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Why I Don't Like Age of Empires III

Jesse Dean
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Chicago
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
When done right, worker placement games are among my favorite games. Two of my Top 10 are worker placement games, and until recently Agricola was my favorite game period, with Race For the Galaxy only recently exceeding its position in my affections. Unfortunately, I have found most worker games to not be “done right.” Most are either innocuous without a lot of interesting decisions, simply have one good idea in them with everything else involved in the game, or are so fatally flawed that whatever interesting decisions that are in the game are overwhelmed, resulting in a game that is not really worth owning or playing. Age of Empires III falls in that last category for me, and is a game it is unlikely I will play again.

From gallery of doubtofbuddha

My Worker Placement Game Ratings

I first played Age of Empires III in January of 2010. At the time I had a pretty strong negative reaction to it, but even at the time I admitted that this could partially be due to a combination of a strong visceral reaction to the components. I found it to be difficult to tell the large swarms of monochromatic figures apart, and the game’s color palette was hard on my red-green colorblindness. The fact that some of the rules were explained incorrectly only added to this, and it ended up being a rather unpleasant gaming experience overall. Since then I have wanted to play it again, to confirm or refute my initial reaction, but not so much that I have gone out of my way to play it. I even left early at a game night a few weeks ago rather than play Age of Empires III with five players.

So last night I met with an out of town visitor for gaming, and he suggested we play Age of Empires III, with the yet to be released Builder Expansion. I didn’t remember my previous play of the game that well, but it quickly came back to me as he explained the rules so we were able to jump into the game pretty easily. During the first round I remembered my difficulty with red vs. green, and we were able to change out one of the colors for orange, and a greater degree of familiarity with the game allowed me to distinguish the figures from each other more effectively. This is not to say that I like the components any better; in fact I still think that they actively detract from the play experience, I just found them less annoying then the first time. This let me focus instead on the things that I dislike about Age of Empires III’s gameplay.

For the most part, Age of Empire’s design focuses on no-luck incremental action. Each player takes the action they like, with no randomness between their action and the resolution of said action. There are three main areas where this particular tendency is broken, and I find two of the three to be highly problematic both from their digression from the overall nature of the game as well as the impact they have on the overall flow of the game.

The first of these is the Age III capital buildings. While I don’t mind high victory point, late game bonuses as a general rule, the fact that not all of the Age III buildings will show up in the game makes there mere existence problematic. As the game goes on, players become increasingly specialized, thus making it so the bonus victory points provided by the Age III bonuses can be rather substantial. Unfortunately there is no way to determine either when a tile is going to come out or if a tile will come out. You can fight for first place in the final two rounds in order to ensure you have first shot at a tile, but this is going to only help you marginally if the tile you want never actually emerges. If a game is even remotely close, then the arrival of a particular Age III tile at the right time will be sufficient to give the game to a particular player. It is possible to buy a tile that only provides you with a marginal benefit in order to hurt someone else, but that is likely to only hurt the two effected players to the benefit of the other players, and is most likely not optimal.

The second item is the discovery tiles and cards. While it is possible to mitigate the luck of these items based on knowledge of their distribution, the mere fact that you can potentially turn a small investment of three workers into 4+ victory points, or, just as easily, lose three actions is problematic in a design that otherwise has very minimal action execution luck. This is not to say that I have any problem with luck, I just think that this luck is out of place in this game. I would like this better if there was more luck in general in the game, as then you would have to calculate the odds of success across multiple avenues of action resolution. Instead it is simply in Discovery where it is either costly or potentially devastating.

The expansion does not make either of these problems better. The builder just makes it so that discoveries are even less valuable relatively, and with more Age III buildings, there is an even greater chance that the particular high value Age III building that suits your strategy just won’t show up. There are a number of new tiles with powerful take that elements, allowing players to steal money or resource tiles, and one of the Age III tiles, Rewrite History, allows you to steal a Discovery tile from two different players, making attempts at Discoveries an even worse investment.

Even if I did not find these elements as problematic as I do, the mere fact that Dominant Species exists would probably relegate Age of Empires III to the “do not bother to play” list. The aspects of Age of Empires III that I like are implemented even more effectively in Dominant Species, and the added flourishes that Dominant Species adds to the genre are so enjoyable that I doubt I will ever play Age of Empires III again. This is too bad, because I do like the period presented in this game, and would like to own a good Age of Discovery with some real mechanical innovations and a tightly integrated theme. Luckily it looks like Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas will allow me to achieve my desires, and will be my go-to game for gaming in the Age of Discovery in the future.
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Fri Oct 7, 2011 4:14 pm
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Strategic Ambiguity In The Princes of Machu Picchu

Jesse Dean
United States
Chicago
IL
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
I generally like the Mac Gerdts games I’ve played. While he is not my most played game designer, I do like what he has generally done with his rondel mechanic, and used a single, signature, mechanism to make a wide variety of different games. Imperial (in its 2030 variation) is my favorite of his games, but I’ve also quite enjoyed the Princes of Machu Picchu.

