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QWERTYmartin's Unabridged Insights On Play

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Checking in

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Just in case anyone was wondering, I'm fine Have a very privileged situation in that my wife and I can both work from home, so we're doing shifts working and looking after the 4-year-old who can no longer go to pre-school.

The UK is now under a lockdown of sorts - we're still allowed to go out once a day for exercise, which mainly means a run around the cemetery at the end of the road.

Haven't been keeping up with BGG at all, but we're keeping our Tuesday games night in place as a virtual session. Last night was Bring Your Own Book, Wavelength and Las Vegas (on yucata.de).

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Hope everyone's staying safe and coping well.
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Wed Mar 25, 2020 10:43 am
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An alternative top 100 / Hall of Fame

Martin G
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I've been playing with the data available here showing the number of unique users logging plays of a game each year.

Here are the two simple criteria I came up with to generate a list of games that have been popular over an extended period.

1. Published at least 5 years ago -- anything 2015+ has not yet had time to demonstrate longevity.

2. Appears in the top 100 games ranked by number of unique players in at least 5 different years


I picked 2005 as the start of the window of plays I looked at (since play logging data gets sparse before that) and 2019 as the end.

Pleasingly, this generated a list of exactly 100 games, which I present in descending order of number of appearances, oldest first within each tier.

I honestly think this list of games is a better representation of modern gaming than the top 100 by ranking, and would make a great starting point for a Hall of Fame.

See the games here! An alternative top 100 based on popularity over time
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Thu Feb 13, 2020 2:44 pm
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A tale of two Azuls: what makes a great drafting game?

Martin G
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What makes a drafting game work for me? That’s the question I pondered after my first play of Azul: Summer Pavilion this weekend. I’ve played Azul 30+ times and it’s my favourite ‘draft stuff from the middle to use in your personal area’ game. But I loathed Summer Pavilion, and was unimpressed by Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra too (though I’ve forgotten the details of that one so won’t mention it further).

At first glance, this extreme bipolar reaction seems odd. Both games have (almost) exactly the same drafting mechanism and what you do on your player mat is also very similar. Over a series of rounds, you collect varying-sized sets of like-coloured tiles in order to place one of them on a marked space on the board, scoring points immediately for adjacent tiles and at the end of the game for specific completed patterns. And the two games get very similar average ratings both on BGG as a whole but also (and more surprisingly to me) from my trusted panel of geekbuddies.

A model of drafting

So what’s the big difference? Here’s where I needed a toy model of what happens in these open drafting games:

From gallery of qwertymartin


Each player has an individual area where they assemble the tiles they collect from a central, shared drafting area. The simplest relationship in the game is between what you have in your individual area and what’s available in the centre (shown by the black arrow on the left). Based on your short-term and long-term goals, you make an assessment of which things in the middle you want most, which can wait for later and which you need to avoid. If this black arrow were all that existed, the game would be essentially multiplayer solitaire with the other players functioning as a randomised input: you’d just take the highest-priority item that’s still available each time it’s your turn.

The two red arrows are where interaction between players comes into the picture. The first prerequisite for meaningful interaction is that by looking at the other players’ individual areas (top right of the diagram) you can easily figure out what their drafting priorities might be. I labelled this arrow ‘readability’ for how easy it is to discern other players’ intentions by glancing at their board. As the action on the individual player mats becomes more complex, not only do you need to spend more brain power figuring out your own board but it also becomes more difficult to read the other players’ boards. Taking complexity to an extreme, readability goes to zero and the game is back to a parallel solo puzzle.

But even if you can easily read the other players’ boards and assess their intentions, there may still be little you can do to act on that information in the drafting choices you make. The most common form of the diagonal red ‘interaction’ arrow is simple denial. If I know something is your top priority but it’s only my second, I might take it first hoping I’ll still get my other pick later. The problem with this weak form of interaction is that in a game with more than two players, spurning your top choice to deny another player theirs may just hurt you both at the expense of the un-involved players.

