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Empty Nest Gamers

With our children now grown and out of the house, my wife and I have a lot more time to fill. This blog will feature our thoughts on games that we've played recently (with an emphasis on how they've worked for us as two-player games).

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New to Me: November 2016

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A Feast for Odin

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

A glorious sandbox, with a rich narrative arc and great production values.

The theme here is appealing and pervasive. You're leading your clan of Vikings toward greatness, gathering simple goods, trading for better goods or manufacturing them, hunting and whaling, raising cattle or sheep, raiding and pillaging, building boats and buildings, and settling new lands.

At the end of every turn, you'll need to hold a feast. This requires you to hold back some food, drink, and silver. If you fall short, you'll pay steep VP penalties. (This is the feed-your-family phase.)

Everything is thematically interwoven in ways that simplify learning and create a coherent sense of narrative. Suppose you want to acquire some high prestige metalwork. You could send out a raiding party (which requires a longboat), forge it yourself (requiring iron), or acquire it through foreign trade (which requires a trading boat and silver). That all makes sense, now how do you get a longboat, trading boat, iron, and silver?

There are a lot of different kinds of goods, of different colors and sizes. The most important use for these goods is to place them on your player board (which is made up of a grid of squares). Think Patchwork. Placement is governed by some tricky and interesting constraints, which I won't describe here. This creates a spatial puzzle that's fun to work through.

You can also use your ships to explore and settle a remote island. This gives you a new smaller player board, with its own unique grid, which presents the same opportunities and demands as your main player board. I found this to be a lot of fun. Something about settling Greenland, or Iceland, or the Faroe Islands, and then building up the wealth of your distant colony was very satisfying. It had a distinctly Viking feel to it.

Aside from the spatial puzzle elements, which are pretty abstract, the theme really comes through. You can outfit longboats and raid; explore; or pursue domestic pursuits like hunting, fishing, crafting, animal husbandry, and filling storehouses. If you go whaling, you'll get whale meat, bone, and oil. If you set snares, you'll get furs. Successful hunting produces game meat. Flax can be used to make linen; linen can be used to make cloaks. Cows produce milk; and sheep wool. Emigration uses up a boat, but reduces how much food you'll need for the feast. It feels like a coherent whole.

And the physical production is top-notch. The game even includes covered counter trays, to keep all of your various good tokens organized by size and color (thank you!).

Game play is fairly loose and relaxed. You won't ever feel stressed about being shut out of a necessary action or being unable to feed your people. This is not misery-Vikings. It's prosperous thriving Vikings, with the only question being how much success you'll achieve (compared to everyone else). And there are a wide range of choices you can make about how to get there.

If you like thematic engine-building, with lots of choices and not much tension, you'll probably love this. It's a great game.


Lorenzo il Magnifico

(Image credit: William Hunt)

A drum-tight euro, with a clever dice-based worker placement system.

Unlike Odin, Lorenzo is an unforgiving resource-tight zero sum competition, with harsh maintenance requirements.

Players are noble families in Renaissance Florence, competing to acquire the highest prestige (VP) by acquiring territory, character, building, and venture cards. (Hey, I like that theme!)

The central driver of the game is a dice-based action system. Each turn (of six), three dice are rolled. Players have family members who match the colors of the three dice (white, orange, black). The value showing on the corresponding die determines the strength of that worker for the turn. For example, if the orange die rolls a four, your orange family member has a strength of four. That strength can be modified by paying "servants" (a type of resource) or with cards that modify strength in different situations.

I really like this use of dice. It introduces unpredictability, but the randomness affects every player in the same way. Naturally, there will be situations where bad rolls will be more of a problem for one player than another, but that is much more muted than the kind of luck differential that could happen if every player rolled their own dice.

The strength of a worker determines: (1) where in a tower the worker can be placed (the four towers provide cards of the various types), (2) the strength of a harvest action (harvest activates all of the territory cards in your tableau, which generally produce money and goods), (3) the strength of a production action (production activates all of your buildings, which tend to convert goods into other goods or VP).

There are some interesting constraints on placing workers, which include significant money or strength penalties for not being the first person to place in a location. I won't describe them in detail (other than to say that they're stressfully fun -- turn order matters!).

Every other turn, you have to appease the Church. If you've reached a certain level on the church track, you can return your marker to zero, take VP for how high you were on the track, and avoid punishment. If you haven't reached the required threshold (or you choose to defy the church), you leave your marker in its current position and place an "excommunication" cube on the penalty tile for the current round. This results in a harsh penalty, which can really hamstring you. (The excommunication penalties are drawn randomly each game, which produces a nice bit of interplay variability.)

So far, I've only played it two-player, and we've really enjoyed it at that count. I expect it would be even tighter with more, with more competition to avoid the various penalties you pay for not being the first to do something.

The graphic design is beautiful. This is a great medium heavy dice euro.


Hit Z Road

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)

Great light card/dice Zombie road trip, with a painfully fun auction and absurdly cool graphic design.

Here is the excellent heart of the game:

Each turn you will draw and place a number of two-card rows equal to the number of players. Ultimately, every player will need to traverse one of those rows. Some rows will be cake-walks; others death traps. So who gets which row?

