next player has a card perfect for the situation and maybe they don't.
"What now, brown cow?"
The rules are silent on whether you should talk about what's in your hand or indicate where someone might want to play, and while that absence will surely annoy some, I figure that each group will do whatever it prefers, which might be what they would have done anyway. I've played with adults in silence and with kids in total cooperation with face-up hands. It doesn't matter. You do what you want to do, and as long as all the players agree, then you're taking on the burden of those difficult lives together, each suffering the same burdens and part of the same world.
The number of tunnels shrinks and grows. You might see the net closing, then someone shrugs — perhaps you — and says, "Oh, well" as they triple the number of tunnels in play. Sometimes you benefit by narrowing the bandit's options. If everything becomes gnarled underground, you might be unable to play at all, in which case you can place your hand of cards on the bottom of the deck and draw three anew. Will you find better choices or a tunnel you'd never want to play, but must?
If your life wasn't difficult enough previously, you can give the bandit six starting tunnels instead of five. Why didn't he dig six starting tunnels in the first place? I don't know; why'd you lock him in a jail surrounded by loose dirt? I suppose you just wanted to make things difficult for yourself...
W. Eric Martin
When we think about minimalist game design, we often point to Seiji Kanai's Love Letter as the source from which a thousand envelope-sized games were delivered. While to some degree that's true, if we want to honor the grandfather of game design minimalism, we need to look to the works of Alex Randolph.
I've played only two handfuls of Randolph's games, but each of those games can be described by at most four words:
• Big Shot — use ties to attack
• Mahé, a.k.a. Die heisse Schlacht am kalten Buffet — hop on opponents
• Die Osterinsel — count the rocks
• Raj — bid without tieing
• Ricochet Robots — move efficiently
• Schachjagd — race with chess moves
• Square Off — build a path
• Twixt — build paths with horses
• Worm Up! — block other worms
• Xe Queo!, a.k.a. Museum Heist — dupe or be duped
The secret to Randolph's design principles is no secret at all, as he explained to Bruce Whitehill in a 1999 interview:
I asked him what a game needs to have in order to be good. "It must be easy to enter into the game immediately…(it must) offer surprises…(it must have) a clear objective, (clear enough so there is) no arguing or questioning…(it must be) endlessly repeatable, always different."
For some of the games above, the action described is both how to play and what will win you the game: If you move robots most efficiently, you will win. If you hop on opponents, you will win. If you build a path first, you will win. Whereas some designers take the skeleton of an idea, then dress it up before presenting it to players, Randolph offers the skeleton directly.
My latest experience with one of these atomic Randolph designs — Venice Connection — mimicked my earlier experiences with his games. Venice Connection was released in an earlier edition in 1996 by Drei Magier Spiele, winning a special Spiel des Jahres award for being a beautiful game, and now new Korean publisher OPEN'N PLAY has brought this two-player game back to market while keeping the graphic design of that Drei Magier edition.
As with the other titles mentioned above, Venice Connection has a short description: Make a loop. The first player to do this wins. If you make a move such that a loop is impossible, you lose.
Venice Connection consists of only 16 tiles, each of which features a straight canal on one side and a canal with a 90º turn on the other. On a turn, a player takes 1-3 tiles, places them in a straight line with canals not intersecting buildings, then places this line of tiles adjacent to at least one tile already in play (again, with the canals not intersecting buildings). On the first turn, you simply place the tiles on the table since you have nothing else to place next to. Possible starting positions include the following:
Some of these positions are better than others. The position second from the left is terrible since the opposing player can win instantly by mirroring these tiles and completing a canal loop:
So let's not start with a C-shape; start with something else:
If your opponent were to make the following move, you could then respond in a way that would guarantee your victory. Can you see it?
Your opponent is no fool, however, so they have actually made this move:
So what do you do now?
In case you haven't recognized it, Venice Connection uses the same style of play as Nim: You want to make moves that force the opponent to respond in a particular way. You want your hand up their back so that you control what they do and force them to make moves that are advantageous to you. Nim is an interesting game to learn because it presents this system in so skeletal a style: Have three or more heaps of objects, and take turns removing any number of objects from one heap; whoever removes the last object wins.
Unfortunately, once you learn more about Nim, the game becomes less interesting. Based on the number of heaps and objects in those heaps, a winning strategy exists for one of the two players, and it's (relatively) easy to see how if you start from the winning condition and work backwards. If only one heap exists, the active player wins, so don't make a move that leads to only one heap. If two heaps exist, the second player can mirror my moves to force me to remove one heap before they have to, which means that I want to be the second player when the third heap is removed. And so on. All the moves in Nim lead to an empty table, so the goal is fixed, and everything else is working backwards from that goal to see whether you have a winning strategy or not.
Venice Connection lacks this fixed endpoint because any closed loop wins the game for the player who made it, whether it's made from four tiles, six tiles, eight, etc. on up to sixteen tiles. If an opponent makes a move that would require more than sixteen tiles to close that loop, then you say "Impossible!" and wait for them to fail to make the loop to claim your victory.