The triumph of Azul

Finally, we can analyse what (for me) the original Azul does so well in each of these three processes.
Board Game: Azul

In terms of prioritisation, Azul offers very clear short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. There’s what you need right now (because otherwise it might not be available), what you need before the end of this round (completed rows in your pattern lines), and what you need before the end of the game (completed features in your wall).

These priorities are also made highly readable on other players’ boards. Even if you don’t think about what another player’s long-term (endgame) goals are, you can still very easily see what they’re collecting in their pattern lines and what they still need to draft this round to complete them. There’s a significant benefit to completing a row this round rather than leaving it to next. By failing to complete a row, not only do you lose out on an opportunity to place a tile in your wall but you also reduce your flexibility in the next round. This gives each round a strong dramatic arc. The wall area also makes each players’ long-term goals easily readable as they are simple geometric relationships of tiles (rows, columns, sets of colours). This drives the longer arc of the whole game, as even by the mid-game you can see which goals a player is chasing and factor that in to your decision-making.

The other piece of brilliance in Azul is the way it enhances the interaction arrow beyond mere denial. That’s because when you take a set of tiles from the middle, not only do you remove those tiles from circulation but you also change the selection of tiles still available to the other players, as untaken tiles from a factory are piled into the middle. This means that sometimes you can take the thing that’s best for you (considering your individual board) while also denying another player what they need for theirs. For example, causing two pairs of red tiles to be combined and force your opponent to take four if they want any, dropping some onto the floor for negative points. This type of move is what gives the turn-to-turn satisfaction of advancing your goals while making someone else curse you.

The tragedy of Summer Pavilion

So if Summer Pavilion uses the same drafting mechanism and similar individual board action (the player boards are more complex than Azul but less than Sintra), how does it manage to feel so different (and for me inferior)?

Board Game: Azul: Summer Pavilion


The crucial change is the elimination of the pattern lines. Instead, when you draft a set of tiles you just pile them up at the side of your board, only deciding how to spend them on your individual board at the end of the round. That simple change has a massive impact. First, it makes your personal prioritisation less interesting: without upfront commitment the stakes for choosing the wrong tiles are dramatically lowered, as you’ll probably be able to use what you’ve ended up with somehow. There’s no equivalent of getting clogged up with incomplete rows.

Secondly, it reduces the readability of the other players’ boards. There are so many different ways you can spend your tiles that it’s very difficult to infer what another player needs to do. And there’s much less emphasis on the medium-term within-this-round goals as for most placements it doesn’t matter whether you finish them now, only whether you get them done before the end of the game.

It’s not just the removal of the pattern lines but also several other changes in Summer Pavilion that emphasise this trend. Each round now has a different colour designated as ‘wild’; that colour can be spent in the stead of any other, which increases the options and reduces the readability. Similarly completing certain features gives you access to ‘bonus’ tiles from another display, so it’s harder to completely deny a colour to another player. And finally you’re allowed to store up to four tiles from one round to the next, so even if you mess up your drafting and can’t use the tiles yet, they’ll still be useful later -- contrast the punishing floor-tile negative scoring for unusable tiles in the original.

Putting this together, you can see how the differences make the game far less interactive than Azul, even though it uses the same drafting mechanism. Most of the time you can’t set up moves that help you and hinder others, because they’ll almost certainly be able to use the tiles they get ‘stuck with’ anyway. The long-term end-game goals are still quite readable on the other players’ boards -- particularly completing coloured stars of six tiles -- but it’s hard to strongly affect them until the very last round of the game. Even then there’s sufficient flexibility that most players should be able to find a way around blocking attempts. As a result, it often seems best to just take the biggest batch of tiles you can get.

A personal reaction

Interestingly the ‘advanced’ variants for Azul (the joker tiles and the reverse player boards), neither of which I’ve used, seem to take it more in the direction of Summer Pavilion. I even found a comment saying: “The shift to using the opposite side of the board creates such openness that it's nearly impossible to predict what other players want”, which that user seemed to see as a desirable feature but certainly isn't for me. It's also worth noting that Azul loses some of the tense, interactive feel with 4 players, which is why I prefer it with 2 or 3.

