Two elderly Knizias - how uncharacteristic of me
Clash of the Gladiators - 2 plays - 7
First Published 2002
Clash of the Gladiators has a sub-6 geek rating and is seen as an atypical 'Knizia does Ameritrash'. But actually its clever use of dice probabilities is very Knizian.
You each draft 4 teams of 4 gladiators form the different types available: swordsmen give you extra dice, spears let you roll first, prongs give you a re-roll, shieldbearers block hits and net throwers deactivate the other team's powers. Then you just go at it, taking turns to pick a target and chuck dice. There are also some wild animals in the arena to target and in a brilliant twist, if all your gladiators are eliminated you get to start controlling the animals! Great silly fun.
Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings - 1 play - 7
First Published 2005
I used the opportunity of my 40th birthday to finally convince a couple of friends to try 'T&E the card game', a long-time 'owned but unplayed'. And it's... fine. It hews so closely to the original that learning it is a breeze and I enjoyed the hand-management twist whereby you need to have matching cards to discard from hand each time you want to score a point. The odd thing is that the conversion from a 2-D grid to essentially a line loses a lot of the best bits of the original while not actually saving much table space.
Startups - 1 play - 7
First Published 2017
Another promising Oink game from the prolific Jun Sasaki. Startups is a majorities card game with the interesting scoring twist that the points you get for a majority in a suit are determined by the minority holdings. So if you have the most red but no one else has any, it's worthless; you need to entice people into the suits you're going to end up dominating. There's also a neat No-Thanks-like mechanism where undesirable cards accumulate chips on them until they're eventually worth taking.
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Hats - 5 plays - 8
First Published 2019
It's a distinctly Knizian set-collection/investment card game that reminds me most of Loco/Botswana/Wildlife Safari/Quandary/Flinke Pinke/Thor (!) but with more going on. Essentially it's just a deck of seven suits of 1-6 but with a rather lavish production, including a plastic 'cookie' that is just used to award five bonus points at the end of the game. The artwork and card quality are both excellent.
The idea is that each turn you put one of your hand cards into a central display with 6 slots, taking the card that you replaced into a personal collection that sits in front of you. By the end of the hand you'll have 8 cards in front of you, and they will each score according to which suits occupy the slots in the central board. e.g. if there's a red card in the 4-point slot then all collected red cards will be worth 4.
The crucial restriction is that you can only make a swap with a card of the same suit or a higher value. So once a 6 is on the central board, that suit can only be dislodged by being substituted by another card of the same suit and then outranked by another.
There are some additional wrinkles: you also keep one card in your hand, which signifies your 'favourite' colour. For that suit you score the face value of everything you collected minus the value of the card left in your hand. And the 'cookie' bonus is for having collected the most different suits.
Put it all together and there is a lot going on for a small card game, with each play having multiple possible ramifications. And because the collected cards go face-up, you can easily track what might still be out there too. I liked it a lot as a thinky 2p but also 3p introduces the possibility of fleeting alliances. And 4p sounds interestingly different too, as you play in partnerships and can exchange cards with your partner. Really impressed!
Dragon's Breath - 5 plays - 7
First Published 2017
Visited a games shop with my 3-year-old daughter for the first time and picked out this HABA Kinderspiel winner. We both loved it! A bunch of multi-coloured gems are stacked up inside a tower made up of 8 or 9 rings. Each turn one player will remove the top ring but before that each player in turn gets to pick one of the five colours of gem. You then get to keep all the gems matching your colour that fall out of the tower when the ring is removed.
There's a little bit of skill to predicting what will fall and a little bit of dexterity in how you remove the ring. But most importantly Effie can have fun with it without doing any of that - she understands the rules (and explained them to my wife) and can take her turn perfectly. The physical design of the game is brilliant, making use of the box too, and the story is cute - the players are dragon babies trying to collect gems from an ice tower with the help of their fire-breathing dad.
Irish Gauge - 1 play - 6
First Published 2014
A 'cube rails' game originally published by Winsome but now prettified. It's designed by Tom Russell, who also did the brilliant Northern Pacific, but it's a lot more similar to Chicago Express. The main difference is the random element of drawing cubes from a bag to determine which lines pay dividends. For me, it had the same problems that led to me getting rid of Chicago Express despite admiring it. Opaque, needs repeat plays by the same group to shine, but is unlikely to get them.
Yōkai - 2 plays - 6
First Published 2019
A moderately interesting 'co-op that can't be played solo'. Cards in four colours are face down in a square grid and the objective is to get matching colours adjacent to each other in as few moves as possible. Each turn one player gets to look at the underside of two cards and then move a card. There are also hint cards which can be placed on top of cards (e.g. "this card is red or blue") but once a card has a hint on it no one can look at it any more. There are lots of options for modifying the difficulty level too.