I've played Venice Connection seven times so far on a review copy from OPEN'N PLAY, and that probably constitutes no more than twenty minutes of playing time. The game isn't something you'll do for an evening, but it does fit on an airplane tray or fill time while waiting at a restaurant. Even with its more flexible endzone, I would imagine that if you apply yourself, you can work out all the possible tile configurations and find Venice Connection as dead as Nim. Randolph did aspire for designs to be "endlessly repeatable", but with only sixteen tiles, clearly you have limits in what you can place where.
I have no idea where I might be on the scale of full knowledge of Venice Connection, but if I ever get there, I can just ship the game to someone else....
W. Eric Martin
I started playing modern strategy games in the early 2000s, and one saying that sticks with me from that era is that every game is an auction game. At first glance that saying seems ridiculous, but with a little translation of game terms, you realize that tons of games meet this definition:
• In Carcassonne, you use small wooden figures to bid on landscape features. In most cases, the winning bid is 1, but sometimes you outbid another player or rejoice in your shared auction victory, with the value of the lot being determined as the game progresses. Repeat this argument for every area control game, making modifications where needed.
• In Formula D, you compete against others to be first to reach a predetermined bidding amount, but the amount you bid each turn is decided somewhat randomly — and if you bid carelessly, you can damage your credit rating, which limits your bidding ability on future turns. Repeat the argument for all racing games.
• In Wizard, you each bid one card each turn, with the player who makes the highest bid winning the pot. Repeat for all trick-taking games.
• In Modern Art, you use money to bid on works of art. (Okay, this one doesn't need much translation.)
The idea of translating all games this way is somewhat silly, but if you're a fan of topology, such transformations can prove entertaining. You're peeling away the layers of the game to reveal its core, to recognize similarities and differences with other games, to see how a designer twists a familiar formula or discovers a new approach to what seems like old news.
At heart, Emanuele Ornella's Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes is an auction game, but most people won't see it that way. They'll see the tile-laying and put it in the Carcassonne box, yet the laying of tiles during play is merely a way for you to place bids on various reward tokens — and the collection of these tokens is what the game is really about. Well, that and the desire not to waste your bids by placing them on lots that never close.
Let's look at turn six of a game in progress to see how this shakes out:
You're playing white, and you plan to place the tile shown in the lower-left so that you close out the mountain area. When you do this, everyone who has bid on this area will be looking to grab a share of the reward tokens; these tokens match the images in the mountain area, and you can see that two forests and a field have already been closed.
Each time you place a tile — matching the landscape on adjacent tiles, natch — you then place one of your wooden bidding markers on that tile. The silo grants you a bid of 1 in all territories showing on that tile, the long warehouse places a bid of 2 on two such territories, and the farmhouse places a bid of 3 on a single territory. Thus, in the mountain purple currently has a bid of 3, red a bid of 2, and yellow a bid of 1. Which piece do you want to place on this tile? That is, how much do you want to bid?
Before you answer that, let's consider why you might have placed that tile in the first place. You hold in hand — secretly, mind you — these three objective cards:
Everyone received five goal cards at the start of the game, then discarded to three. These three overlapped nicely, so no fool you, you kept them. For each set of those three round tokens you collect, you score 7 points at the end of the game. For each round fish token, you score 3 points.
The game includes one public goal card as well, with you netting 4 points for each set of four differently colored reward tokens, whatever their shape.
If you place your farm in this mountain, you'll tie purple for high bid. What's more, since you placed the tile, you can break ties however you want, so you can win the auction with a bid of 3. As the top bidder with a bid of 3, you can take any three of these reward tiles. (You always take tiles equal to your bid — except if no tiles remain, which would the case here since purple would take the remaining three tiles and red and yellow would get nothing.)
If you place your silo, you'll tie yellow for low bid of 1 while claiming a stake on the two other territories on that tile. If you choose to beat yellow, then you'll get the lone tile that remains after purple and red grab stuff. If you choose to make yourself last in the bidding, well, there's a special prize for going last:
The last-placed bidder takes the bonus action of their choice from those shown at the top of the tile stacks, with the choices here being to take a nugget card, have each other player give you one token of their choice, or take two round fish. You want fish, so that might be good. Whoever collects the most nuggets gets a 10-point bonus at game's end, so that's good. Depending on which tokens opponents have already collected, that action might be best of all! (If you're the lone bidder on a lot, you can either claim tokens or take a bonus action. No doubling up!)
Finally, if you place your warehouse, you'll be second or third in the bidding since red also bid 2 and you probably won't have the best choice of tiles, so that's probably a stupid choice. Don't do that.
After the low bidder takes the special action (then moves that tile to the bottom of the stack to bury it), and players take tokens from high bid to low, you must take a tile to place on the next turn. That one on the left looks nice since you can almost complete the lake at right, but if you don't want that one or either of the other two, you can take one from the top of a stack to surprise everyone — including yourself — with an unknown arrangement of landscape and tokens next turn.