There are other comparisons I could mention: the fixed length of Summer Pavilion rather than the original’s player-driven one; the separation of the collection and placement phases stretching the game out to at least 50% longer; the way the end-game scoring encourages players to diversify into different colours from each other, further reducing the interaction, but I think I’ve made my point.

I should stress that this reaction to the two games is personal. If, like me, what you valued about Azul was the tension and interaction of the drafting, the satisfaction of pulling off a double-edge move, and the looming threat of a bunch of negative points, then I’d suggest you stay far away from this iteration. If you found yourself enjoying puzzling your wall together but bemoaning the ‘meanness’ and preferring the 4p game, Summer Pavilion could be right up your street.
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Mon Feb 10, 2020 3:00 pm
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New to me Jan 2020

Martin G
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I'm trying to focus on new games a bit less this year. January was a decent start, with only three.

Wavelength is excellent and likely to be the favourite big-group closer with my group for a while. The premise sounds a bit odd: try to give a clue that indicates a specific point on a spectrum between two extremes - 'hot vs cold', 'overrated vs underrated' etc. What makes it brilliant is the debates that ensue and what you learn about your fellow players along the way.

Small Indigo Plant is a curious little 2p microgame that reminded me in part of Circle the Wagons and part of NMBR 9. Needs more play to see how clever it is.

TEAM3 PINK is a co-op/team party game where one blindfolded player tries to build a structure out of blocks that another non-speaking player can see a picture of. The third player interprets the sign language of the latter into instructions for the former. I could live without playing it again.
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Sun Feb 2, 2020 9:27 pm
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Babylonia review

Martin G
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Laszlo Molnar
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Budapest
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Samurai, Tigris, Yellow, Babylonia. Through the Desert, Ingenious, Stephensons Rocket also rock!
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Knizia tile laying rules! Samurai is #1, closely followed by the three games with two rivers
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and I have posted a monster (6500 word!) review of Knizia's new tile-laying game Babylonia:

Where is Babylonia? A pair of Kniziaphiles discuss how Reiner's new tile-laying game fits into his ludography

I won't crosspost here but please check it out!
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Fri Jan 31, 2020 10:21 am
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My decade in games

Martin G
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Bristol
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Decade retrospectives are all the rage right now, so here's mine: Qwertymartin's decade in games. I've tried to make it at least as much about the players as the games.
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Mon Jan 13, 2020 12:09 pm
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Mindful purchasing in 2020

Martin G
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Bristol
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In 2020, I'm aiming to stick to a rule of no game purchases except those funded by trading or selling and old game. I hope this will make me really consider each purchase because I know I have to get rid of something first. I'd like it to also prompt me to get more out of all those games I already own, both those I love but don't play enough any more and those that have gone underplayed.

To help keep me honest/add a bit of competition, Sam, the other main game-buyer in our group is playing along with me. He's already got 30 unplayed games to catch up on (I only have three) and he's tracking those in a new blog: The Great Unplayed

I'll also be updating my progress in my annual geeklist: Games acquired in 2020 and the excuses I used, which will hopefully be a lot shorter than usual!
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Tue Jan 7, 2020 4:40 pm
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Q4 2019 review

Martin G
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A quarter, a year and a decade over!

Total plays: 133

Distinct games: 63

New-to-me games: 7

Dimes: 0

Nickels: 5 - The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (8), Hurlyburly (8), The Mind Extreme (8), Hats (7), Crokinole (6)

LoBsterCon was the jewel in the crown of another good quarter.

And now a look at the collection.

Acquired: 9 - Clash of the Gladiators, Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Babylonia, Hurlyburly, The Mind Extreme, Sissi!: Die Bohnenkaiserin, Letter Jam, Mandala

Removed: 0

Owned: 220 (excluding expansions - up from 211 at end Q3)

Unplayed: 3 - Res Publica, Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation, Sissi!: Die Bohnenkaiserin

A bit of a splurge at the end of the year, with a few ferried back from Essen for me, but I'm really pleased with my picks.

Best new-to-me: has to be the brilliant co-op trick-taker The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine but Babylonia, Hurlyburly and The Mind Extreme are excellent too.