From gallery of doubtofbuddha

Mac Gerdts Games

The Princes of Machu Picchu is Mac Gerdts’ lowest rated game, and while its 7.05 average rating is not bad, it is a good indication that this game is much less well-received than his other titles. This is too bad, because it is a fairly unique gaming experience and one that deserves quite a bit of exploration.

Thematically the game is about the struggle between two different sets of “Princes of Machu Picchu”, one which is out to defend their last city from conquest by the conquistadors and another group that is seeking to sell out and let the conquistadors into the city. The mechanics of the game follow this particular theme very effectively, and the game feels like a tense struggle to determine a) if you should sell out b) if you do sell out when you should make it clear you are selling out and thus try to push the game towards the conquistadors sacking the city.

Mechanically the game is superficially focused on resource management. The five major resources in the game (corn, llamas, cocoa leaves, pottery, and clothes) can be used to purchase Incas, who allow you to generate more resources, or one of the three types of priest tiles (virgins of the sun, condor priests, and puma priests). There are also a few places that provide some twists on this, with a market allowing you to use corn to buy and sell the other types of goods, and a sun clock that allows you to remove Incas. However, this provides only the engine behind the game, and is not what defines it, instead the game is fundamentally about a large number of subtle timing decisions and educated guesses about which victory condition your opponents are seeking to achieve.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu


There are a number of timing decisions in the game, but the most important one is when to fully commit to either the conquistador or Inca ending conditions. The difference between the two ending conditions is that on an Inca victory each player gains victory points based on how the icons they’ve collected from scoring cards match their Incas in the various resource areas and the priests that they have purchased. On a conquistador victory, whoever has the most gold has their basic score tripled, and whoever has the second most has their score doubled. This means that whoever has the most gold has a strong incentive to push for a conquistador ending. This is complicated by the fact that the amount of gold any individual player has is secret, so you never quite know what other player’s incentives are and how much gold you really have. You just need to rely on what they are doing, deck knowledge, and what cards you draw to determine what you should do.

The difference between the conquistador and Inca ending is based on the status of the priest tiles in the game. If all of the priest tiles are purchased then the game ends on Incas. If they are not purchased by the end of the ninth round then the game ends with a conquistador victory. So how do you determine which ending to go for?

At the beginning of the game you start with a scoring card that has three bits of information on it: a gold quantity, and two symbols that indicate either one of the resources or one of the types of priests. The second bit of information is used for scoring. At the end of the game you get one point for each of these symbols that match the Incas you have on the board or the priests that you have purchased.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu


The gold quantity in your hand provides the first bit of information that allows you to make an educated guess about what ending condition you should be shooting for as well as the particular ending condition other individuals might be shooting for. So whenever you draw scoring cards you get a better idea of both what sort of cards are still out there, and with a little bit of knowledge of the deck you can get a hint of an idea of what sort of victory you should be going for. If you draw multiple high cards then it is likely that the others are going to be in a poor position to push for a conquistador ending, which gives you an opportunity to do so. Low cards indicate the reverse, and there are, of course, situations where you draw an ambiguous set of middle of the road gold values.

The second bit of information you have regarding which ending condition others are shooting for, and thus a likely distribution of gold, is simply the actions people take in the game. Establishing a lot of board infrastructure (Incas), and using those resources to buy a lot of priests is usually indicative of someone who is pushing for an Incan ending. Individuals who purchase an early condor priest (or two) and push for early round conclusions are frequently pushing towards a conquistador ending.