Songbirds - 1 play - 5
First Published 2016
A colours and numbers thing where you play out hand cards to a communal grid, trying to make the suit of the one card you don't play be worth the most points. I suspect it's better with fewer players, but it paled in comparison to the somewhat-similar Hats.
passtally - 1 play - 5
First Published 2018
A rather brain-burny abstract with elements of Taluva and Tsuro - building routes across the board by laying and stacking tiles. You're also trying to disrupt your opponent's routes at the same time so there's a lot of back-and-forth creating and destroying roughly the same routes. I didn't love it.
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Yikes, no posts since my last quarterly review! Must do better... but it was a fun summer
Total plays: 118
Distinct games: 56
New-to-me games: 14
Dimes: 1 - Heul doch! Mau Mau
Nickels: 4 - L.L.A.M.A. (9), Q.E. (5), Hats (5), Dragon's Breath (5)
A pretty standard quarter, plays-wise. No major events, but a steady stream of games night tapas!
And now a look at the collection.
Acquired: 5 - Ticket to Ride: London, Q.E., Heul doch! Mau Mau, Hats, Dragon's Breath
Removed: 1 - Brass
Owned: 211 (excluding expansions - up from 203 at end Q1)
Unplayed: 2 - Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings, Res Publica
Pleased with all of these. A couple of fun card games, a fascinating economic filler, another quick TTR that I like a bit better than New York and the result of my first games-shopping trip with my 3-year-old daughter! Brass is still a great game but I'd *never* played my copy and can't see me doing any time soon.
Best new-to-me: have really enjoyed the aforementioned QE and Hats but I'll give it to Pax Pamir: Second Edition which seems to have kept all the best bits of the original while making it far more accessible. Four face-to-face plays and a couple on Vassal and I'm hungry for more.
10 Cribbage (125 all-time)
10 Race for the Galaxy x2 (246 all-time)
10 The Mind x4 (64 all-time)
10 Tichu (47 all-time)
10 Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD x3 (22 all-time)
9 Decrypto (15 all-time)
9 Eggs of Ostrich x3 (38 all-time)
9 Fuji Flush (60 all-time)
9 Impulse (25 all-time)
9 Jump Drive (114 all-time)
9 Mamma Mia! (24 all-time)
9 Metropolys (21 all-time)
9 Polterfass (15 all-time)
9 Senators (11 all-time)
9 Voodoo Prince x3 (16 all-time)
8 Air, Land & Sea x3 (7 all-time)
8 Hats x5 NEW!
8 Just One x2 (16 all-time)
8 Maskmen (10 all-time)
8 Northern Pacific (8 all-time)
8 Pax Pamir (Second Edition) x4 NEW!
8 Q.E. x5 NEW!
8 Res Arcana x4 (24 all-time)
8 Team Play (14 all-time)
8 Throne and the Grail x2 (21 all-time)
8 Traders of Osaka (12 all-time)
7 Backgammon (11 all-time)
7 Belratti x2 (4 all-time)
7 Dead Man's Chest (12 all-time)
7 Dragon's Breath x5 NEW!
7 Fool! (2 all-time)
7 Gheos (2 all-time)
7 Heul doch! Mau Mau x10 NEW!
7 Insider (9 all-time)
7 Kribbeln (11 all-time)
7 LLAMA x9 (16 all-time)
7 Mini Rails (3 all-time)
7 Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition (15 all-time)
7 Stinker x4 NEW!
7 Ticket to Ride: London x4 NEW!
7 Too Many Cooks (2 all-time)
7 Zero Down (9 all-time)
6 Brave Little Belgium NEW!
6 Flotsam Fight x2 NEW!
6 Frank's Zoo (3 all-time)
6 Irish Gauge NEW!
6 Karate Tomate (2 all-time)
6 Memoarrr! x2 (3 all-time)
6 Nakanuki Paradise (3 all-time)
6 PUSH x2 (4 all-time)
6 Panic Lab x2 (6 all-time)
6 Rollet x2 NEW!
6 Yōkai x2 NEW!
6 passtally NEW!
5 Songbirds NEW!
4 Twenty One (2 all-time)
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Here's my regular quarterly look at what I've been playing and buying.
Total plays: 142
Distinct games: 59
New-to-me games: 19
Dimes: 2 - Res Arcana (20), Senators (10)
Nickels: 5 - Just One (8), Maskmen (8), L.L.A.M.A. (7), Innovation (5), Jump Drive (5)
Numbers swelled by a wonderful-as-ever LoBsterCon and a great weekend with an old friend/deadly rival. Lunchtime gaming resumed too as Joe's workload lifted a bit.
And now a look at the collection.
Acquired: 4 - Too Many Cooks, Karate Tomate, L.L.A.M.A., Situation 4
Owned: 207 (excluding expansions - up from 203 at end Q1)
Unplayed: 2 - Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings, Res Publica
My Knizia fetish gets the better of me again with 3 of his card games acquired. I'm still on a net spend of only £10 this year though.