10  6 nimmt! (152 all-time)
10  Baseball Highlights: 2045 (39 all-time)
10  Cosmic Encounter (39 all-time)
10  Innovation x2 (81 all-time)
10  Pax Porfiriana (84 all-time)
10  Ra (72 all-time)
10  Tigris & Euphrates (64 all-time)
10  Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD (23 all-time)
9  Azul (34 all-time)
9  Crokinole x6 (31 all-time)
9  Decrypto x2 (17 all-time)
9  Eggs of Ostrich (39 all-time)
9  For Sale x3 (49 all-time)
9  Hanamikoji x2 (23 all-time)
9  Jump Drive x4 (118 all-time)
9  Just One x4 (20 all-time)
9  Lords of Vegas (13 all-time)
9  Mamma Mia! (25 all-time)
9  Montage x2 (6 all-time)
9  Northern Pacific (9 all-time)
9  Polterfass (16 all-time)
9  Senators x2 (13 all-time)
9  The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine x8 NEW!
8  Air, Land & Sea x3 (10 all-time)
8  Babylonia x4 NEW!
8  Hats x7 (12 all-time)
8  Krass Kariert (15 all-time)
8  Maskmen x4 (14 all-time)
8  Ninety-Nine (6 all-time)
8  Res Arcana x2 (26 all-time)
7  Belratti (5 all-time)
7  Blitzkrieg! NEW!
7  Bring Your Own Book (3 all-time)
7  Can't Stop (8 all-time)
7  Clash of the Gladiators x2 NEW!
7  Dragon's Breath x2 (7 all-time)
7  Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings NEW!
7  First Contact NEW!
7  Good Little Tricks (5 all-time)
7  Guess Club x2 NEW!
7  Heul doch! Mau Mau (11 all-time)
7  Hit Z Road (5 all-time)
7  Hurlyburly x8 NEW!
7  Kribbeln (12 all-time)
7  L.L.A.M.A. x3 (19 all-time)
7  Letter Jam x3 NEW!
7  Mandala x3 NEW!
7  Startups x2 NEW!
7  Stinker x3 (7 all-time)
7  The Mind Extreme x8 NEW!
7  Ticket to Ride: London x3 (7 all-time)
6  5211 x2 NEW!
6  Conspiracy NEW!
6  Gold Fever (5 all-time)
6  Handsome (2 all-time)
6  Karambolage x2 NEW!
6  Medium NEW!
6  NMBR 9 (4 all-time)
5  Nine Tiles Panic NEW!
5  Point Salad NEW!
4  Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale NEW!
N/A  Geistesblitz Junior NEW!
N/A  The Game of Ladybirds NEW!
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Wed Jan 1, 2020 4:57 pm
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New to me November 19

Martin G
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What a great month!

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine - 5 plays -  9 
First Published 2019
Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine


This is probably going to be my game of 2019 and I wrote it up in full here: Join The Crew -- for trick-taking pros and newbies alike!

Babylonia - 3 plays -  8 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Babylonia


I really enjoyed my three plays of this new, fairly meaty Knizia. It seems to have some DNA from Samurai (hand-management of a personal deck of tiles, area majority around cities), Blue Lagoon (racing to make and cut off connections, multiple scoring categories) and even Taj Mahal (scoring networks and 'goods' repeatedly as they increase in size).

I suspect this will replace Blue Lagoon for me, as the scoring is more interdependent and the tempo more interesting, and I've already seen that a variety of different approaches to scoring can be successful.

Hurlyburly - 4 plays -  7 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Hurlyburly


I was asked if this is "just silliness or a genuine game?", to which my answer is that it is a very silly genuine game!

The idea here is that you're each building your own Rhino-Hero-style tower out of folded cards, but you also have the opportunity to catapult blocks at your opponents' towers and capture useful building material from the rubble. The 'catapults' are just cards stuck into a plastic stand and with another plastic clip to hold the block in place, but they work surprisingly well!

There are some 'genuine game' options in that each turn you have to choose between building your own tower higher, firing at others, improving your catapult (you can add extra thicknesses of card which make it stiffer and more accurate) or building defences in front of your tower.

We laughed a lot!

