Shannon Appelcline
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Berkeley
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First game of the night was Empyrean, Inc., which Christopher A. had picked up last month, and has been wanting to play. People have called it a cross between The Settlers of Catan and Rummy, and that's pretty accurate. You have planets that give you cards (in certain colors), and then you can use those cards (which come in about 4 specific types each in 3 different colors) to either buy more planets or buy "action" cards (screw-your-neighbor or special-privilege cards)--or you can save them up to get complete sets, and you win when you have 2 or 3 complete sets. You also have plenty of opportunity to trade cards for cards with other players, to get the sets & colors you're trying to collect.

The gameplay is fine, and the different elements work together pretty well. I've seen others complain that some of the action cards are too powerful, and that may well be true. My main problem with the game is that its repetitiveness and length don't mesh well. It took us an hour to play through, running through the same set-collection elements again and again. I had fun for the first 30 or 40 minutes, then it started to drag. I would have liked it if it was a good 30 minute filler, or possibly if it broke down into multiple hands. By the time I got done, I was wanting to play something real.

The next game came out of my bag, and that was Hansa. After sitting in my closet for much of the year, it's finally been getting some play lately, and that makes me happy. Hansa is a trading game too, but here all the trading is done with the game system, exchanging various resources to ultimately increase your victory points; there's no inter-player trading here.

I like Hansa quite a bit, because it has a lot of great tactics which always feel meaningful. On the other hand, the last two times I've played, I felt like the overall game was utterly out of my control, that though I could be clever on my turn, I couldn't do a lot to influence the overall outcome of the game. Last time I came in first, this time I came in last, and both times I felt a vague helplessness as the game progressed. I want to play this game more to see if that's real or not.

The next game we played, or rather tried to, was one of Eric's: Senator. I'd heard good things about this game in some blogs and actually asked to try it out. It's essentially an auction game, where you have a limited stock of bid cards to put down for a number of items each round. The way that the auction items work is very clever, as each has a special power, and some can destroy other items, but then everything that's left is scored at the end.

However, the auction system itself seems very not-clever, which is to say broken. Everyone loses everything they bid in an auction, winner or loser, and thus one nasty bidding war can knock two players out of a round. It seems that you have to have some sort of an unspoken gentleman's agreement, or else the game can quickly and utterly degenerate. We tried a practice hand, and the way the system worked really didn't make sense to us. Then we tried a real hand, and after the first set of bids we threw up our hands in disgust.

I must say, I didn't read the rules myself, and so I can't guarantee we were playing it right, but if we were, this game is so fragile that I think it might be unplayable for many groups.

(Reading over some other reviews & comments it looks like you're not usually supposed to lose the cards you bid if you lose--except when the assassin card is played, which I suspect is the point of confusion in the rules. Which means we didn't play it right. This was actually what we figured would be needed to "fix" the game, but our guess was that it would still be a pretty boring game via that method; clearly, we should try it with the right rules sometime, if those are indeed them; given the cleverness of the bid items, it'd be nice if there was a working auction system to go with.)

Beyond that, the game is a poster boy for bad internationalization. The items you're bidding for all have non-intuitive icons and no words on them. As a result we were constantly saying, "What's that do" when we tried to remember their special powers. Not the right way to do things.

Last game for the night was Res Publica, another trading game, this one including a very constrained trading method by Reiner Knizia. I've played it before, and found it pretty average. I played it again today, and again thought it was average. The constraints on the trading make it feel awkward and stilted; likewise some fragility can set into the system if people start asking for trading that are too big, or if two stubborn players each refuse to give up a certain commodity. I think both things happened in our game. Nevertheless, the length was right and it always felt like you had good control of your destiny, and thus it might have been my favorite gaming of the evening, even if not my favorite game that was played (that'd be Hansa).
 
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Brad Johnson
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Crystal Lake
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Ray is mostly correct, but I think it's the Assassin card that makes everyone lose their bids. (It also immediately cancels the auction -- no one gets the item up for bid.) Each player has one Assassin in their bid hand.

I will say that even though I haven't been able to play Senator yet, I was worried that 4-5 Assassins per round (depending on how many players you have) might really make it hard for anyone to successfully buy much of anything. It certainly would force the players to bid very conservatively.

If it *does* turn out to be an issue, I imagine you could adjust it by making it so each player can only use their Assassin card once per game (instead of once per round).
 
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Shannon Appelcline
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Mulling over how the game would work if played correctly, I actually suspect it's the assassin that keeps the game going. Without it, you have a simple game of brinkmanship (how high can you get your opponents to bid). With it, you have double brinkmanship (also: how high can you bid without getting cut down).

Anyway, I appreciate hearing that, yeah, my guess on the right way to play it from other reviews was indeed right.

 
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