Best new-to-me: Senators is brilliantly mean. Res Arcana continues to prove that Tom Lehmann is the exception to the rule when it comes to my preferences.
10 Cosmic Encounter x2 (38 all-time)
10 Innovation x5 (79 all-time)
10 Ra (71 all-time)
10 The Mind (60 all-time)
10 Tichu (46 all-time)
10 Tigris & Euphrates (63 all-time)
10 Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD x3 (19 all-time)
9 Azul x3 (33 all-time)
9 Beowulf: The Legend (19 all-time)
9 Circle the Wagons x2 (45 all-time)
9 Decrypto (14 all-time)
9 Elements x3 (42 all-time)
9 Fuji Flush (59 all-time)
9 Hanamikoji x2 (21 all-time)
9 Jump Drive x5 (113 all-time)
9 Liar's Dice (77 all-time)
9 Pairs (101 all-time)
9 Polterfass (14 all-time)
9 Sticheln (15 all-time)
8 Iron Curtain x3 (24 all-time)
8 Just One x8 (14 all-time)
8 Krass Kariert (14 all-time)
8 Maskmen x8 (9 all-time)
8 Northern Pacific x2 (7 all-time)
8 Push It x3 (21 all-time)
8 Res Arcana x20 NEW!
8 Senators x10 NEW!
8 Texas Showdown (12 all-time)
8 The Fox in the Forest x2 (11 all-time)
8 Throne and the Grail x4 (19 all-time)
7 Air, Land & Sea x4 NEW!
7 Beat the Buzzard (10 all-time)
7 Belratti x2 NEW!
7 Cockroach Poker (7 all-time)
7 Dead Man's Chest (11 all-time)
7 Diamant (15 all-time)
7 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (5 all-time)
7 Flanx (12 all-time)
7 Good Little Tricks (4 all-time)
7 Insider (8 all-time)
7 Kribbeln (10 all-time)
7 LAMA x7 NEW!
7 Nakanuki Paradise (2 all-time)
7 Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition x3 (13 all-time)
7 Sol: Last Days of a Star x2 NEW!
7 Too Many Cooks NEW!
6 Handsome NEW!
6 Karate Tomate NEW!
6 Kariba x2 NEW!
6 PUSH x2 NEW!
6 Situation 4 NEW!
6 The Bremens NEW!
6 Zogen NEW!
5 Kami NEW!
5 Not Alone NEW!
5 Spy Tricks NEW!
5 TomaTomato NEW!
4 Multiuniversum NEW!
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I'd briefly looked at Air, Land, & Sea when it was added to the geeklist Games like Battle Line (area control card games, mostly without a board), so I was pleased to see my friend Joe had picked up a copy. I had a lot of fun with 'meaty microgames' like Circle the Wagons and Iron Curtain and this sounded like it might pack a similar punch in just 18 cards.
So what's it all about? It's like Battle Line in that you're simultaneously contesting multiple areas by playing cards to them, and you win a round by controlling a majority. But here it's only three areas (you guessed it - Air, Land and Sea) and they're not fought over with poker hands but just total value of cards played. You also only get the six cards you're dealt to play in each round - no extra draws.
The cards come in suits matching the three theatres, each with values of 1-6, and you can only play a card to your side of its matching domain. So where are the decisions? Isn't the outcome pre-determined by the cards you are dealt? Well, not quite...
The first complication is that you can play a card 'out of suit' by turning it face down. Instead of its normal face value, you always only get a value of 2 for those cards, but it does give you some flexibility.
More importantly, each card has a special power, some of which are immediate and some permanent. For example Blockade lets you return a previously-played card to your hand and then take another turn; Air Drop lets you play your card next turn to any theatre; and Cover Fire makes any card under it worth 4 instead of its face value (great if you've got a few face-down cards!).
The neatest thing in the design is the way the face-down cards interact with the powers. There are several powers which can 'flip' other cards, either your opponent's or your own. This potentially lets you deactivate irritating permanent powers or neuter high-valued cards on your opponent's side. But it also lets you flip your own face-down cards over, at which point their special power activates, potentially setting off chain reactions.
It's not a total free-for-all though. When you play a card to a theater that already has a card, it 'covers' it. That leaves the value and any persistent power of the covered card intact, but prevents it being flipped. So you can act to protect your key assets.
The face-down cards and the fact that six cards are left out of each round completely leads to a nice cat-and-mouse feel, which will only be enhanced once the players are more familiar with the available powers.
But of course you might just get dealt a terrible hand -- since you need to win 2 out of 3 theaters, you don't want your strength spread evenly over all three, and having a bunch of low cards will hurt too. The design provides for a nice work-around for that too. Winning a battle played to completion is worth 6 points - half what you need for victory. But if you feel sure you're going to lose, you can withdraw early, with a sliding scale of points conceded depending on how many cards you had left in hand at the time.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this. It's another great entry in the impressive recent field of 20-minute, 18-card microgames and I look forward to giving it a few more goes soon.
