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.
Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games
Archive for Reviews
- [+] Dice rolls
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.
- [+] Dice rolls
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?
- [+] Dice rolls
GMT is one of my favorite game companies. Part of the reason for that is there delving into the heavier eurogame market with titles like Dominant Species and Urban Sprawl, but I also like their willingness to release daring lighter wargames that abstract out some level of unnecessary detail to make a fast, fun game that is easily playable in just a handful of hours. Sekigahara is the latest in that line and with 1.5 games under my belt I am pretty impressed with it.
I was aware of Sekigahara before its release, and while I found some of the information on it interesting, it was insufficient to interest me enough to pre-order it. What was sufficient to fully catch my attention was a combination of a very good response from my geekbuddies (7.83) and the overall positive reviews for the game (including an 8.18 average rating as of right now). The news that it sold out at the publisher level and the fact that there was only one copy left at Coolstuff was enough to push me to get a copy, after all with how well it was regarded and the game’s limited availability it probably would have been pretty easy to get rid of it.
Sekigahara is set in the period of Japanese history immediately following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After his death occurred the order he tried to establish began to unravel and two powerful daiymos, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, battled for the fate of Japan. The loyalty of the various other daimyos was uncertain enough that several switched sides over the course of the war and even during specific battles.
So Sekigahara simulates this uncertain loyalty by having each player play with a hand of loyalty cards. In order to use a particular block in battle you need to be able to play the loyalty card associated with that block’s faction. Player’s take turn playing cards and revealing units, with the units particular strength causing an increase on the impact track. After the battle is over, relative position on the impact track determines both the winner of the battle and how significant losses are.
This uncertainty about the overall loyalty of your opponent’s troops, or even what troops are in a particular stack is such that it permeates the game with uncertainty. A large stack of troops may be moving towards you, but it may be a paper tiger, with no real capability to do anything to you. This bluffing, and the decision when to call that bluff is an important part of winning the game and is part of what provides the game with so much tension. You do not know your opponent’s true capabilities and identifying when the risk is worth the reward is the skill that is most frequently used in this game.
There is a bit of luck in the game in the form of what units you have coming out and what loyalty cards you draw, but these are what I consider “good” randomness, as it exists in the form of varied capabilities as opposed to random results. It is possible that the luck of the draw will negatively affect you in an unexpected ways, particularly when you redraw after a particularly tough battle, but on the whole I do not find the luck in game to be a major deciding factor in the game, though I doubt it will be significant enough to bother anyone who is actually interested in the game. The units themselves are even less likely to have an effect on the game, though getting a stack of similar units is probably a little bit more favorable, the ability to place a reinforcement unit in any friendly recruiting area is sufficient that it seems to matter only slightly.
Sekigahara seems to mostly about dealing with strategic ambiguity. You know what the constraints are for your units, but are uncertain what they are for your opponent. Thus the decisions you make are either ones where based on the information you have available you are fairly convinced you will win, ones where you are attempting to force your opponent to reveal to you their impressions of their hands vs. the unit groups they have on the board, or ones that are forced upon you by poor circumstances where you need to engage in battle because otherwise you will lose. Each of these options is replete with tension, making the game among the most tense I have played, with each choice having numerous repercussions across the board and thus ways to cause the game to spiral out of your control.
My first full game of Sekigahara was this past weekend against my girlfriend, Minerva. Though she does not play many board games these days, back when she was a more regular player we frequently played Command & Colors: Ancients and Twilight Struggle against each other, so I thought that perhaps Sekigahara would be interesting enough to lure her back in, at least for the short term.