How the scoring cards are gained and the distribution of symbols adds a further level of tension to this entire enterprise. At the start of the game each player starts with one scoring card. This card provides an initial hint of how you might want to approach the early game, but is not a straightjacket that determines the only route you can go. In order to get more scoring cards you need to move up something called the Inca trail. It has 20 spots on it, and there are a number of minor ways to move up, but the most important one is to sacrifice llamas at a temple in order to move up the trail a number of spaces equal to the amount indicated by the purchased priest tiles. Moving up the trail gives you some bonus resources, but also provides, when you reach the top, the ability to draw three more scoring cards into your hand, and discard two. This is doubly useful in that it provides you with more information about what is out there and prevents you from being forced into a pre-defined starting position based on your initial card draw.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu


Which strategy to pursue is made even more difficult by how the scoring symbols are distributed. The cards that have the largest number of gold on them, and thus are best for the conquistador ending, also have at least one priest symbol on them, which means that in order to score anything, and get the tripling that comes from a conquistador ending be meaningful, you probably need to buy multiple priests, which just happens to push the game closer to an Inca ending. Additionally, if you fail to buy enough priests it is quite possible to fall behind in the race for scoring cards and make it so the actions you sacrificed to push the game to an early ending might end up helping someone else. However, if your fellow players are skilled at the game they will likely be able to efficiently push for a non-Inca ending, making it so that if you buy even one too many priest can result in an Inca ending and probably your utter defeat.

So I find this game to be endlessly fascinating and extremely interactive. The tension and ambiguity in determining which of the two ending conditions to push for, when to push for them, and how to most effectively score points in your chosen ending condition are all difficult choices that become only more difficult with skilled players. Because this relies to some extent on players having an idea of what they are doing or are trying to accomplish it is pretty easy for this game to go off the rails and thus have an unenjoyable early experience. Don’t let an early negative experience deter you, as The Princes of Machu Picchu is an excellent, unique game that only blossoms as you continue to investigate the subtleties of its design.
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Thu Sep 22, 2011 6:28 pm
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51st State: Tens of Not Very Interesting Decisions

Jesse Dean
United States
Chicago
IL
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
In my last blog entry, I mentioned that I would probably end up playing Eminent Domain a bit in the near future, but there was also a chance that I would try out 51st State. Now, I’ve been mulling over 51st State a bit in my mind lately. It seemed like it should be a game I should at least take a look at. After all, it is a tableau-based combo-building game, and those games have done fairly well with me in the past. So with that in my mind, as I was out yesterday I stopped at my FLGS, Coolstuff Games, and swam past the Pokémon kids to grab a copy of 51st State. I also got lucky that a local gaming buddy, John, was looking for something to do that night, so he came over and we got in a few games of 51st State before moving on to other games.

51st State at its core is a relatively simple game. Each round players draft from a selection of cards, with the end result being three new cards ending up in each player’s hand. The draft is pretty straightforward, with each player taking a card from the selection into his or her hand and the cards refilling from the deck if the number of cards on the table go under a certain threshold. It ends with each player drawing a random card from the deck. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the game’s interaction comes from this drafting step and, because the advantages of hate-drafting diminish over time as individual players get access to more resources, this interaction is really pretty minimal.

The next step is a simple resource generation stage, where a large number of transitory tokens are produced for use in the player’s actions for the round. I’ve seen people complain about the fiddliness of this step, but considering that I greatly enjoy Merchant’s of Venus, and was able to get 33 plays out of Through the Ages before boredom hit, this did not bother me much.

The next stage, and the one that has the bulk of the game’s decisions, is the action phase. This is really the stage which will make or break a game and, unfortunately, it is not that interesting. What you have is a pretty bog standard resource conversion game where the “three uses” for the cards essentially end up being, “do I want a big one shot of resources,” “do I want a steady income of resources,” or “do I want a special ability related to resources and a victory point.” There is a small bit more subtlety and cleverness to it than that, but essentially all you are doing is converting resources between themselves and turning them into victory points.

This is actually where the large number of resource tokens is particularly telling, since it shows you what the main focus of the game is. This in of itself is not a problem, except for the fact that the resource conversion is really, really uninteresting. Maybe this is fatigue over resource conversion games talking, but if I am going to play a game focused on resource conversion these days I want it to be doing something new and different that gives me something new and meaty to do with the genre. If it doesn’t, why am I not playing Agricola, or Caylus, or Le Havre, or the various other resource conversion games that have some degree of interactivity or innovation? Granted, this one is a bit shorter than those, but I am absolutely willing to spend more time on a game if it is entertaining rather than an exercise in tedium.

Board Game: 51st State

So many components, so few interesting things to do with them.