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This isn't a review but a very positive first-play impression of Sol: Last Days of a Star - a remarkably assured and restrained design for a first-time-designer Kickstarter-funded game. What's so good about it?
A bold theme
Sol is set around a dying star. The post-scarcity civilisation which has relied on it is desperately trying to harvest enough energy from the sun to escape in their Arks before it goes supernova. That's already an original and intriguing concept, but the way it is executed is even more impressive. There's no unnecessary bloat - just an almost-abstract dance of pieces through space that nevertheless evokes the setting beautifully.
The clearest example of this is in the way each player's mothership orbits the sun, moving one space each turn whether you like it or not. The mothership is also where you must launch all your probes ('sundivers') from, from where they descend into the sun, constructing and exploiting static stations. So you need to plan ahead, constructing stations ready to exploit on your next lap of the sun, when you can drop another posse of sundivers.
I love boardgames to have a shared spatial arena in which the players interact (rather than the individual boards that have become so common). As alluded to above, Sol does that brilliantly. The board is a circle made up of five layers, from the core of the sun out to outer orbit. The motherships gracefully orbit the edge while sundivers must be released and deployed to the lower layers.
Importantly, to access the inner layers of the sun, you'll have to construct 'gates', which drive the evolving geometry of the board. And why do you want to dive into the sun? Because the three types of station (which supply energy, convert energy into new sundivers, or into 'momentum' (VP)) are more powerful the closer to the sun they are deployed. Soon clusters of stations form around the access provided by a sequence of gates.
Another huge element in the feel of the game is that you can use other players' gates and stations, by paying or sharing the benefit with them. So the players don't just form their own clusters of gates and stations for private exploitation; they co-depend on each other, especially as your mothership often won't be above the stuff you built! I love this mutualistic element in a game - the combination of spatial development and mutual exploitation reminds me of the Kramer/Kiesling Mask games.
A simple menu
Meanwhile, Sol borrows from another of my favourite designers, Knizia, in the turn and action choice structure. The players simply alternate turns round and round until the game ends (no complex phases) and on each turn have the same three-way choice: launch and move sundivers; convert sundivers into a new gate or station; or activate existing stations with sundivers to harvest their benefits. Of course that leads into a cascade of further decisions -- the move action gives you 3-8 action points to spend on movements; conversion is only possible by getting your sundivers into the appropriate pattern for the structure you wish to construct; and activation can only be of one *type* of station per turn, again driving you to make use of the other players' infrastructure.
The choice of action is informed by the game's economy, which has just three basic currencies: momentum (straight up VP); energy (which you need to build sundivers and gain momentum); and sundivers (which you need to build and activate structures. In another clever twist, to activate the big benefits of a centrally-placed structure, you have to be able to do all of it in one go: it's no good activating a 'convert 5 energy to 5 momentum' tower if you only have four. Furthermore, if you activate an opponent's structure and they don't have the necessary resources to take their bonus, you can take it instead! Timing is crucial...
Honestly, if that was everything there was, this would still be a great game. But it also has an ingenious system to introduce game-to-game variability without overwhelming the basic structure. At the beginning of the game, about 5 special powers (depending on player count) are selected from a deck of 30, and each associated with a particular colour matching a suit in the 'instability deck' of cards. The cards themselves are just colours - they get their meaning through the powers selected.
Building or activating structures lower in the sun triggers more draws from the event deck, as you accelerate the instability. But even if you draw eight cards on your turn, you only get to choose and keep one of them, and it replaces any card you'd previously kept. That keeps the power of the special events in check, and avoids combo-driven uber-turns.
What about the special powers themselves? They're divided into simpler, more complex, and more evil so you can either choose randomly or customise for a beginner, expert or more fighty experience. They do enough to make the game different each time without overwhelming the core.
A race to the finish
What's more, the instability deck is the game clock. Once all 13 of the red suit ('solar flares') has been drawn, the game immediately comes to a close, whoever has the most momentum escaping the supernova. As the red cards pile up, activity grows more frantic, and you can even hurl sundivers directly into the core of the sun, eliminating them from the game, in order to eke out a few more momentum points from the resulting shockwave.
What was I most impressed about in my first play of Sol? For one, that when we were asked what other games it's like, none of us had an immediate and obvious answer. And for another, that it knows just what it wants to do and does it with restraint. This doesn't feel churned out, it feels crafted and I'm really looking forward to seeing what more plays unveil.
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The May bank holiday weekend means only one thing - time to head to Eastbourne for LoBsterCon! This is the 17th instalment, of which I've made it to 13, and it's gradually grown to an attendance of around 150 while retaining a lovely cosy feel. Here are the highlights.
The main reason I go is to catch up with my oldest gaming buddies, some from back when I first started going to London on Board in 2008. As an added bonus, one of them (Adam) has recently moved close to Bristol and gave me, Sarah and Effie a ride down (let's not mention his car breaking down the day before or Effie's motion sickness).