I had her play Tokugawa while I played Ishida. I had heard that Tokugawa was easier to play, and as she is now less practiced in board games, I figured that would be a good start. While I was able to handily defeat her easternmost army, early on she was able to put her forces in her capital to good use, plowing up the road seizing resources and eventually approaching one of my castles. In a bit of a panic I sent forces from my own capital to reinforce my castle, despite her insistence that she had no plans to attack the castle, and the next phase she proved that may not have been entirely true as she brought in her army and smacked mine down, causing me to lose three blocks to her one, with two of the remainders retreating into the castle, and Ishida himself retreating down the road. My next attempt to reinforce my castle troops was equally unsuccessful thanks to one of my units switching sides during battle, and I lost even more troops to the attempt, leaving me in what I felt was a pretty desperate position. She had a large army preparing to hit me from the east and had even begun to threaten the north, while I was running behind her in both available reinforcements and hand size.
Then, much to my surprise she retreated. She had her hand on my throat and was slowly throttling it, but instead of finishing me off she fell back, focusing more on bringing in reinforcements, while retreating her forces back to more defensible locations. So, I took advantage of this opportunity and started to grab resource sites and seized one of her castles, pushing income of both cards and reinforcements from her side to mine. This was enough to allow me to get into a strong enough position that when her Tokugawa-lead army engaged with me during the penultimate round I was able to achieve a total victory, defeating her army and killing her daimyo, allowing me to achieve one of the instant win victory conditions.
Discussing it with her later, I learned that the reason for her retreat was that she realized that after her two victories her army was now a paper tiger and that any attempt I made to fight against it would result in her defeat. So she fell back until the loyalty of her clans were more assured and she had a good chance of winning future conflicts. Of course I had no way of knowing this. At the time I was going to try to pursue a different strategy as any attack against her at that point seemed suicidal, and I had almost given up on the game. A continued confidence in her actions would probably have caused me to simply avoid her large army and probably assured her victory.
So the game was lost not on any individual battle, but simply on a lack of ability to manage perceptions. This is very different from most any other war game I have played, even among the block games, that I cannot help but want to explore this one in much greater detail. It seems like it is worth the effort.
- [+] Dice rolls
In case you didn’t already see it, I have posted my review of Mage Knight the Board Game. I am pretty happy with it, which means it is the first adventure game since Arkham Horror and the first deck building game since Puzzle Strike that I actually like. Of course, neither style of game is one that I particularly favor so if you normally like either style of game, which means either this game is not really geared towards fans of those styles of games, or is a truly excellent representation of both styles of games. I believe the latter is the case, but I imagine there will be those who differ.
My aversion to adventure games has emerged largely due to my fatigue with generic fantasy settings. I played role-playing games (RPGs) from 1992 until 2010, with the vast majority of that time being focused on Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). By the time I quit I had been bored with RPGs for years. It simply took me a while to realize that I wanted two very different things out of RPGs and that I would be better served by separating them out into two entirely different activities. Because of my large amount of exposure to fantasy themed games and media during my long RPG career I have reached the point where a fantasy theme actually makes me less likely to purchase a game rather than increasing the odds or at least being a non-factor. Fortunately, my bias has rarely been an issue as most fantasy themed games are pretty awful or are adventure games, and thus usually end up seeming like pale imitations of D&D. Arkham Horror has been the one exception as far as adventure games go both because it is not fantasy themed and it is a pretty solid game. The fact that my girlfriend also enjoyed the game certainly helped too, as it was something we could play together. So the fact that I like Mage Knight is particularly exceptional because of its need to overcome my bias against fantasy board games.
Since I pre-ordered Mage Knight, I will be picking up my copy today at the Coolstuff Inc. game night. I have every intention of getting two plays in tonight, with the goal of teaching it to as many people as possible as enjoyably as possible. I would like to get as many opportunities to play Mage Knight as possible, since this game has the advantage of being one that I think will both reward repeat plays and will be enjoyable regardless of relative experience levels. Of course, in an ideal world I would play this frequently with a dedicated group, with everyone’s skills growing at a relatively even pace, but with a seven game head start, a large number of locals who are interested in learning the game, and a small number of local owners, I am not sure that is a reasonable goal at this time.