And that was turn #2. You take 10-12 turns total in a game depending on the number of players, and at the halfway point you draw two new goal cards, then again discard down to three. If those fish haven't been flopping your way, maybe it's time to gather peaches instead. At game's end, you reveal your cards, tally points for nuggets and goals, then see who's the Okanaganest.
I've played Okanagan four times on a preproduction copy from Matagot, thrice with three and once with four, and as you might expect in an auction game like this, the randomness of the cards and the tiles can drive you bonkers. In my most recent game, I had three goal cards that overlapped perfectly — then I saw my neighbor collect eight of the tokens that I wanted before I had collected anything! Ugh, time to change courses. I took a bonus action that allowed me to draw two goal cards, then discard two. Good! A new direction!
And yet the pain continued. I was last to choose on a lot or I received less than what a bid "should" bring or the lots I had bid on never closed. I managed to place tiles around a huge field in such a way that it was impossible to close, thereby costing everyone else bids on that lot, and somehow it didn't matter as I was losing more than they were. Everything went south, and I ended the game with one-third of what the winner had — the winner being the neighbor who had been snatching my tokens and lining them up for perfectly overlapping goal cards.
My lakes ran dry
Other playings have gone my way, and I'm not sure yet whether I'm playing more smartly in one game compared with another or my opponents are playing more dumbly or the bonus actions have broken my way or I've read the minute differences in the reward token/landscape layout better — or whether it's somewhat random and that's that.
The bonus actions give you lots of avenues for advancement, so you're happy to let a silo net you something from those stacks, whether a hexagonal (round, square) tile of your choice, or the ability to swap two tiles for tiles of the same shape but different color (or same color and different shape), or a token swap with an opponent for tokens of your choice. The ability to flush the tiles on display seems like a useless ability so far, but maybe I just don't know the tiles well enough to realize that I should dig for the perfect tile for my situation. After all, sometimes the best way to win an auction is to put up for bid only the goods that you really want.
A tile-laying game on a tiled table? Next time, I'll bring a tablecloth...
W. Eric Martin
I need to start this preview of The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game with a confession. Despite my love for almost all games created by Stefan Feld, I've yet to play The Castles of Burgundy.
I know, right? How could that have happened? I love Roma, Macao, Notre Dame, and In the Year of the Dragon, and I even like Rum & Pirates far more than most people. As I recall, in early 2011 when CoB was released, my son was two and I was busy with dad things for months on end and I was still finding my way with BGG (for which I had just started working a few months earlier) and we were preparing to move, so I was boxing our life in my spare moments instead of playing. Then we moved, and I had new games to preview, so that was that. Boo hoo, poor me. New games to play instead of six-month-old games...
I did play Feld's Trajan, which was released in late 2011, then the magical quartet of Bora Bora, Bruges, Rialto, and Amerigo in 2013, then La Isla and Aquasphere in 2014, etc., but I somehow never made it back in time to Burgundy.
In any case, here we are in 2017 with The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game already available in Germany and with the game scheduled to debut in the U.S. at BGG.CON in November 2017 ahead of a January 1, 2018 retail release. This game, co-designed by Christoph Toussaint and published as usual under Ravensburger's alea brand, is labeled as a 1-5 player game, but I think that upper limit is listed solely due to the box containing only five pencils. In practice, any number of people could play this game simultaneously.
To start, each player receives a two-dimensional duchy, with the pad of scoring sheets containing four different duchy designs colorfully labeled A, B, C and D. Every player needs the same duchy design so that you can imagine yourselves competing on alternate Earths to become the duckiest Duke or Duchess of all. Naturally, you value your worth in points, and for the most part you acquire these points by filling in empty spots in your ledger, just as the dukes of old, who charted their wealth on paper while the farmers and peasants did all the physical labor behind the scenes.
To start, each player Xs a green castle (for which 1 point is already recorded in the first round area), then circles the benefit of that castle (orange, in this case). Here's how you might start in Croissant, as I've named my duchy:
Each turn, one player rolls all five dice, then players use those dice to mark off something adjacent to anything already tagged as your turf. First, though, you mark one or two spaces in the round tracker depending on whether the hourglass die shows one or two hourglasses. Here's the first roll:
So what now? Pair one color die with one number die, then write the number in the appropriate space. To fill a blue space, you need a 5 or 6, so that's out — unless you want to spend the circled orange power that allows you to change (solely for yourself) the pip value of a die. Seems early to spend your one special ability, so why not fill the adjacent orange space with a 1 or 4?
Moving along to turn 4, and the dice show nothing you can use. Hmm.
If you don't mark something off, then you circle an orange bonus for use on a later turn, but you don't want to do that if you can help it. (TCOB:TDG life lesson #1: When someone is sad, give them an orange. It might not improve their disposition, but it will protect them from scurvy.)