This is the second time an American BGG buddy has made it to LoBsterCon while visiting the UK. It was fantastic to meet my fellow MeatballUnited States
New YorkMany painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of "you can't" once and for all. --Vincent Van Gogh
and his wife Jen, and particularly to school them at their favourite game, Tichu
It would be all too easy to spend the whole weekend in the gaming rooms but we usually try to get out on to the beach for some Crossboule and an ice cream. This time something more extravagant was planned! LoBster Robin is an England croquet player and booked a couple of lawns at the Eastbourne croquet club to give us a masterclass. It turns out to be quite the strategic and interactive game. You need to think several shots ahead and co-ordinate with your partner while scattering your opponents. Great fun!
...and staying in
Back at the hotel, the marvellous organisers put on several activities and events. I missed the Dutch Auction and its incredible bargains this time but did have my name called in the raffle for the first time ever, even if it was for the very last remaining prize which wasn't even a game! But of course the biggest highlights of the weekend are at the game table.
Playing old favourites...
I try my best to stick to the games I know and love and learnt only one new one all weekend (The Bremens - it was fun!). Several of these are long-standing Eastbourne traditions: Innovation played as a partnership game; Tigris & Euphrates with experienced players (what a delight) and of course Late Night Cosmic. I count Cosmic Encounter as one of my favourite games but I only play it with this group on these occasions and that's fine with me. A more recent, but hopefully long to continue, tradition is the Sunday morning game of Time of Crisis, this time augmented with expansion.
...and introducing new ones
I might not want to learn new games at Eastbourne but I do like teaching them. This time I introduced my three highlights of the year so far: Senators, Northern Pacific and Maskmen. They all seemed to go down well!
As well as the aforementioned Tichu, croquet and Innovation, we had a fantastic 2v2v2 game of Ticket to Ride: Team Asia, definitely my favourite way to play. Sherine and Teri pipped me and Tom by two damn points out of 200, although they lost my respect by spending their first two actions of the game sharing tickets Oh and the brilliantly weird Twilight too!
...and Just One more
Just One turned out to be an absolutely perfect close to the (late) night on both Saturday and Sunday. Up to 7 players, zero rules explanation and several hilarious mess-ups, including not one, not two but three of us trying to clue 'climb' with 'Tichu'.
Here's to many more!
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Senators is a cut-throat auction and extortion game from Rikki Tahta (of Coup fame) and his dad Haig that first appeared in a self-published limited edition at Essen 2017. It’s recently been reissued in glossier English (Indie Boards & Cards) and French (Ferti) editions but seems to be flying under the radar. I played it seven times in April, spanning all player counts, and hugely enjoyed it. Here are some of the reasons why I loved it, but which also explain why it won’t be a game for everyone.
Putting the economy in the players’ hands
At first glance this may look like a same-old-same-old affair of collecting resources (values 1-9 of six different types), trading in sets (three cards matching number or type, bonus for straight flushes) and using the proceeds to buy victory points (the titular senators). But while that description is accurate at a surface level, it conceals the player-driven economy that’s at the core of the game.
Crucially there is no fixed price for acquiring resources – they are all bought and sold between players via the game’s two main actions: auction and extortion. If you take the auction action, you turn up four cards from draw piles: three resources and an office (to which we will return). Then each other player has one opportunity to bid on as many of those cards as they like, beating any previous bid. Finally the active player may choose for each card to either sell it to the high-bidder, taking the money, or buy it from the high-bidder at the same price. Any cards acquired go (for now) face-up in front of the purchaser.
This type of auction (but for one lot at a time) is also seen in Neue Heimat/The Estates, and as in that game it asks the other players to put the auctioneer in a tricky spot, and to get what they each want out of the auction, be it cards or cash.
The extortion action, however, puts the power firmly in the hands of the active player. Remember those face-up cards you thought you bought at a nice price? They’re not safe yet! In an extortion, the active player gets to make each other player a fixed offer for one of their public cards (similar to the bribes in Ponzi Scheme). They must either sell it at that price or cough up the money to hang on to the card. At least there is some respite in that resource cards that have been involved in an extortion turn private and so can’t be extorted again.
These two actions power the game, sloshing money around between players and making it dangerous to run low on cash-in-hand as you are liable to have your cards picked over by vultures. Even worse, if you end up with a debt you can’t pay, you have to sell senators (which are what win you the game) at a punitive price (5) to make up the difference.
The third and final action is where your collection of cards and money comes to fruition, trading in sets for cash, buying as many senators as you like for 10 each and using any of the powers of the aforementioned Office cards: some let you buy for 7 instead of 10; some are ‘wild’ resources; some let you trade in non-matching sets; and some let you straight up steal a senator from a player who’s ahead of you. It’s a less powerful action than the other two but sometimes a necessary one, to cash in cards before they’re extorted or to improve your liquidity. Oh and because this game is mean, the Office cards can be extorted too, but they never turn private.