So in conclusion, this one is definitely a pass unless you have a deep-seated enjoyment of resource conversion games no matter how solitaire or indistinctive, or want a resource conversion game that has an apocalyptic theme. This will not be a game that stays in my collection.
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Sun Sep 18, 2011 1:40 pm
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Revisiting Eminent Domain

Jesse Dean
United States
Chicago
IL
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
In addition to being a big fan of the grand, meaty board games after which this blog is named, I also have a strong appreciation for another sort of game that is popular on this site: combo-building card games. I feel that these games share some of the best features of the meatier gamers’ games, and because of this I would much rather play them then almost any other lighter/shorter game in existence. When something like Hansa Teutonica proves itself strong enough for me to want to play it over one of these card games, then it is a pretty solid accomplishment, and I reward it with an appropriately high rating. So because of this, I tend to try most of the new combo-building card games that are released. Deck-builders are slightly less likely to see play because so far I’ve only found one example of the genre that I’ve liked, but I’ve still managed to try a lot of them. For reference, here are my current ratings for these games:

From gallery of doubtofbuddha

* This one is currently undergoing review. It may become a 9.
** I only played this one once. Consider this rating preliminary. Though I may never play it again.

So I played a few games of Eminent Domain back at BGG.Con 2010. While I thought the first few games of interesting, I ultimately decided to dismiss it as uninteresting and probably not worth my time. This is what I said back then in my entry for New To You Games for November 2010:

“Eminent Domain, by Seth Jafee, is a meaty card game that shares some lineage from Dominion, Race For the Galaxy, and, most noticeably, Glory to Rome. I went to BGG.Con with the expectation that I would play it, like it, and pre-order it through the Kickstarter program. That did not happen.

Eminent Domain is centered on role cards, each of which serves both as a tool for performing an action as well as a means to lead with a role or follow someone else’s role. These cards generally serve to allow a player to add planets from the draw deck into the play area in front of them, claim these planets to get their benefits produce and harvest resources for victory points, or research new technologies that give special action powers and cards that are available for multiple roles.

On each turn, a player optionally plays a card for an action, leads in a role, thus adding a card of that role to the deck, discards any cards from their hand, and draws new cards until they hit their hand limit. This repeats itself over and over again until the game comes to a completion by either depleting the victory point pool or until a number of decks run out based on the number of players.

I found my plays of Eminent Domain to be enjoyable, but a bit repetitive. I am sure that there are all sorts of interesting strategies to be found in the game, but the lack of character in the cards, particularly in comparison to the games which it is similar to, held me back from really liking the game. With all of the other meaty card games that I own and like (7 Wonders, Innovation, Glory to Rome, Race For the Galaxy), and the amount of time I currently spend on these sorts of card games (not much), it just doesn’t belong in my collection...”

I rated the game a 5, and expected I would probably not play it again. That proved to be an incorrect assumption, largely because a review copy has arrived at our game store, allowing us to play it at will and people have been generally interested in exploring it. I’ve since played it six more times across player counts and my opinion of it has improved mildly. I am still not going to get a copy, but my reason for doing it is a bit different then it was before.

So first off, I no longer feel the game is particularly repetitive. Deck composition, and technology card purchases have a pretty big impact on how the game plays out, and further play has allowed me to develop a further appreciation for mixed strategies and how to properly take advantage of the produce consume cycle. I’ve spent most of my recent games focusing more on fast colonization strategies, but even with that there has been plenty of variation in how the game plays out based on the above noted sources of variation. So as I implied in my initial comment, there are interesting strategies to be found in the game, and I have been slowly and steadily finding them. Thus I have raised Eminent Domain’s rating to a 6.

Why only a 6? Well, while I find the decisions to be found in Eminent Domain to be more interesting than I initially thought, it lacks one of the things that I think really sets my favorites apart from the rest, and that is the ability to really cut loose and, through careful preparation and manipulation of the deck, do pretty crazy and amazing things. Innovation and Glory to Rome have these wild and crazy things built into their DNA, Puzzle Strike implements thanks to how the deck-building interacts with the fighting system and the wonderful cascades that result, Yomi can have wild swings in fortune that are built on a combination of proper planning and leading your opponent into believing the situation is under their control when it really is not, and Race For the Galaxy pulls it off thanks to the sheer wildness of the variety of things you can do in the game. Eminent Domain has some of this in a few of the upper level technology cards, but for the most part it is a bit restrained. It feels like it is tacked on the end of the game rather than written into the game’s DNA itself like it is for these other card games that I prefer.

Compared to most of the other card games I’ve played, a 6 is not bad. As of now its ranked sixth of seventeen card games, and has little likelihood of going down. I fully expect to play it more, as I do not mind it and it is fairly popular at game night right now. Who knows, maybe it will grow on me even more over time? Then again, I still haven't tried 51st State and I have some new people I haven't taught these other card games to yet... So we'll see what happens.
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Fri Sep 16, 2011 2:43 pm
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