Unfortunately, my desire to deeply explore Mage Knight is going to quickly run into what may be an insurmountable obstacle: my desire to deeply explore all the other very good games that have been released in 2011. Ora et Labora is going to arrive before the end of the month (and so far I prefer Ora et Labora to Mage Knight), Eclipse should be here in the next week or two, and I still want to dive more deeply into Colonial, Dungeon Petz, Space Empire 4X, Upon A Salty Ocean, and Vanuatu. Then there are all the other games that I currently own and love that I would like to explore more thoroughly. This means that I am going to have to make some tough choices about what I want to play over the next few months. Some of these choices will be decided by my extended gaming group, other choices will be made by available group size, and the rest will be determined by the whim of the moment, but inevitably one or more of these games will not get the amount of play time I would prefer out of them. The question is what to do about it?
Assuming that I only play a game with the optimal player counts, which is typical for me, and that I focus mostly on playing games from late 2011 and onward, this is the likely breakdown of group size vs. games played:
*1 is the highest play priority
**Assumed ideal player number, I strongly suspect that this number will be revised with more thorough exploration.
Eclipse gets a very high play priority simply because its rating is the one that is most in flux. I had certain concerns after my first play, and I want to see whether my concerns are valid or not, if they are then it could pretty easily move up to an 8 or a 9. Dungeon Petz and Upon A Salty Ocean are also ones that I don’t think I have explored enough and who have very tentative ratings at this point, though I do think that they are more likely to stay in their current position then Eclipse is. The most difficult decisions will come when I have three players, as that is where Ora et Labora and Mage Knight are directly competing. I may have to try to arrange more three player sessions in order to ensure that both get frequent plays.
So I have a general plan of what I want to play and when I will play it, but we will have to see how effectively this translates into actual play time. I will probably take a look at how frequently these games really got played in about 6 months. It will be interesting to see how well my intentions translate into reality.
- [+] Dice rolls
2007 was a pretty good year for games. My two favorite games, Agricola and Race For the Galaxy, were released that year and while I find a lot of the games released in 2007 to be a little bit less exciting, the presence of this duo is enough to make it up for me. Race For The Galaxy was the first of these I encountered (I hated it for the first seven plays), but my first eight months of gaming after I encountered them were essentially consumed by almost continual plays of these two games. To this day they remain my most-played games, and while I have been interested in later releases, none of them have quite lived up to the bar that these two games have set, though numerous releases have gotten close.
As a result of these initial releases I have paid special attention to later releases by both Tom Lehman and Uwe Rosenberg. Among Uwe Rosenberg’s later release Le Havre stood out to me in particular, and over the years following its release I ended up playing it 40 times; a reasonable number but one that does not quite compare to the number of times I have played Agricola. For many gamers Le Havre was considered to be Rosenberg’s superior design and while I enjoyed it for quite a while, it never quite resonated with me the way Agricola did. Coke and steel’s chokehold over scoring bothered me a bit and typically reminded me of a common complaint about Agricola; where Le Havre in theory had a more open form of scoring, in practice it did not, the reverse was true for Agricola. This made the game rather repetitive after a while, even with the special buildings, which only occassionally had a big impact on the game. In many games these special buildings were merely there and could safely be ignored, as could a large number of the regular buildings, which could be used once or twice, but were mainly built for the points they offered. The way resources accumulated at the end of the game also seemed troublesome, and frequently made me wonder why I was going through the effort of building stacks of them if they would only ever be selected every couple of games. The release of Farmers of the Moor only cemented my opinion of Agricola being the superior of the two designs, as the additional level of complexity and decision making provided by this expansion pushed the game even farther into my good graces. This is not to say I think that Le Havre is a bad game, I still am willing to play it and quite enjoy it, just that I increasingly think that it does compare well with Agricola and my other favorites.
Uwe’s more recent releases, At the Gates of Loyang and Merkator, are even less interesting and I hoped that Rosenberg would return to the design style that initially attracted me to his games, so that I had a reason to look forward to one of his releases again. Ora et Labora’s description as Le Havre on steroids initially attracted it to me, though I was only cautiously optimistic due to Loyang and Merkator. Now that I was able to play it a bit at BGG.Con (5 plays as of this writing) I can say with little reservation that it is a worthy heir to Uwe’s previous titles and may be his best one yet. I've written a review of it if you want to see more extensively why I think this is the case.