I heard you like auctions, so I put auctions in your auctions
If that was the only way to get senators, the game would still be pretty interesting, but several more are provided through an event deck of 22 cards, one of which is drawn at the beginning of each player’s turn. Amongst these lie three more interesting auction types (somewhere out there, Reiner Knizia is smiling).
A Dutch auction, starting at 15 for the active player, then moving round the table dropping one at a time until someone buys the senator.
A blind bid with everyone paying and only the high bidder getting a senator.
A blind bid with everyone paying but with a threshold of 10/15/20: if the bids collectively meet the threshold, the high-bidder gets a senator but if they don’t, the low-bidder loses a senator.
Putting all this together, a big part of the game is about getting your senators at the right exchange rate, which could be as low as 1 or as high as 15!
Playing the odds
Oh, about that event deck? It hates you. As well as the events mentioned above, there’s one that makes everyone pay 5 to the bank, which always seems to come at the worst moment. You’re immune to it if you hold a Governor (the ‘wild’ resource Office cards) but guess what? There’s another event that makes everyone discard their governors.
And most importantly of all, the event deck provides the game timer. There are five ‘War’ cards (which also trigger the blind bids for senators) and when the fourth is drawn, the game immediately ends, with most senators winning and any money or resources you haven’t traded in turning to ashes in your mouth. There’s no seeding of the event deck (unless you house-rule it) so the end can come brutally swiftly, with an end-of-days push-your-luck feel once three wars are out but you want to leave it to the last moment to cash in.
All of this can make the event deck feel terribly swingy and unfair – some may even see it as a throwback to a more primitive age of game design. But a) it generates lots of dramatic and groan-inducing moments (which are what I play games for) and b) there are only a few different types of events with multiple copies of each so it’s more about playing the odds than a crapshoot (Knizia did this idea really well in the under-rated Municipium incidentally).
Nasty, brutish and short
Senators won’t hold your hand and it will let you fail hard. Run out of cash early and you can slip into a death spiral. It’s even possible to be forced to sell all five of your starting Senators and be eliminated entirely, though we haven’t seen it yet.
There’s some element of bash-the-leader with the Office cards that let you steal senators, but there are also six ‘rich get richer’ events which give you 2 money for each player you’re beating on the senator track. That may seem odd at first glance, but it’s a good way to tempt the players to cash in earlier than they otherwise might, rather than saving up for a big final push.
In many ways it feels like an old-school design, eschewing ‘balance’ in favour of swingy event cards, rich-get-richer mechanisms and even (God forbid!) the possibility of player elimination. But before you run screaming, bear in mind that this is a delightfully brisk affair – the short event deck guaranteeing no more than 3-5 turns per player. 5p runs the longest because each auction and extortion action involves more players but we’ve zipped through a 3p in under half an hour (or significantly less the time we shuffled up four Wars in the first five cards!)
The master would approve
I’ve pointed out a few similarities to Knizia games as I’ve gone along and there are more. It’s a game that asks each player to choose just one action from a short menu (three in this case) – one of my favourite game structures. It’s highly interactive, with each action involving all the other players (even the cash-in action allows other players to pay you to take the action for themselves on your turn). It uses its theme more as a mnemonic than to support a narrative. And it gets a lot of depth out of some very simple rules.
From me, to say Knizia would approve is about as high a compliment as you get! If you feel the same, do check this one out.
- [+] Dice rolls
Here's my regular quarterly look at what I've been playing and buying.
Total plays: 132
Distinct games: 57
New-to-me games: 20
Dimes: 3 - Sprawlopolis (28), Ticket to Ride: New York (15), Railroad Ink (10)
Nickels: 1 - Northern Pacific (5)
No lunch-time gaming as Joe's been too busy with work, but quite a lot at home either solo (Sprawlopolis) or with Sarah (TTR:NY and Railroad Ink). A fun weekend away with a few of the LoB gang too, and Northern Pacific has been a hit with everyone I've introduced it to so far.
And now a look at the collection.
Acquired: 5 - Byzanz, Northern Pacific, Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition, Nakanuki Paradise, Senators
Removed: 2 - Glory to Rome, Quantum
Owned: 203 (excluding expansions - up from 200 at end Q4)
Unplayed: 3 - Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings, Res Publica, Senators
I'm aiming for one-in-one-out this year but after shifting a couple of big-ticket items, I'm running out of things I want to sell and people want to buy. Still in credit cash-wise though.
Best new-to-me: Northern Pacific - minimalist and mean.
