SCB Game Nights February 2010
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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Here's what we played together in the month of February.
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1. Board Game: Twilight Struggle [Average Rating:8.34 Overall Rank:4]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/1/2010

Mike & Tim played this over a weekend, after the regular Friday night gaming was cancelled.

Mike said "Tim and I ended up playing Twilight Struggle on Sunday. It was a weird game. He was US and actually led in VP for most of the game but I ended up winning by controlling Europe as we started the late war phase."
 
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2. Board Game: Alea Iacta Est [Average Rating:6.65 Overall Rank:1250]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/5/2010

With (all!) five of us for game night, Greg suggested this new title from Alea. I remember the designer wrote some articles on Boardgamenews.com that described the design & publication process for his game. (I think this is the same guy that designed Piece o' Cake, something I still want to try with you guys.)

With its Roman theme, this dice game has locations labeled the Forum Romanum and Latrina, for instance. Each player has a bunch of dice and they're rolled as a group, at least one having the be "locked in" and declared at one of the buildings. Eventually everyone has locked in all of their dice, and rewards are handed out for the highest ranked "hands" of dice at the various locations (one wants straights, another multiples-of-a-kind, another highest total, etc.)

We had one rule wrong on the Forum that would've changed the gameplay, making choices tougher & more strategic. I'll play again. Probably more players is best, don't you think? More competition for the locations.

Our game came down to the smallest possible tiebreaker, which was funny. Tim just beat Greg by having a single unallocated aristocrat (Patrician?) of the lowest possible value!
 
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3. Board Game: Caylus Magna Carta [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:671]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/6/2010

After Tim left the four of us remaining tried this card game version of Caylus. I was slow to try Caylus in the first place--it didn't sound like my kind of game due to the length, though the very German-style resource management and historic theming is right up my alley. I think I only played Caylus once, at Ryan's place long ago.

Which means I always wondered about Caylus Magna Carta, because a card game version of a big game might end up being lighter and shorter. That was true for San Juan compared to Puerto Rico (though not with the Settlers or E&T card games). I'm too rusty on Caylus to know what they cut out, because it felt like nothing but must have been something. The buildings, resource cubes, "batches" of resources to build the castle, and the long road with worker placement were all there. What was missing?

It took us over a couple hours, not a whole lot faster than the boardgame, but I really think we might knock this out in 90 minutes next time. I'd be happy to try this again.

In this game, I got pretty lucky to draw the location card that lets you build more of the castle using just money rather than resources, and the "kickback" secondary bonus for me also included some castle construction. I was swimming in money for the early part of the game, so that gave me a strong base from which to cruise to victory.
 
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4. Board Game: Pandemic: On the Brink [Average Rating:8.10 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.10 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.10 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/12/2010

Who played: Greg, Tim, Bobbi, Jason, Mark

This ended up being expansions night. We've played Pandemic a few times already, and Greg got the expansion for it on or around Christmas.

I'm not normally one for expansions, but I think I'll have to get my own copy of On The Brink. One of the coolest parts was completely gimmicky, but it also completely worked for me--the petri dishes. The expansion comes with plastic petri dishes to hold the extra disease cubes when you're playing. I looked online to see where I could just buy those dishes! They're cheap, of course, but I would miss out on more coolness--the adhesive labels that go on each petri dish to label the cubes like they were biological samples at the CDC. I'm hooked.

Ok, besides those accessories, the expansion greatly expands the number of roles players can take in a game. I thought these were really great, adding more variety and more tweaks to gameplay (especially cooperative strategy) without overloading the game. By first impressions, they seemed well-balanced, too. They give you smaller pawns this time, including some replacement ones for the originals, which help with the crowding on the board (but you still can't fit a few pawns and some cubes in the same city easily).

We played two games, and lost them both. I showed up late, but just in time to join the first game after the rules had been explained (I think). We tried the expansion's Mutant Strain disease, a smaller set of purple cubes that don't start on the board but may get added later. They don't expand as fast as the normal diseases (I think), but with fewer cubes to start with you might lose the game by running out of those if you're not watching. We also had five epidemics, which I think is the "Normal" difficulty level (I usually wimp out and play the Beginner with only four!)

It seemed like we had an awesome set of roles for that first game, with Bobbi's Dispatcher able to move my Epidemiologist around to scrub cubes, and Jason & Greg's Researcher/Scientist combo able to cure diseases quickly. But we lost. The purple cubes came out, but it was a bunch of outbreaks that got us.