Thankfully you didn't waste that orange bonus earlier, so now you can change a die to 5 or 6 to mark either adjacent blue space or you can change a die to 5 to mark the green castle. Note that you can mark a castle only when the die value matches the number in any adjacent space. (They're really big on adjacency in Burgundy. No one dared mess with the Bureau d'Adjonction in the 1400s as they ruled with a perfectly formed iron fist.)
Let's go with the castle plan. This gives us 1 point for completing the castle as well as a blue commodity that we might be able to sell at some future date. You might notice underneath the round tracker is a points legend for completed regions. The earlier you fill in the all the spaces of a region, the more points you receive for that region — except for single-space regions, of course, because how much of a challenge is it to fill in a single space anyway?
Moving on to turn 6:
Turn 6 lets you complete the gray region, presumably a mine or digging pit since the image vaguely looks like a cave, but let's go with "gray region" for simplicity's sake. Completing that region nets you 4 points and lets you circle the gray bonus. On a future turn, you can X that gray nugget to use two different dice combinations on the same turn.
Every completed region gives you a bonus this way. Orangeville (each space of which must be filled with a different value) gives you an orange bonus, which as previously noted lets you change the pip value of a die. The purple bonus lets you change a die's color. Each yellow bonus scores you the value of that region twice, points being their own reward. The blue bonus is the previously mentioned commodity that still sits unused.
Turn 7 introduces something new:
The double hourglass has you mark off two spaces in the round tracker. Ah, life is passing so quickly! Little Etionette is now large enough to join you at the window as you yell at the peasants to work harder. Her high-pitched squeak gives the commands a grating quality that you couldn't previously achieve on your own. Magnifique!
With all this time at hand, every player can sell all commodities they've circled, scoring two points for each while also gaining a gray nugget in the process. Blessed nugget, it's time to put one to use to mark off two spaces at once! After crossing out the nugget, you can use the blue with one 5, then the blue again with the other 5 to mark both spaces in the blue region, thereby gaining you another commodity in addition to 4 points for that region. Progress feels good, especially when others are sweating on your behalf. After all that work, here's how your duchy now stands:
Alas, you pushed everyone too hard, and turn 8 in the first round brought this result. Each space in a yellowtown needs to be filled with the same value, and thankfully for all of our mathematical efforts throughout history (but sadly for you now), 3s are neither a 1 nor a 5, so the final turn in this round hands you an orange in compensation along with a sum of 12 points.
Rounds 2 and 3 progress the same way. You don't have much in the way of special powers at hand — only one orange and one nugget — and you haven't even seen a purple die all game, so if one does show, you had best complete the one violet space to the east of the river (or nugget that dice roll, if possible, for either two-space purple region). Time and again, both in competitive games and when playing solo, I've found myself short of a plum bonus and unable to change the color of a die, which then leads to me getting another orange, which does you no good if you don't need the colors at hand. (TCOB:TDG life lesson #2: Colors are more important than numbers.)
Did I mention playing solo? I did, and the only rule change is that each round lasts precisely eight turns (instead of varying between five and ten depending on how many double hourglasses show up). What differs when playing competitively versus playing solo? Other than the varying number of turns, not much except that everyone so often someone will shout at the end of a turn, "I've completed all of the blue", and you'll curse them for doing this before you because they'll score the higher number of bonus points for this color (4), leaving you only 2 points to scrounge up — assuming someone else doesn't beat you to second place.
As you might gather, The Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game is very much a solitaire game. I'm marking things on my sheet, and you're marking things on yours, and sometimes I score a bonus first and sometimes you do and sometimes we both complete the same colored region on the same turn and we both score the higher number of bonus points. Huzzah! I've played six times on a press copy from Ravensburger — three solo and three three-player games — and the experience hasn't differed much. You might look at another player's sheet and see they've filled one orange space more than you and have as many nuggets as you, so you realize that you're unlikely to beat them to the bonus, so you fill in a purple space instead of an orange one this turn. At least you can call purple your own...
The play sheets differ in their arrangements of the land masses, but they feel the same during a game, the values and colors rolled on the dice being more important than the colored patterns on your sheet. I initially thought commodities were the way to go when choosing a starting castle, but in my most recent game the double hourglasses were constant, with the entire game lasting only 18 turns (with the full range being 15-30 turns) and therefore kiboshing my "long-term" strategy of parlaying commodities into nuggets into double turns. Super frustrating, but sometimes you just have to suffer the dice. (TCOB:TDG life lesson #3: Dice results are random.)
No matter — I have dozens of duchies still to be developed, and should I find a willing opponent, we can compete on opposite sides of the sheet at the same time, perhaps introducing a new form of head-to-head competition in the process, with me pushing my pencil through the paper to jab their hand as they attempt to write something down. En garde!
Rollin' and writin'
W. Eric Martin
The hobby game industry has grown a lot since I got into it heavily in 2003, and each year new people come into the hobby only to discover that hundreds of fantastic games were released in years past and they're now no longer generally available.