10 The Mind x2 (59 all-time)
10 Tichu (45 all-time)
10 Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD (16 all-time)
9 Azul (30 all-time)
9 Circle the Wagons (43 all-time)
9 Decrypto x3 (13 all-time)
9 Eggs of Ostrich x3 (35 all-time)
9 For Sale x3 (46 all-time)
9 Fuji Flush x3 (58 all-time)
9 Liar's Dice (76 all-time)
9 Mamma Mia! (23 all-time)
9 Montage (4 all-time)
9 Santiago (12 all-time)
9 Sticheln (14 all-time)
9 The Palaces of Carrara (26 all-time)
9 Voodoo Prince (13 all-time)
9 Zendo (7 all-time)
8 Blue Lagoon x3 (7 all-time)
8 Just One x3 (6 all-time)
8 Krass Kariert (13 all-time)
8 Las Vegas (13 all-time)
8 Northern Pacific x5 NEW!
8 Oregon (13 all-time)
8 Potato Man (17 all-time)
8 Sprawlopolis x28 (38 all-time)
8 Ticket to Ride: New York x15 (17 all-time)
8 Witness (25 all-time)
7 Bring Your Own Book x2 NEW!
7 Byzanz x2 NEW!
7 Forbidden City NEW!
7 Gold Fever x4 NEW!
7 Good Little Tricks x2 (3 all-time)
7 High Society (7 all-time)
7 Kribbeln (9 all-time)
7 Maskmen NEW!
7 Mini Rails (2 all-time)
7 Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition x10 NEW!
7 Stroop (8 all-time)
7 The Chameleon (4 all-time)
7 Tulip Bubble NEW!
7 Yokai Septet (4 all-time)
7 Zero Down (8 all-time)
6 Checkers NEW!
6 Gardens NEW!
6 Hamsterbacke NEW!
6 Let's Make a Bus Route NEW!
6 Menara x2 NEW!
6 Nakanuki Paradise NEW!
6 Peppers of the Caribbean NEW!
6 Shopping List x2 NEW!
6 Troika NEW!
6 Wildlife Safari (5 all-time)
5 Dragon Castle NEW!
5 TAJ NEW!
5 Tag City NEW!
3 UNO (7 all-time)
N/A Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia (5 all-time)
- [+] Dice rolls
I'll tidy this up a bit and add some pics before I submit it to GeekMod, but thought I'd put it up here for comment now.
I’ve just received the Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD expansion and before I dive into that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the base game after 16 face-to-face plays and the same again online.
You won’t be surprised to read that I adore the game, but I think I also have a good understanding of why other people might not. I’ve tried to write this review in a way that works for both audiences, explaining why the things I love about ToC might be the very same ones that you hate.
Bash, bash, bash the leader
The most divisive thing about ToC is its style of interaction. The central focus of the game is manoeuvring to become Emperor, a position that offers significant benefits both in raw victory points and in the capacity to build your engine by buying stronger cards. This positive feedback loop (‘rich get richer’) makes it imperative that non-Emperor players put other concerns aside to work together against a strong Emperor before they become unbeatable. Bashing the leader runs through the game’s very core, emphasised by the ‘king of the hill’ status of Emperor.
Many complaints I’ve seen about the game come from players unwilling to participate in this fundamental aspect of the game. If you let the first player into Rome sit there for several turns growing stronger, the game will fizzle away into a foregone conclusion. The game does give the players the tools to undermine a strong Emperor if they work together, but if you know you do not enjoy direct attacks or the diplomacy involved in co-ordinating them then you should probably stop reading now.
And it’s not just about bashing the current Emperor, but also watching out carefully for who is best placed to take advantage of the power vacuum and pre-emptively weakening them too. Depending on your group, this has the potential to generate a lot of table talk and informal negotiation.
A game of tactics
Related to the above, Time of Crisis is without doubt a game that favours tactical opportunism over strategic engine-building. It is not a game for players who prefer to build and optimise a personal fiefdom. As in my all-time favourite, Tigris & Euphrates, it’s a mistake to think of any province as ‘mine’; they are just transient ingredients in a wider pursuit of power.
You need to control provinces to score points and to buy cards which let you score more points later. But rather than investing in the provinces you already control (by increasing their support level and constructing Improvements), it’s often easier to prise a weak province away from another player. With a table of players who prefer to ‘turtle’ and build up their initial provinces, the game will become static and tend to encourage the runaway leader situation discussed above. But with players who are happy to cede control of provinces that are no longer useful and seize opportunities as they present themselves, the board develops roiling waves of shifting control.
In another echo of T&E, there are two ways of taking control: one by military strength; the other by political intrigue. Combined with an action point system and special card powers, this allows creative strings of moves to be executed, achieving more than you might initially have thought possible. But this also means that each turn feels like a fresh tactical puzzle to be figured out, rather than the execution of the next step in a long-held masterplan. The board can and should change dramatically between your turns, which is something not all players enjoy.
Roll those dice
The favouring of tactical over strategic thinking is further emphasised by the way the game handles randomness. Unusually, there is no randomness in the way you choose the cards to make up your hand each turn (see the deck-building section below). But both the political and military attack routes depend on chucking handfuls of dice, and over the course of the game you will experience both implausible victories and debilitating defeats on ‘sure things’.