Tim suggested we try again (good idea!), and this time we tried the Virulent Strain variant instead. It gives the most widespread disease extra "abilities" to make eradicating it harder. In the second game we had the Medic and the Epidemiologist who could remove cubes, but we were challenged to come up with cures. Perhaps predictably, we lost that game by running out of time (the Player card deck).

The other variant we didn't try yet is the Bio-Terrorist. I understand it's kind of like Scotland Yard in that one player secretly moves around the board using a special pad of paper to track movement. I'd be willing to try that sometime, but it really takes the game in a different direction. (I suspect I'd rather just play Scotland Yard again.)
 
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5. Board Game: Caylus Magna Carta: The Library [Average Rating:6.78 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.78 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/12/2010

Who: Greg, Jason, Mark

Greg suggested we play Caylus Magna Carta every week in February, making it a Game of the Month for us. I'm all for that. (I really like the GotM idea, when we can pull it off.) CMC isn't a very long game, but it was a bit longer last week since we were learning & looking up rules. So it was nice to play again this week when we could jump right in and start playing.

Something else GotM lets you do is try variations on the game, and Greg suggested just that: the expansion. The Library prestige building pictured is a mini-expansion that hardly affects the game. The real expansion comes from the favors, a carry-over from the original board game. In CMC, the favors are fleur-des-lis icons on several of the cards, and a separate board tracking how many you accumulate. These favors can be just victory points, or they can be used to gain some additional powers during the regular part of the game. Even the lower level powers are pretty good (like discarding a worker for a round to gain +1 money, or moving the provost +/-2 for free), but the higher level ones you can accumulate are awesome (like gaining the secondary bonus for yourself on your own building).

In our game I went for favors all the time, quickly gaining powers and victory points. The game went on long enough, though, that the other guys got around to doing the same and so by the end there wasn't much differential between us. Greg always had a bunch of cubes to work with, but maybe was tighter on money. Where were you, Jason? (Before you won, I mean!)

In the end, our scores were very close. Jason won with something in the high 50s, while Greg was a few points behind and I was a point or two behind him. I think that was closer than last week. So in that sense the game was better, being closer. But in general I thought the expansion let some of the heaviness (or at least length) of the board game creep back in, and I preferred the game without it.

(I sure hope that's it, rather than just reacting to winning last week, but then coming in last this time!)

In fact, I'd like to continue our GotM with a try at the Beginner version of the game sometime, which is what we played originally, but removing the Provost entirely as well as the Lawyer card and one other. (You still have prestige buildings, they're just built a different way.) I don't know if I'll get the rest of you gamers to try that, but I'm really curious to see if the game would get even quicker.

By the way, I saw one small thing we did wrong--in the 3-player game you're supposed to remove one of each of the castle-building tokens that also serve as a game timer. Considering that usually a couple got built most turns (sometimes just 1, but sometimes all 3 of us built them), that would've shaved a turn or two off the game. I don't think that would've really changed the points outcome much, but it would've shortened the game by 10-15 minutes.

I'm really enjoying this one and look forward to trying again.
 
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6. Board Game: Caylus Magna Carta [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:671]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/19/2010

Who: Mark & Tim

Even though the owner of our GotM Caylus Magna Carta wasn't there last night, I swung by Greg's house on my way home from work to borrow the game. Thanks again, Greg, and I hope you get back on a California sleep schedule soon. (Greg flew to Italy and immediately back for a 1-day meeting!) Tim had played Caylus before, but not this card game version. Though I'm still curious about the beginner version of the rules, we played the standard version as in our first week of the month. Just playing it 2-player was already kind of different. The game just *flew*, partly because Tim was very fast, and partly because it was a 2-player game. One small difference from before was the removal of two of each of the castle-building tokens that are both points & a game timer. The other was that there was only a single neutral card besides the peddler card along the road. It made resource cubes very tight, as that meant there was only brown cubes to be had for "free" before Tim & I could start putting our own buildings down.

Sometimes I think I want to almost ignore the castle, and just build-build-build to get lots of points down on the table that way, and to collect a lot of secondary bonuses when opponents put workers on my buildings. The 2-player game is definitely NOT the time for that strategy, because there aren't that many workers to go around! We ended up placing on our own buildings much of the time. Even though the entire game only took 40 minutes or so, the pace of the resource economy (collecting & using cubes) was pretty slow for much of the game. Might have been the cards we drew, because a while later both Tim & I put out the double-cube buildings and then we could get things going. Neither of us built a prestige building before the game ended, though Tim did have a residence that was giving him extra income. The final score was really close, Tim's 40 to my 37 or something.
 