Also, it has come to my attention that Kelly, one of the locals has a web site where she, with occasional guest postings from her friend Scott and her husband Chad, writes reviews of board and iOS games. It is one of the better designed board game sites I've seen and I encourage you to check it out: http://www.boardofplaying.com
- [+] Dice rolls
I have been excited about Colonial for quite a while. I first noticed the game when looking through the Essen 2011 Canonical list, and I checked it out mostly because it already had a rulebook available and it was in the right time frame for my “Gamer’s Games of Essen 2011” geeklist. The rules, though a bit unclear in certain areas, immediately won me over with their elegance. They had so many great answers for the tough question of how to make a game of this scope and breadth that I immediately decided I needed to find a way to get a copy.
On Tuesday, my copy of the game arrived. I waited to open the box and punch out the components until after I finished my review of Urban Sprawl as I did not want to get distracted. Opening the box I was pretty impressed. While the printing quality of the components were about average, the board is as beautiful in person as it is in picture form and doesn’t get too much in the way of being able to identify and decipher the game state. Since then I’ve played the game twice, both times with 5 players, and so far I am happy with the purchase. As is usual, I would like to get in some more plays before I write my review, but so far I think this is my favorite game of 2011. There are several games that have a potential to usurp that position, but they are going to have to work hard to do it.
Right now, Colonial is a pretty expensive game. In the US, at least, it seems that the cheapest you can get it for is $100. However, considering the generally positive initial reactions the game is getting and the small size of the initial print run there is a reasonable chance that you can get about that much money back if you end up deciding it is not a good game for you. Still, there are some things that are useful to know before you pick this one up.
Colonial is a very interactive game. Most choices you make are going to have an impact one or more players, and most of the role cards are worded in such a way that you can apply the benefit to yourself or another player. Additionally, this game is explicitly a negotiation game, with the ability to transfer treasuries (the primary currency of the game) between players. Thus you can sell access to your mutually beneficial role choices to offer items that will not explicitly favor you to someone else for some money, or even to threaten to go to war with someone unless they offer you protection money. That being said, there is enough structure to the game that you can’t casually stop someone from winning. Between the secret action selection and what the actions do, it can require deliberate interference from multiple players or negligence on your opposing player’s part to actually bring someone down. This is just about the right level of interaction for me in this type of game, but I can very easily see how this might be outside of someone else’s comfort level.
Colonial is a heavy game. It is not a very heavy game, like an 18XX game or Dominant Species, but it can be subject to analysis paralysis and, if you are playing with a slow group, it can take a while. However, players only take one, of a set of five, action at a time, resulting in the pace being fairly brisk if you don’t have any huge bottlenecks. Both of my games were teaching games with four new players, and while they both lasted between 3 and 4 hours neither of them really dragged. Both had very little downtime, and I felt constantly engaged with what was going on around the board. The exception to this was during the role selection period, when people are forced to plan out four of their five actions for the round. While it did not take me that long because I’ve mostly internalized the game’s flow and strategy, it did take other people a bit longer to figure out when and how they wanted to go about performing their available actions. I expect this time will decreased as people get more familiar with the game, but it is a potential hang-up.
Colonial’s rules are in a small bit of flux right now. There has been several revisions and clarifications to the war rules, and each of my two games were played with slightly different rules for war, neither of which are the current, final rules. This can make certain people understandably nervous, particularly considering the price of the game. It does not bother me, mostly because the underlying structure of the game is so solid that I think some slightly unclear rules for one aspect of the game are a small price to pay for what is overall an excellent design.
