It's a horse. On a chair.
The gaming session started off with a 2 player game of Hermagor. Mike and I have played this medium to heavy weight game by Emanuele Ornella a number of times before, but I do not believe that Mike has every tried it with two players. I had played once before with 2, enjoyed the experience, and I was looking forward to another go.
After skimming through the rules we got started. To make this game work with two players, Emanuele introduces the dreaded neutral player. But it really works this time, trust me. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, at its core, it is a connection/route building game where you move your merchant from location to location trying to setup trading stations based on tiles that you earn in an "auction".
The locations that you establish help you out in a number of ways. First, there is a road that spans the board, and the player with the most trade stations on that road earns $5 at the end, and all other players lose $5. Also, the map is divided into 3 regions. At the end of the game, you count up your trade stations in each region, take the count from the area with the fewest stations, and multiply that by a number (determined by the number of players in the game). Finally, the board is also divided up into smaller areas. If you enclose one of those areas with trade stations you are able to establish a production building which earns you immediate cash and cash at the end of the game.
Of course, your ability to establish these stations is determined during the first half of each round. In this half, a grid is established with tiles showing the different types of goods in the game. You place your buyer tokens into this grid, hoping to exert the most influence on the tokens in order to win them. Tiles can be influenced in multiple ways and the very placements both cost different amounts of money and earn different amounts at the end of the round. The result is a brutally fun, tight, and interesting auction that is a perfect way to introduce gamers to an auction type mechanic.
In the 2 player game, each player is given 2 neutral buyers in the auction round and 2 trade stations in the route building phase. In the auction round, these buyers force you to carefully consider your placements and make an otherwise “loose” market feel “tight”. In the route phase the addition of the neutral markets allows players to enclose regions and place production facilities (which are a limited commodity), thus blocking another player from doing this. I have played some games where the neutral player mechanism feels boring, but it definitely works this time.
Now back to the game. Mike and I played out the first round of game with little understanding of the power of the neutral pieces, but we did fight it out in the market. Interestingly, we ignored a major portion and attacked each others choices. However, I believe that we ended up with the tiles we wanted and were soon off to establishing trade stations. I employed a strategy that has worked for me in the past, and shot off towards the right via the central road in the first round. In later rounds, I simply tried to enclose regions to setup production buildings. I also made sure that I was diversified across the three different regions. This worked well, and I ended up with the most buildings on the road, 5 buildings in my least populated region, and a production building in almost all of the different good types.
Mike admitted to employing a tactic that has not worked for him in the past, which was to ignore the road and to forget to complete regions. As a tactic, he followed it quite well, but it did little to move him towards victory. Still, he was quite brutal with the neutral token placements in the market and cut me off from some critical choices in the final rounds.
I ended up winning by a large margin, but I really should pull this one out again soon. I believe that if Mike had placed a greater emphasis on completely surrounding regions that he could have easily decreased the margin of victory.