And yet for the most part those games keep coming back. Ravensburger announced reprints of Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon in late 2016, for example, and people cheered since they would now be able to easily discover these "old" games for themselves (without paying more than MSRP for used copies). A fourth edition of Twilight Imperium debuted at Gen Con 50, and new versions of Endeavor and Fireball Island were announced at that show. Almost everything returns to print, and when these games return, they're new for a large percentage of the audience that has heard about them but not easily had access to them.
Andreas Seyfarth's Manhattan is one of those new-old titles for me. Manhattan won Spiel des Jahres, Germany's game of year award, in 1994, the year before Settlers of Catan set the gaming world on fire, and despite me knowing about the game I had never played it. Korean publisher Mandoo Games will release a new version of Manhattan in late 2017 with art by Jacqui Davis; the setting now seems to be a tropical island of some sort given the sand dunes and lush forests on the game board, but the gameplay remains the same as the original edition as far as I can tell.
I've now played three times on a press copy sent to me by Mandoo Games, once each with two, three and four players. Gameplay is simplicity itself. Each player has 24 buildings, with the buildings being 1-4 stories tall. At the start of a round, players choose four or six of these buildings (depending on the player count) and place them on their personal board.
On a turn, you play one of the four cards in your hand, then place a building from your personal board onto one of the six blocks in the position indicated on the card, then you draw a new card. Each block is a 3x3 grid, and all of the blocks are identical at the start of play. As the game develops, you start feeling possessive over this block or that, with you fighting against one person here and another person there; one block turns into skyscraper central, while another is more like the suburbs, with every space occupied with squat little buildings. For convenience's sake, though, let's refer to every constructed space as holding a skyscraper.
The only restriction on placement is that after placing a building, you must have at least as many stories as each other person who has built in that skyscraper. This is important since the player whose building is on top owns the skyscraper (just as in real life, right?), so this rule prevents you from sniping someone who's invested a lot in a skyscraper by capping it with a one-story building.
Once everyone has placed all their buildings for the round, the player who owns the single tallest skyscraper scores 3 points. In each block, whoever owns more skyscrapers than each other player in that block scores 2 points. Finally, each player scores 1 point for each skyscraper they own. You then take four or six more buildings from your reserve, rotate the start player marker clockwise, then continue. (In a two-player game, you control two colors of buildings, build either color on your turn, and sum points for both colors at game's end.)
After four or six rounds of play, whoever has scored the most points wins.
In most ways, Manhattan is a basic area majority game, something ideal for introducing those new to hobby games to what exists in the larger world of games. You can learn the game in a couple of minutes, then dive in and start fighting for space. You quickly start elbowing others out of your way since covering someone else can both cost them a point and earn a point for you — assuming everything stays that way at the end of the round, of course, which is rarely the case. You can't dominate every block, so you choose your battles, feign innocence when you start to compete in blocks held by others, and keep turn order in mind since the players going later in each round have final say over who will score for what.
The scoring system pulls you in multiple directions, challenging you to make the most of each placement. Can you both take a majority and deny someone else a point? Can you compete for the tallest building and make that space work toward a majority? The deck contains five copies of each card, and each player plays cards relative to their own position, so playing a card that would place a building in the upper-right corner from my perspective would allow my left-hand opponent to place in the lower-right corner from my perspective. I suppose you could attempt to track card plays by everyone to have a better sense of who could play in which spaces, but I find that a gut feel gets you 90% of the way towards what you could reason out, so I go with my gut and leave it at that. Yes, I made up that statistic, but I've found it holds up well for me over hundreds of different games played.
You want to encourage others to snipe amongst themselves and leave you alone, but that's not going to happen. Pick your battles, and ideally you'll have cards in hand that allow you to retaliate in blocks where others mess up your plans. Luck of the card draw will obviously have an impact on what you can do, but not allowing you to do everything you might want to is what pushes this game to be appropriate for newcomers as well as more experienced gamers. You can't do anything; you must decide from among these choices, then see what you can do next.
One possible difficulty with this new edition of Manhattan is that the yellow and orange pieces are distinct when they're on the table or stacked on other colors, yet somewhat hard to distinguish when they're stacked one on another. Aside from that, the only complications with building in Manhattan come from those others who want to trump your buildings with their own. Don't let that happen!
W. Eric Martin
Reiner Knizia's Amun-Re holds a special place in my gaming heart as (I believe) it was the first game I played at Guy Stuff Gamers in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 2003. I had played a random assortment of modern games for years — Lost Cities being the biggest hit amongst those — but I wasn't following new game releases; I just ran across games in random locations and bought whatever looked interesting. But then someone saw me playing Lost Cities with a friend during a break between rounds at a Magic: The Gathering prerelease, put me in contact with GSG's Mark Edwards, and *boom* I was suddenly part of a great group of gamers, with the then brand new Amun-Re introducing me to a much wider range of games — well, that and Mark's jam-packed game library.
For many people, Amun-Re was the last great Knizia title. The following year he released Ingenious, a runaway hit that was likely denied the Spiel des Jahres only due to Ticket to Ride also hitting the market in 2004, and that game seemed to signal a turning point in Knizia's design career, with him moving away from "games for gamers" and towards designs aimed at a mainstream audience.