Guess Club - 2 plays -  7 
First Published 2017
Board Game: Guess Club


A party game in which each round you have to think up six examples for a chosen category (we had 'characters from the bible', 'superheroes and villains' and 'games that can be played with 8 players' for example) and write them on your hand of cards. Your aim is to pick things that other players will also have picked, but not ones that are so obvious that everyone will have picked them.

Each turn, a player chooses one of their cards to reveal; anyone else who wrote the same thing discards it and the active player scoops the current pot of money. But if no one had a match, instead they pay into the pot.

If you're not feeling confident of a match, your other option is to place a bet on *how many* successful matches will be found before the round ends (which is when any player is out of cards).

This was a lot of fun and we played a second game as soon as we'd finished the first.

The Mind Extreme - 5 plays -  7 
First Published 2019
Board Game: The Mind Extreme


I think of this more as an expansion than a whole new game, and that's perfect for me as I've played the original game a bunch and find that we can regularly win it.

Here you have two colours of cards, each running 1-50. They're all mixed together, so you'll have a mixture of whites and reds in your hand. They need to be played on to two separate piles, the whites in ascending order and the reds in descending. Everything else is the same as the original, except that on some of the levels one or both piles have to be played face down!

It's a great extra challenge and we had a ton of fun, but I wouldn't recommend it as a first Mind experience.

Letter Jam - 1 play -  7 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Letter Jam


I thought this was a very clever idea that maybe wasn't quite as fun as I'd hoped. It seemed quite easy to give clues that let the other players figure out their letter in one attempt - there wasn't much deduction needed. I believe there are ways to increase the difficulty though, and I've got a copy coming so I will play more soon.

5211 - 1 play -  6 
First Published 2019
Board Game: 5211


I'd played this before as 5 COLORS and I'm not sure why it's a separate entry. The only difference I noticed was less functional graphic design (the yellow used is near invisible). Either way, it's a fun little simultaneous-play speculation thing.

Conspiracy - 1 play -  6 
First Published 1973
Board Game: Conspiracy


This has recently got the Restoration Games treatment (superfluous player powers ahoy!) but we played the original (1973) version. Eight 'agents' move around a network trying to pick up a briefcase and return it to the player's home city. But no player 'owns' an agent, you just each secretly invest in them behind a screen. So any move one player makes with an agent can be challenged by another, with an auction resulting. Would like to try it again now I've seen how it plays out.

Point Salad - 1 play -  5 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Point Salad


Extremely simple and rather bland drafting game. Each card is one of six types of salad ingredient on one side and one of 100 different scoring goals on the other. Each turn you draft either one scoring goal or two ingredients. The goals are nothing exciting - just variants of "5VP per pair of tomatoes", "10VP for most carrots" etc.

Nine Tiles Panic - 1 play -  5 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Nine Tiles Panic


Cute and quick but it's still just everyone working their own simultaneous puzzle, which isn't my favoured style.

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale - 1 play -  4 
First Published 2019
Board Game: Cartographers


Speaking of which, this is a generic Tetris-filling 'flip and write' with the supposed novelty of introducing 'interaction' by having some of the shapes filled in by an opponent on your pad.
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Sun Dec 1, 2019 3:56 pm
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Join The Crew -- for trick-taking pros and newbies alike!

Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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The joy of trick taking games is that each deal gives you a fresh puzzle to figure out. How am I going to get where I want to go with this hand? As you play more trick-takers (and there are many!), you learn the meta-strategies for forecasting how a hand might play out and deducing what your opponents are holding. Voiding a suit so you can ditch unwanted cards; running a long suit until everyone else is out of it; and not being caught out when your opponents turn those tricks on you!

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine does two remarkable things. Most obviously it turns the individual, competitive puzzle of evaluating your hand into a collective, co-operative one, aided by a wonderful restricted communication system. But more than that its mission structure works a bit like a tutorial in the strategies outlined above, making this a game that can appeal not just to trick-taking aficionados but also as a perfect introduction to the genre for anyone.

