Kevin & Rhonda returned from GenCon toting the brand new Reiner Knizia game from Fantasy Flight. Everyone was eager to re-live the literary classic and dredge-up memories from their school years … which is quite likely when we all read that novel! So, the game was kept set-up on the table, and two groups had the opportunity to play during the course of the evening.
I must admit that my memories of the Beowulf story have faded nearly completely from my mind. Oh, I remember a lot about my high school years … but my memories of the dozens and dozens of “classics” I was required to read in my classes was long ago forced to the far recesses of my mind. I vaguely remember a snippet or two from each of them, but the bulk of the material has long ago turned to mush.
Fortunately, knowledge of the story isn’t a requirement to play the game. Sure, it might help one appreciate the storyline and theme, but one can still play and enjoy the game without having a clue of the novel’s story or characters. Interestingly, the game does trace the storyline, and players can learn a bit about Beowulf’s adventures by reading the related information in the rules. This helped bring some of those long forgotten memories back to life.
Since I don’t own the game or have the rules at my disposal, I risk omitting certain aspects of the game, or simply explaining them incorrectly. So, at this point, I’ll keep my description brief.
Each turn, Beowulf moves one space closer to the story’s climax. Depending upon the space moved onto, players then participate in auctions, draw cards, play cards, etc. Auctions are conducted by playing cards akin to the method used in Taj Mahal or even the chip bidding of For Sale. Players must play cards of the type depicted on the space, with rewards including fame points, gold or cards. Dropping out of the bidding early may incur penalties, usually wounds or “scratches”, three of which will result in a wound. Every player will receive a reward or incur a penalty, and they get to choose which reward they desire based on how they finished the auction. Of course, the players who dropped out of the bidding early will be further down in this “picking” order, so will often incur nasty penalties.
Since Beowulf follows a predetermined path, players will know which spaces lay ahead and can plan accordingly. Planning will generally mean stockpiling the correct types of cards so that you can compete in the upcoming encounters.
The ultimate objective of the game is to have the most fame points. Fame is earned throughout the game by successfully completing encounters, and by converting previously won gold or acquired cards at the appropriate times. Further fame is earned at the end of the game based upon the cards and gold held by the players: the more, the better.
Like many Knizia games, card management is one of the keys to the game. Players must choose the encounters in which they will participate, and then decide how long to remain in the card-play competition. Winning an encounter has its rewards, but if you spend too many cards in the process, you will be ill-prepared to compete in subsequent competitions. This is perhaps the most critical element of the game … and the most fun. The card-play “bidding” during the encounters can be quite tense.
Cards can be replenished along the way, but it is a slow process. Further, cards can often be drawn during an encounter in an effort to reveal the type needed. This is known as the “risk” phase, but as its name implies, there is risk. If a player fails to uncover the required type of card, he instead suffers a scratch. As mentioned earlier, scratches lead to wounds, and possessing three or more wounds at the end of the game will cost a player five fame points. Conversely, being wound-free earns a player five additional fame points. So, while “risking” to acquire the needed cards can be beneficial, it can also be quite harmful.
After Beowulf moves through all of the encounters, gold and cards are converted into fame in the final two stages. After this conversion, the player with the most fame becomes Beowulf’s successor and wins the game.
I was pleasantly surprised by the game, enjoying it more than I anticipated. It has been compared to Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, a cooperative style game that I admired but didn’t much enjoy playing. Fortunately, cooperation is not one of the requirements here, as each player is attempting to emerge from Beowulf’s large shadow and become his successor. This results in fierce competition and an enjoyable gaming experience.
Concerns? Yes. I wonder about the long-term re-playability of the game. It may begin to have a repetitive feel after a few plays. But this won’t reveal itself until I’ve had chance to play it several times. I think I’ll enjoy those plays, even if the game ultimately loses its uniqueness and luster.
The first game saw Chris, Kevin, Robert and Keith accompanying Beowulf through numerous perils and helping fight off a host of evil nasties. I don’t have any details, but Chris prevailed.
In the second game, the competitors were Robert, Kevin, Rhonda and I. I suffered form a persistent shortage of cards, so had to carefully pick and choose the encounters in which I would participate. I opted to avoid “risking” most of the time, while my opponents seemed to choose this option on every occasion. Much to our chagrin, Rhonda seemed to have uncanny luck at picking the exact cards she needed.
I opted to choose fame whenever possible, and acquired just enough gold to compete in the final few encounters which required the expenditure of this precious metal. I felt very comfortable in my position until Rhonda possessed the most cards to earn an abundance of fame points in the very last stage. This proved enough to earn her the victory.
Finals: Rhonda 35, Greg 32, Robert 19, Kevin 19
Ratings: Kevin 8, Rhonda 7, Greg 7, Robert 7