The mid-2000s also saw Knizia start to focus more on branding, with him releasing numerous titles that were spun off of existing designs. The Euphrates & Tigris card game was released in 2005, followed by Medici vs Strozzi and Blue Moon City in 2006 and multiple Einfach Genial (a.k.a. Ingenious) titles in 2007 and 2008. The biggest remakes of them all — Lost Cities: The Board Game and Keltis — appeared in 2008; that latter title won the 2008 Spiel des Jahres, which spurred multiple Keltis spin-offs, including Keltis: Das Kartenspiel, which led to people accusing Knizia of eating his own tail. A card game based on a board game that was derived from a card game? What nonsense!
The secret, of course, is that game design is not a Platonic activity. The kernel of an idea is merely that — the kernel, the essence of something that can be cultivated in many different ways — and while that kernel might itself qualify as something pure and unchanging, you can't bring that to the table and get someone to play it. Instead you take that central idea — being forced to play something, but only following a certain direction — and interpret it in many ways.
Amun-Re: The Card Game, which is scheduled to debut at SPIEL '17 in French and English from Super Meeple, is the latest example of Knizia reframing an earlier release. What's the essence of Amun-Re, the core that drives action in the game? The auction at the start of each round. Yes, you want to build pyramids and have fertile fields and fulfill the goals of powers cards, but all of those desires are funneled through the auctions. The provinces up for auction provide guidance on what people might want to do in the round — lots of caravans? everything on one side of the river? only one province with a decent number of power cards? — then the auction plays out and you carry on from there.
In more detail, Amun-Re features a multiunit auction. A number of provinces equal to the number of players is revealed, then players take turns bidding on these provinces; the bidding track for each province uses triangular numbers (0,1,3,6,10,15,21,...), and if you're outbid on a province, on your next turn you must make a legal bid on a different province. Eventually everyone will be a separate province card, at which point people pay for their bids, then start doing other things. After three rounds, you score points, then time passes, removing all the farmers from the fields and leaving only the pyramids behind. You then have three more rounds of auctions, with every province now being valued differently thanks to the pyramids and bricks that already lie in those spaces.
Amun-Re: The Card Game keeps that type of auction at its core, with those results driving everything else. The game lasts three rounds, with three auctions in each round, followed by other actions, then a scoring. Each player starts the game with money cards valued 0-8, and at the start of the game, everyone chooses money cards that sum to 14 (with the 0 being included) and lays those cards face up on the table. Province cards equal to the number of players are revealed, and players take turns bidding on provinces by placing exactly one money card next to one province, outbidding an opponent if someone else has already bid there; if you're outbid, you take back your money card, then bid again on your next turn. Eventually everyone will have bid on separate provinces, after which you discard the non-0 bids, then lay out new province cards and run through two more rounds of bidding.
Sample gold and province cards
Province cards show different numbers of pyramids, ankhs, and fields, with a caravan possibly being visible as well. Whoever has the most ankhs visible is Pharaoh, going first in each action with ties broken from the Pharaoh going clockwise.
After three rounds of auctions, players will have some amount of money (possibly only the 0) still in hand. Everyone simultaneously makes an offering of gold, and the sum of the offerings determines how much the Nile floods, which determines how much money players will earn from fields. If the sum is 10 or less, players with caravans receive 10 gold per caravan. Whoever offers the most gold receives three pyramids to place on their province cards, with others receiving two and one pyramids.
In player order, players determine their income level, then spend gold to build pyramids on their cards (distributing them as equally as possible), then they take money cards into their hand to account for any income not spent. They then score points for sets of pyramids, for having nine or more fields, and for having the most ankhs.
The second and third rounds of the game play out similarly, except that when you claim cards following the auction, you place these province cards on top of your previous province cards so that only the imprinted and acquired pyramids are visible. Everything else is buried in the sands. You score again at the end of each of these rounds, then the player with the most points wins.
Anyone who has played Amun-Re will recognize much of what's described above. The auctions lead off a round, and the result of those auctions — who gets which provinces? in a game with fewer than five players (and Amun-Re: The Card Game accommodates 2-5 players), which provinces are in play? how much money do people have in hand afterwards? — drives everything else. How this game plays out and differs from the original will become clear only once the game is released in October 2017...
Offering track and income track on the box bottom
W. Eric Martin
As is often the case at Gen Con, I played almost no games during that convention, and of those games that I did play, one of the three was under embargo since it's a SPIEL release about which not much information had been released. Thus, on the Wednesday prior to the start of Gen Con 50, I tweeted this image:
Now the truth can be told...