And randomness doesn’t just affect the outcomes of battles. The ‘crisis’ referred to in the game’s title isn’t just one of internal instability but also external threats from barbarian tribes. Each turn thus begins with a ‘crisis roll’ to determine which of the five tribes surrounding the board will grow in strength and whether the time has come for them to invade. Alternatively, a roll of 7 will bring an event card into play with potentially far-reaching impacts. This crisis mechanism contributes greatly to the game’s theme of instability and decline but also has the potential to screw your plans up even more than the other players are doing.
Like the hero of Kipling’s If, you must be of a disposition to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”. If the very thought of the winner of a three-hour game coming down to the last roll of the dice disgusts you, then this isn’t a game for you. But that’s not to say by any means that skill is unimportant. There are plenty of ways to mitigate your luck, such as card powers that allow re-rolls or suppress unwanted barbarians. Although the game may sometimes feel unfair, the player who is best able to play the odds is likely to be the one that triumphs in the end.
Telling a story
The setting of the game is Rome in the 3rd Century AD but as already mentioned, its theme is tactically responding to change in an unstable and chaotic situation. All the game’s core mechanisms contribute towards that theme, but there are also some additional ‘bells and whistles’ which are more about evoking the specifics of the setting. That balance could lead to dissatisfaction for a couple of different groups of players.
While the overall structure of the game is reasonably easy to grasp, there are a number of exceptions and edge cases. It took us several plays before we confidently completed a game without messing something up or referring to the rulebook. With that in mind, it’s not really a game that I can recommend to lovers of elegance and streamlining. Like me, you need to be tolerant of an extra rules burden when it’s in service of bringing a setting to life.
On the other hand, ToC is by no means a grognard’s battlefield simulation. It’s abstracted to a high level, for example with battle resolved by a simple single die-roll for each unit in a stack. While the game does an engrossing job of creating an atmosphere befitting the times it doesn’t attempt to map closely to historic events, nor do the players represent specific historical figures.
Not a deck-builder
ToC is often described as a deck-builder, but for me it doesn’t contain the ingredients that fans of deck-builders look for (and vice versa – I’m rarely a deck-building fan myself). That is to say, deck-builders seem to often emphasise synergistic combinations between card powers and building (or thinning) your deck in such a way as to increase the chance of these combos randomly coming together in your hand. Time of Crisis does neither.
The cards come in three colours -- red for military, blue for politics, yellow for populace -- and their main role is to contribute action points (1-4) to be spent on a menu of actions corresponding to these three spheres. For example, you’ll need red points to start battles, blue points to replace a province’s governor with your own and yellow to build improvements. Your starting deck has no special actions, while the cards you buy during the game come with nine different ones. But there aren’t strong combos between these actions – you tend to buy them for their own merits and for their action points.
Most importantly, you don’t randomly select your five-card hand but instead pick it freely from your available stack, cycling round only when your discards are full. That makes it feel more like one of Mac Gerdts’ rondel systems (or even more so Concordia) – a way of stopping you taking the powerful actions you want to turn after turn.
Also making it feel less of a deck-builder is the fact that your purchasing power depends on your position on the board rather than the cards you’ve played that turn, and that deck-thinning is quite weak. Finally it’s not really a game in which you try to craft a tailored deck to execute a pre-defined strategy: while you can emphasise one colour, you’re going to need cards from all three to compete and your final deck will look largely similar from one game to the next.
AP = AP
I mentioned the creative turns that can be conjured from the card-based action point system the game uses. But action points are often a recipe for the other AP – analysis paralysis – and ToC isn’t immune to that. Your initial deck contains only 1-action-point cards and with a hand size of five you won’t be choosing more than a couple of items from the extensive action menu. But as you augment your deck with 2-, 3- and 4-AP cards, your options balloon and with the additional factor of the rapidly changing board state, I’ve seen player turns in the endgame last 15 or 20 minutes.
In some games, that would set my teeth on edge, but here it doesn’t bother me. Why? Because each player’s turn intimately involves the other players, whether by directly attacking them or creating new opportunities for them to exploit when their turn comes round. I find revelling in my opponents’ bad luck or cheering them on as we work together against a temporary common enemy keeps me fully involved.
The only place where the AP can spill over into annoyance is the way the game handles deck management. A clever way of emphasising the chaotic situation and lack of control is that players are forced to pick their hand for the next turn at the end of their current one, forcing them to plan for a range of possible changes in situation by the time the cards are used. But this means that the game can’t really continue until the choosing is complete, as the next player’s crisis roll might very well suggest a different course of action. We’ve sometimes subverted this by sending a player into another room to pick their hand!
I hope that rather than be blinded by my love for the game, I’ve set out a fair picture of how it feels to play. It’s a great fit for my preferences: highly interactive, with other players’ turns mattering a great deal to your own position; tactical, opportunistic and creative; filled with moments of dramatic randomness; and generating great stories. Hopefully you can now assess for yourself whether it fits with your own preferences and those of your group.
- [+] Dice rolls