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7. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:50]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/19/2010

Who: Mark, Tim

The first game was done so fast that Tim stuck around for a second one! He asked about RftG since he's still trying to internalize the iconography and flow of the game. I agree, it's pretty daunting. I'm of the opinion that they made it as smooth as possible . . . and it's still not very obvious. I also happen to think that the game is so good that it's worth the learning curve investment, but I know it's not for everybody. (Aside: this is a pattern with a number of designer Tom Lehman's games--complicated, but possibly worth it.) I've played a BUNCH of the RftG against computer opponents in the incredible free downloadable program. Have played a few online games against live opponents, too. I've played a handful of face-to-face games, but I think always with Ryan's or someone else's copy. This was the first time I got to play my copy of the game (which I bought from Davebo after he gave up on the learning/enjoyment curve.)

I got a consumption "engine" going on with small blue planets and one 6-Development down that scored me 10 points. Tim had fewer cards down, but they were worth more points. When the game ended due to VP exhaustion, I'd squeaked out a narrow victory, sort of the opposite of our previous game. :-)
 
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8. Board Game: Revolution! [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:1004]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/26/10

Who: Greg, Mark, Tim & Bobbi

Some of my earliest gaming was with Steve Jackson Games, back when he first created Car Wars and a whole line of microgames. These were inexpensive, often clever, and sometimes funny science fiction games. Since he was going against the grain (back then) of big, hairy wargames, I always figured Jackson would take to euro style boardgames for their similar emphasis on gameplay over simulation. Nope, he has mostly been too deeply rooted in geek culture (admittedly, this is probably his loyal customer base), and has opted for games that feature more juvenile humor (e.g. Munchkin, Chez Geek) than strategic gameplay. I still wish for more from SJ Games, though, so when Tim suggested that publisher's Revolution! as our first game of the night I was happy to give it a shot. I can't say I was completely impressed, but I'll admit to being relieved--it didn't suck. In fact, it wasn't bad. Kind of like Vegas Showdown from Hasbro a few years' back, Revolution! puts some familar euro game mechanics in a very American-style boardgame. The result isn't something that outshines its euro predecessors (like Basari), but it's definitely ok. And like most American versions of boardgames, the theme is more engaging--you can imagine paying off the newspaper publisher or blackmailing the priest a lot more than just blind-bidding on collecting gemstones or victory points.

The coolest part, I think, is that what you've got to bid WITH can change based on the success of your bids in previous rounds. Tim--who went on to win by a wide margin--said this was the key to his game. Use one turn to bid for better bidding capability on a later turn, then clean up when you can overpower everyone else. By working those waves back & forth he managed to stay in the hunt for victory points during the game . . . then dominate the larger bonuses awarded for presence on the board at game-end, launching himself way into first place. A goofy little bit of fun for me in the game (and here we'll see if Ryan is still reading these messages) was the chance to low-ball a bunch of bids, putting single coins down for roles I thought no one else might go after. Sometimes you're beaten, of course, and other times you knock someone else out with a tied bid. Even that's ok, but sometimes you win for that single coin (the lowest possible bid), and it's a little victory. :-)
 
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9. Board Game: Caylus Magna Carta [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:671]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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2/26/10

Who: Greg and Mark

After Tim & Bobbi left, it was up to Greg and I to close out February's Game of the Month with a final go at Caylus Magna Carta. Like the previous week, this was a 2-player outing. Like the week before THAT, it was with the expansion. I never got the chance to try the beginner version (which omits the provost and changes something about the prestige buildings), but probably 2-player isn't the best for that anyway. What happened in the previous 2er game happened in this one, too--there were so few opportunities to get cubes that we were slowed down at the beginning, with a few rounds where neither of us built the castle. When that happens two of the castle tokens are discarded . . . and there are fewer of each type to begin with in the 2-player game. Since those also function as a game timer, the end really sneaks up on you. Especially when one of us finally gets out the building that lets you buy your way to more castle construction tokens. I got that out, and was able to trigger the end of the game right after I built the only prestige building in our game, which was enough for the win.

I'm really glad we played CMC again because I always like the Game of the Month idea. For only two players, I don't think CMC works really well. Overall, though, I prefer it to original Caylus due to the streamlining. I think the expansion is fine, but I'm just as happy playing with the original rules.
 
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