The game is Azul, a Michael Kiesling design from Plan B Games that fits firmly in the publisher's Spiel des Jahres-friendly line of games with beautiful bits that work for both families and more experienced gamers, a niche that started with Century: Spice Road and continued with, um, Century: Golem Edition. Okay, I'm not sure that one game — even mirrored the way Century has been — can establish a line, but based on two plays I feel comfortable stating that Azul is in the same wheelhouse as Century. Let's see whether you agree once we get past the basic info that Plan B Games has already released:
Introduced by the Moors, azulejos (originally white and blue ceramic tiles) were fully embraced by the Portuguese when their king Manuel I, on a visit to the Alhambra palace in Southern Spain, was mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the Moorish decorative tiles. The king, awestruck by the interior beauty of the Alhambra, immediately ordered that his own palace in Portugal be decorated with similar wall tiles. As a tile-laying artist, you have been challenged to embellish the walls of the Royal Palace of Evora.
In the game Azul, players take turns drafting colored tiles from suppliers to their player board. Later in the round, players score points based on how they've placed their tiles to decorate the palace. Extra points are scored for specific patterns and completing sets; wasted supplies harm the player's score. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
Promotional table covering not included!
Azul is for 2-4 players, and at the start of each round, you fill up five, seven, or nine discs (depending on the number of players) with tiles drawn at random from a bag, then place a first player marker in the center of the table.
On a turn, you choose either a disc or the center of the table, then collect all the tiles of one color from this space. If you choose a disc, you push all the remaining tiles into the center of the table; if you're the first player to choose the center, you also take the first player marker. You then choose one of the five rows on your board — with those rows having 1-5 spaces in them — and fill as many spaces as possible with those tiles. Once you have a particular color in a row, you can place only more of that color in the row (until it is filled and emptied). If not all the tiles fit or you took the first player marker, place the excess tiles or the marker in a discard row on the bottom of your player board.
Players take turns until all the tiles have been claimed. Each player looks at the rows on their board, and from top to bottom they move one tile from each completed row into the grid on the right, placing all other tiles that helped you complete this row in the game box. In the basic game, the grid boxes have images on them, and you must place the tile in the matching space; in the advanced game, the grid boxes are blank, so you can place the tile in any empty space in the grid row next to the tiles — except that you cannot repeat a tile color in a row or column in the grid.
Ready to move three tiles into the grid in the basic game
Each time you place a tile in the grid, you score points for all the other tiles in the row and column of the grid that are connected to the tile just placed. Thus, in the image above, I'll place a blue tile in the second row, then score 3 points for the connected tiles in that row and 3 points for the connected tiles in that column. When I place the black tile in row #4, I'll score 4 points for the column, followed by another 5 points for the column when I place the red tile. After you score all of your just-placed tiles, you lose points for the first place marker and any discarded tiles. All incomplete rows stay as they are on your board!
You then draw more tiles from the bag to set up for the next round, adding discarded tiles to the bag when needed. The rounds continue until any one player has placed the fifth tile in a row in their grid; since you can place at most one tile in a grid row each round, the game must last at least five rounds. After scoring for this final round, players score bonus points for each completed row and column in their grid as well as for each set of five matching tiles. Whoever has the most points gets to watch all of the other players eat a tile as punishment. (Legacy game!)
Endgame bonuses shown at bottom right
I played the game twice with final tiles and non-final game boards and other pieces, both times with the same three opponents. The rules weren't clear when we started the first game, and we futzed around a bit, asking questions and clarifying how the flow of the game works. We finished and were like, okay, sure that was a game.
After we finished playing something else, I insisted upon playing Azul again because I like playing things multiple times. Playing a game once from a position of ignorance is fine for learning how a game works, but it's not great for learning how a game plays. In this second game, now with the advanced board, I was already playing smarter, paying attention to what others were collecting in which rows to have some idea of which tiles I could possibly float around the table, Magic-draft-style, to pick up on the next turn. I could better anticipate what others might do and plan accordingly.
The results of game #2
The problem is that everyone else was playing better as well. All of us scored higher in this game compared to the first one. Taking the first player marker wasn't seen as a drawback, due to the automatic -1 point, but instead as a valid option to take what you needed before too many tiles piled up that would cost you points. You could see opportunities for sticking people with tiles because when someone starts a round with multiple half-filled rows, they have room to take far fewer tiles, so you're happy to force them to swallow a half-dozen tiles at once, especially when doing so keeps those tiles away from someone else.
Like Century, Azul strikes that family/gamer balance in which you can play casually or thoughtfully, and the game will work equally well in either case. Just expect to get soaked until you can start smartly lining up your plays in advance...
W. Eric Martin
In January 2017, I received the cover for Photosynthesis from the European branch of Blue Orange Games while preparing for the Spielwarenmesse fair and was stunned: "Whoa, this thing is fire!"
At Spielwarenmesse 2017, designer Hjalmar Hach gave me a runthrough of the game (video here), but a brief runthrough doesn't give you a good feeling of how the game actually plays out. You can understand the gist of things — collect light with your trees in order to plant and grow new trees, eventually harvesting them for points — without understanding how mean this game can be. It's the most pacific mean game I've played in years. Everything about the graphic design is inviting and joyous, yet you're all meant to embody cruel nature, block everyone else from the light, and see them shrivel to nothing in the forest while you reign as the oakest with the mostest.