The game uses dice. If you are someone who completely dislikes randomness or chance then you probably want to avoid this game. That being said, while the dice rolling is important it seems unlikely that any given die roll, by itself, will be sufficient to win or lose the game for you. I’ve seen people who have failed multiple exploration rolls, or lose a few wars, come back to do very well in the game, and it seems that due to the game’s interactiveness players who have fallen far behind thanks to these situations also have a good chance to get some of the secondary benefits provided by other player’s role sections. This may prove to be less of the case with experienced players, but it seems like players are strongly incentivized to help players who are stuck in weaker positions to pick themselves back up again, meaning that it is unusual that you will be able to consider somebody completely out of the game.
Colonial works best with a larger group size. So far both of my games have been with five and that seems to be a very good number for the game. With fewer players the game will be even less tight and there will be fewer opportunities to butt heads, meaning that there will be fewer situations where going to war makes sense and more victory points that can be gained simply by exploring. I will probably try this one out with four, but I have no intention to ever play the game with 3. I can’t see it being a game I would enjoy with that number.
I expect I will want to play this one at least 3 or 4 more times before I review it, but right now I am satisfied with the purchase and expect it will ultimately get an 8 or 9 for its rating. I have very much enjoyed my plays so far and considering its universally positive response from people I have taught the game to so far, I expect that this one will end up getting a large amount of play in both of my gaming groups. It’s a very good game and, if none of the items I mentioned turns you off, I would definitely recommend checking it out.
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In case you did not see, it I wrote a review for Urban Sprawl: Urban Chaos. What is particularly interesting about this game is that even though I ultimately decided it is not a design I can appreciate, it has not diminished my enthusiasm for future Chad Jensen designs at all. There were enough great ideas in Urban Sprawl that I genuinely liked that I expect I will be an early adopter of his next eurogame at well, particularly since he said he would try to keep the chaos level of the design to a manageable level.
The next game I will be looking at is Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas. I just got my copy today, and I expect that I will be playing it at least once tomorrow, and probably some more this weekend. Expect a review as soon as I think I have figured out the game, and various blog posts as I make my journey. In the meantime, you can check out two strategy articles I wrote based on reading the rules. It will be entertaining to see how right or wrong I was!
This past weekend I attended my favorite Florida-based board game convention: Mike's Mini Meet X. It was quite a bit of fun, and I got to play a nice mix of old and new favorites. I’ve also been made aware of a brand new convention that will be hitting Orlando starting in July. It looks to potentially be a pretty phenomenal one and I cannot wait to check it out and see if I have a new favorite. The shorter drive time will certainly be nice.
More on all of these subjects soon!
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On Saturday I received my much anticipated copy of the new Chad Jensen game Urban Sprawl. I’ve been looking forward to this one for quite a while. I absolutely adored Mr. Jensen’s Dominant Species, which was released in September ’11, and pre-ordered Urban Sprawl fairly soon afterwards, hoping that it would be as great of a game as Dominant Species was. After two games on Sunday, I have to say I am fairly impressed. While it is definitely a very different game than Dominant Species, it shows some of the same general talent for making heavy, complicated euros, and I see a lot of potential for this one to be another winner. However, there are still some potential flaws that might sink it for me, and I think I need to play it more before I put together a full review.
The first thing you should be aware of is that Urban Sprawl is a very heavy game. I did not feel nearly the same level of brain burn after my first two back-to-back plays of Dominant Species as I did after my two plays of Urban Sprawl. I think there are three parts to this. The first is that each contract card has a one-shot largely unique special ability that frequently has a pretty big impact on play. At any given time there are anywhere from six to eight contracts available (at differing action costs), and processing these special abilities can be daunting when you are still trying to grasp how the various parts of the game work together. Even after you learn the dynamics of the cards are still going to be a significant amount of information to track. The second part is that you typically have to keep three to five intersecting majorities in mind with any given placement, with a slightly different location resulting in different majorities, and placement costs, to account for. The third is the low level of planning you can do on your turn. This is impacted by the number of players, but the available cards are likely to be quite different from the end of your turn to the beginning of your next one so it is likely that any choices you make will change after any individual players turn, and when your turn comes around again the game state will have changed enough that you will have to make the majority of decisions on your turn, adding both to the game length and the amount of cognitive load you are subject to.