The best way to illustrate this is to take a look at the very first mission, which introduces the core concepts of the game. As in every mission, the 40 cards (1-9 in each of four suits, 1-4 in a trump suit) are distributed evenly and the player holding the highest trump becomes the ‘commander’. As commander they’re first to draft a ‘task’ and first to lead. Tasks are drawn from another deck of 1-9 in the 4 suits (no trumps in this deck) and by taking one a player commits themself to winning the trick containing that card. The trick play itself is ‘standard’ – you must follow suit if you can, you can play anything if you can’t and the highest card in the led suit wins, unless a trump was played.

Mission 1 has just one task, so the commander is obliged to take it. Sometimes the deal will be kind: if the task is ‘9 yellow’ and the commander holds the same card in hand, she simply leads it and the other players refrain from trumping. Mission complete!

But what if the task is ‘9 yellow’ and the commander doesn’t hold that card? There are two possibilities to still succeed: the commander can get rid of any yellows they hold and then trump the trick in which the 9 is eventually played; or the commander can lead a suit that the holder of the 9 is out of, allowing them to toss the 9 yellow in as a discard. The risk of failure is that the player holding the 9 is forced to play it before they are ready – say the commander leads yellow but the 9-holder has no more yellows and is forced to win the trick with it.

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

Crucially, The Crew gives the players a limited line of communication to avoid these mishaps. Once per mission attempt, immediately before any trick, each player has the opportunity to put one card from their hand face-up on the table and indicate with a token whether it is their only card of that suit, their highest of that suit, or their lowest. So in the situation just mentioned, a player might swiftly lay the 9 down and indicate it is as their only yellow, or if they happened to have the 8 and the 9, could give even more information by indicating the 8 as their lowest yellow.

Hopefully this discussion shows that, as in all good trick-takers, a large amount of variability and replayability comes from the random deal of the cards. What if the commander’s task was ‘1 pink’? Should be easy enough if they don’t hold it but do have a high pink; tougher if they do!

But rather than providing just one mode of play, The Crew gradually ramps up the challenge through a ‘logbook’ of 50 missions that introduce new concepts and expand existing ones. In Mission 2, two players have a task. In Mission 3, the order the two tasks must be completed in is specified. In Mission 6, communication is limited to placing a highest/lowest/only card face-up but not getting to specify which of those conditions it meets. In Mission 12, after the first trick, everyone has to draw a random card from the player on their right.

Delightfully, in our last session, this mission left me holding all 4 trumps and the card I’d picked as my task. So we had just 6 tricks instead of 10 to make sure that we completed all 4 tasks, because I would then be stuck winning every other trick! This is the type of interesting puzzle The Crew will throw up again and again, allowing players to hone their trick-play and communication. I’m only up to level 14 so far and can’t wait to see what else is in store!

There are a few aspects that could be viewed negatively. It seems that The Crew will be most rewarding played all the way through with the same group, but that will take multiple sessions even without a lot of failed mission attempts. It seems unfair not to return to some of the early levels with new players to get them up to speed. Furthermore it seems optimised for 4 players. With 3, I’ve heard that the larger number of tricks per hand can make it feel a bit too easy, and with 5 the opposite problem occurs (though there is a tweak to the difficultly for higher levels with 5p). With 2, a dummy hand has to be introduced to retain some mystery: I’ve not tried it but these modes are often cumbersome.

You might also have noticed that I’ve made no reference to the ‘theme’ of a crew of astronauts attempting to discover ‘Planet 9’ – it’s of the pasted-on variety, though there is a short thematic paragraph in the log book to introduce each mission. And finally, the card quality in the current edition is poor for a deck that will require a lot of shuffling – it may be worth waiting for the English edition which promises linen cards as well as an official translation of the rules and mission text (I'm already planning to buy it again!)

Those caveats noted, I find The Crew delightful. Trick-takers and limited communication co-ops are two genres I love and this combines them brilliantly, while hopefully being an enticing way to hook new players on trick-taking too. It’s early, but I’d be surprised if it isn’t at least a nominee for the 2020 Spiel des Jahres and I'd be delighted to see it win.

[photo credits to KOSMOS and BGG user Einsiedler]
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Thu Nov 28, 2019 12:06 pm
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