That's the hope anyway. Sometimes, of course, you're the one doing the shriveling, especially since you can block yourself as easily as others. In some ways, though, you have to block yourself, just as you block yourself in your regular non-tree life as a human, taking on more responsibility than you should or agreeing to a project that you know you'll regret or just wanting to do more than you'll ever have the time for (which is a common refrain in the Martin household come convention time).
If you're going to be at Gen Con 50, you can check out Photosynthesis yourself at the Blue Orange Games booth. I hear that they're offering a discount for those who cosplay as an sycamore, but that might have been something I made up right now.
W. Eric Martin
In 2016, as part of an effort to introduce exclusive new games for its customers, the U.S. retail chain Target partnered with Days of Wonder and its owner Asmodee to produce Ticket to Ride: First Journey, which aimed to give players as young as six something akin to a Ticket to Ride experience. While the games share the same core — collect cards to place trains on tracks between cities — they play out quite differently, with First Journey being a race game that ends in 10-15 minutes while Ticket to Ride is a (relatively) more involved points game in which players have more time to deduce what others are doing and block them or can shoot for the moon by drawing tons of tickets and hoping to luck into completed routes.
For 2017, Target has another such simplification heading to its shelves, but the tricky thing is that while the rules for this new game are simplified, the gameplay itself is not. Sonar from Roberto Fraga, Yohan Lemonnier, and Matagot is a new take on their Captain Sonar, which debuted in 2016. Both games function as a more advanced version of ye olde Battleship, a game already known by millions. In Captain Sonar, which can be played with teams of up to four players, you attempt to be the first to cause four points of damage to the opposing submarine; in Sonar, which is for 2-4 players and therefore limited to teams of two, you need to damage the opposing sub only twice. Here's a rundown of Sonar in detail:
Time for an underwater game of cat-and-mouse, with each of the two teams in '''''Sonar''''' competing to be the first to deal two points of damage to the other. Do that, and you win the game instantly.
In detail, ''Sonar'' includes four pairs of maps, and each team takes the same maps in their color. A team can be one or two players, and with two players on a team, each player takes a different role: Captain or Radio Operator. (A one--person team handles both roles.) A divider separates the teams, and each Captain marks their starting location on the map.
On a turn, the Captain calls out an action, typically moving their sub one space north, south, east, or west. When they do this, they call out a direction, mark their new location, and add one energy to their ship's register. The Radio Operator on the other team notes the movement of this sub on a plastic sheet, and through deduction and trial-and-error tries to determine exactly where the opposing sub might be on the map.
Instead of a moving, a Captain can also:
• Use sonar: Erase two energy from your register; the opposing team must reveal their row or column.
• Go silent: Erase three energy from your register; move your sub, but don't gain energy and don't tell the opponents which direction you're moving.
• Fire a torpedo: Erase four energy from your register; call out coordinates in your quadrant (e.g., F6); if the opponents are on that space, they take a point of damage.
• Surface: Announce your location to the opposing team, then erase your previous path on your map; you can't cross your own path during the game, so sometimes you need to surface in order not to box yourself in.
You can have at most four energy in reserve, so you need to manage movement and the other actions carefully so that you'll be able to fire at the opponents once you know where they are — ideally without being torpedoed in response!
If you've played Captain Sonar, you can recognize this game immediately; it's the same, yet not. The two boring roles — First Mate and Engineer — have been removed, which is a good idea as I'd never recommend someone learn Captain Sonar in those roles anyway. Being Engineer is like being the dad in a group of kids who's always telling them "No": "No, you can't go play in the river." "No, you can't throw rocks at that propane tank." You're just a bummer, bringing everyone else down with what they can't do and only occasionally allowing them to do stuff that feels natural. "Okay, fine, now you can launch a torpedo at the bad guys. Are you satisfied?!"
With Sonar, the game is focused solely on moving and hunting. You've lost a few of the special abilities in the original game, but you've gained a trickier timing conundrum. After all, once you use sonar to gain information about the opposing team (or clarify what you already suspect), you're down at least two energy and must move at least twice to get back to full torpedo strength. Will those extra turns help you nail down exactly where the enemy is located, or will it allow them to sneak into an adjacent quadrant, thereby putting them out of range.
Sonar has lots of little changes that make the game easier to learn (and teach!), but that doesn't mean the gameplay itself is easier. Torpedoes now require a direct hit to deal damage instead of doing two points of damage on a direct hit and one point when landing on an adjacent space. The sonar ability gives you one piece of information (out of two) instead of two (out of three); yes, one of those intel bits was a lie in Captain Sonar, but sometimes that detail still helped you.
In the end, you have two games — Captain Sonar and Sonar — that seem like mirror images of one another. It's not Bizarroworld weird, mind you, but more like Earth A and Earth B versions of the same game design that was developed down different paths. I appreciate the efforts created to simplify Captain Sonar for a more casual audience and look forward to more such experiments in the future!
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