Because of this reduced capability to plan between turns, and the additional play time that is added with a fourth player, I suspect that 3-player will be my favored configuration unless I am playing entirely with experienced players. I do like the additional dynamism that comes with the fourth player, but I am just not sure it will be worth it. That being said, with only one play at each configuration I haven’t made a firm decision about this. I plan on trying out both the three and four player games as much as possible in the near future to see if my perception of the additional dynamism vs. downtime trade off is a bit off and the four can be just as rewarding as three with less experienced players.
I wasn’t sure at first how I would feel about the Urban Renewal cards and the ability of the Contractor to knock down buildings when placing their own, but I found out in play that it didn’t really bother me that much. The Urban Renewal cards just end up being another powerful tool in the overall arsenal of powerful tools that you could potentially grab to take advantage of. The Contractor role has some potential for kingmaking, but I suspect that with more experienced players it will be less relevant, as people will be able to identify who is actually in the best/worst position and then take advantage of that situation. Additionally, choosing to get into a slightly worse victory point position might end up being a tactical choice as players seek to grab the Contractor card in order to be able to get free access to building destruction in order to set themselves up for taking control of a particular political office or row and to protect themselves from a similar sort of reaction from other players.
People who dislike chaos and luck are probably going to have issues with the game. Event cards exist in both the contract decks and the planning deck, and when they hit can have a reasonably large impact on the game. Also, only about ½ to 2/3 of the contract cards will emerge in any given game, meaning that you cannot expect any particular card to show up. In our last game we had a particularly ridiculous series of events where one event card showed up three times, due to forced reshuffles, in one end phase resulting in a payout of 9 vps and 9 dollars. We just sort of shrugged it off and resolved to shuffle better in future instances, but if that sort of situation could potentially bother you then you probably want to be careful about this game. The lack of specific contract cards showing up is probably going to be slightly less problematic to most people, but it can result in individuals being able to hold on to political offices more effectively then they would be able to otherwise. On the positive side, a different array of contract cards does increase the games interplay variability quite a bit; the first and second games did feel quite different, and suspect that was not just because we moved from three players to four.
Overall I am pretty fond of the game. I am not sure how much I like it quite yet, as I still need to work my head around the strategic implications of both certain player decisions and the card mix as well as whether the chaos of the game is significant enough to override player decision making, but I am looking forward to exploring it further in the next few weeks. Once I have come to conclusions about the previously mentioned items I will write a more comprehensive review. I generally write my reviews once I think I have a pretty strong grasp on the game, usually in the 3-5 play range, but I suspect this one might take a bit longer before I reach that point. Until then, I will probably post additional thoughts as I develop them.
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Back in my pre-BGG days, when the only board game I played regularly was Settlers of Catan, I had another primary hobby: Collectible Miniatures Games. The first one I got into, back in 2003, was Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, through role-playing games, and after a few years I also started playing Dreamblade. I was fairly successful in both, doing well enough at regional tournaments to attend the championship every year, and doing well at the bigger tournaments around the championship, but I never did particularly great at the championships, with a single Top 8 being my only real note of success. In late 2007 I decided that I wanted to get more into board games, bought a bunch of bad ones at Gen Con. By early 2008 I was more firmly enmeshed into the board gaming hobby, and the my tastes (and collection) rapidly developed after that.
At first I was suffering from a bit of fatigue from the whole concept of tactical battle games and largely ignored that particular segment of the hobby, but eventually, for reasons I do not remember, I started checking out the Command & Colors series. I did a bit of research on each game in the series, and even here my preferences for deeper games started to show through, because I ultimately settled on Command & Colors: Ancients, as it was generally agreed to be the one with the most depth (and complexity). The rules for the game looked promising and I ended up ordering both the game and the first expansion at the same time to make sure I had a mounted board, so that it would get the best possible first impression from my girlfriend, Minerva.
It went over well and ended up being a favorite of both my Minerva and I. I appreciated the depth of decision making involved in the game, and how effectively dramatic and interesting situations arose during the course of play. I also noted some pretty strong parallels with the CMGs I played, which is something I both appreciated and found fascinating on an intellectual level. We ended up playing through whole campaigns on opposite sides of the war, and kept track of the total number of flags gained to determine the overall winner. She ended up doing very well, and the fact that she was able to effectively compete with me added to her enjoyment of the game. It ended up being one of the most played games for my girlfriend and I, right behind Race For the Galaxy, up until she decided she was spending too much time playing board games and wanted to spend her time on other interests. I know, I know it seems kind of crazy to think you are spending too much time playing board games, but I guess she hit a period of burn-out and wanted to take a break. Apparently the number of times that I introduced a game, she learned the rules, and I decided it was not good or not interesting enough and then sold it also scarred her a bit. Her break from gaming caused a big decline in the overall amount of 2-player gaming I participated in, as most of my other gaming partners were more interested in multi-player gaming. Unfortunately this effected Command & Colors: Ancients too and my number of plays of it (and plays in general) declined over the last year and a half.
Recently this shifted a bit. While Minerva is still not interested in longer games, as she does still does not want to spend that much times on board games, and is not that interested in learning new games. We’ve actually discussed playing some Command & Colors: Ancients or Race For the Galaxy a few times over the last few weeks, but the annoyance of set-up is always an issue. While I would most likely perform said set-up, she dislikes it on a philosophical level. She similarly isn’t interested in the new Race For the Galaxy expansion, considering it “too much,” and I am generally not interested in removing all of the Brink of War cards from the deck when I play with her. So this has resulted in very little gaming with her. So earlier this week the fact that Summoner Wars, with its short set-up time and tactical miniature game-style play, might be an option bubbled into my consciousness. I performed a bit of research and identified that the Master Set was being released on Wednesday (board game night at Coolstuff Games!) I ran the idea by Minerva and she instructed me to play it a bit first before introducing it to her as she did not want to learn another set of rules for a game I would get rid of.
I ended up playing a total of five games of Summoner Wars last night, with each of the factions available in the Master Set being in play at least once. I liked what I saw. For those who are unfamiliar, the game is centered around factions each of which comes with its own pre-built deck filled with commons (the bulk of the faction’s units), champions (three per deck, with better stats and abilities), events (temporary bonuses), and the summoner (a powerful unit in its own right, whose destruction is the game’s only victory condition). A player draws to five cards every turn, and can use those cards in two ways. The first is to play them, in order to implement the event effects or to get another unit on the board. The second option is to “build magic” with them, building up the pool of resources that is used to actually pay for new units. The individual units are pretty straightforward, with the cards providing pretty much everything you need to know about a unit with minimal iconography. Abilities are generally easy to understand and the there were few instances were rulebook consultation was required.
The decks themselves had very different play styles even with non-expert players, and while the decision space is similar to that you would find in most other tactical battle games, the fact that you are managing not only the units you have on the table but also have to make tough decisions about what you will use your cards for only adds to the depth of the game. The variable order of the units coming out also allows for a bit of interplay variety, adding entirely new tactical challenges for players to deal with. I also liked the fact that you hit on a 3-6, rather than a 5-6 as is typical of games of this type, as it adds a delightful bloodiness to the game and opens the game up for some interesting special abilities.
In case you haven’t been able to tell by my praise, I came away impressed with Summoner War’s game play. Even with the simple rule set, it looks like there is a lot of game here, and I am looking forward to introducing it to Minerva sometime over the next few days. Hopefully she likes it enough that I will be able to get as many (or more!) plays out of it then I got out of C&C: Ancients. If not, it should be a fun two-player game for those moments that periodically emerge in gaming sessions were a short game is useful and we don’t want to spend time setting up C&C: Ancients. Either way at $32 it was a good buy, and I expect I will get quite a bit of plays out of it in the near future. I might also have to recommend it to my old CMG buddies.
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