That's decided by an auction. And what do you use to pay your bid in the auction? Crucially important survival resources.

You absolutely need those resources, especially in the later game, as the difficulty of the routes ramps up. This creates a series of hilariously painful dilemmas, with players needing to balance the importance of route selection turn order and keeping the resources you need to not die.

The underlying card and combat mechanism (which use special dice) are rock-solid, and create the conditions for the painful auctions.

It's all very well-integrated and thematic, with great art on the cards and other components. The graphic design and physical production is charming and really well-executed, as I've come to expect from Space Cowboys.

A really good light-medium thematic dice chucker. It exceeded my expectations.


Codenames: Pictures

(Image credit: Elizabeth1000)

It's Codenames, with pictures!

If you like codenames (and I do), you'll enjoy this.

I liked it a little less than the original Codenames. I think the word play in the original is more interesting and a little more difficult.

If you don't want to buy this, and you have a spare deck of Dixit cards, you can make your own (which we've done, and it worked well).


A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King

(Image credit: wspier)

Light spatial set collection game with nice cartoony GoT artwork.

Lay out the 36 character cards in a 6x6 grid. Take turns moving Varys orthagonally, taking all characters of a chosen house in the direction that he moves. Players score family banners based on how many members they've collected from each house (with ties going to whoever was last to take one). Person who takes the last member of a house from the grid gets a special character with a strong one-off power. When Varys has no more legal moves, person with most banners wins.

The heart of the game is fairly simple look-ahead spatial planning, complicated by the fact that each house has a different number of members.

Very light, reasonably fun, small footprint, nice looking. It's good (though my wife found it too frustrating to enjoy much). Supports 2-4. We only played with two, where it was very zero sum and controllable. With more, it would be more chaotic, with much less opportunity to plan ahead usefully.

Meh.
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Thu Dec 1, 2016 12:24 am
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New to Me October 2016

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I'm on kind of a roll here, with Lacerda games taking the top spot, two months in a row (last month was The Gallerist). Maybe I should try to play Kanban next month and see if I can make it a trifecta!


Vinhos Deluxe Edition

(Image credit: Ianotoole)

Another heavy euro masterpiece.

Vinhos is a heavy economic euro themed around wine production in Portugal. Players operate estates that produce wine of varying quality and kind (red or white). You manage your estates by cultivating vineyards, building wineries and cellars, and hiring farmers, enologists, and experts, all of which contribute to the quality of the wines produced. You establish each of your five estates in a different region of Portugal, each of which has slightly different costs and benefits. Wines can be sold locally for money, exported for immediate and end-game VP, or entered in the periodic wine tasting fair for lots of little bonuses and VP.

The box contains two different versions of the game, the "classic" 2010 version and a streamlined 2016 version. I've only played the latter.

I'd always been a little intimidated by the 2010 edition of Vinhos, which struck me as a rules-heavy beast. So I was very happily surprised by how straightforward Vinhos 2016 was to play. For the most part, the rules are well-integrated into the theme, which makes them easier to learn and remember. And the excellent graphic design of the board provides lots of reminders of the most important rules.

This is a very good game. I am now a Lacerda fanboy. mb


Mare Nostrum: Empires

(Image credit: igknight)

Smooth, clever war/euro hybrid.

There is a lot to like about this elegantly designed, Ancient Mediterranean, dudes on a map, with euro engine building and trading elements. It's a smart, smooth-playing game with great bits and some very clever things going on.

One of the most noteworthy strengths of the design is the turn order system. There are three main phases of each turn: trading, building, move/fight. For each of those activities, there are three tracks showing player accomplishments: the trading track shows each players' total caravans and trading posts; the build track shows cities and temples; the move/fight shows legions, triremes, and fortresses. Whoever has the most in a track is the current "leader" for that track. The leader gets to *choose* player turn order for building and move/combat (the leader's control of trading is a little more complicated and I won't describe it here).

Being able to choose build order and move/fight order is very interesting and potentially quite powerful. It gives you a *lot* of control over how things unfold. This is really cool, and was probably the thing I admired most about the design.

There's also an interesting commodity production, trading, and spending system that rewards diversification. Another clean, interesting, and important system.

The downsides? It's too long for regular play in my group. We clocked in at 3+ hours (with 5 players) and were ready for it to be over well before it was. Also, once you understand what's going on, the game becomes all about making sure nobody wins. So you need to watch everyone's proximity to victory conditions and then collaborate to knock down anyone who gets close. That's pretty common for this genre of game, but it's not my favorite kind of play.

Very good game, but I already sold it on (to one of the other players!).


Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia

(Image credit: saksi)

Partnership TTR (and it works)!

The first expansion box for TTR comes with two maps, each with slightly different rules. I tried the "Team Asia" map. It involves partnership play and I was eager to give that a go. I really like partnership in board games and wish there was more of it.

The players are paired off, and partners sit next to each other. The game comes with wooden card racks, where partners can place common cards so that they each can see them, without showing the other players.

Partners share tickets, some of which go on the common rack and some that remain in hand. This means that partners have incomplete information about their shared goals.

Train cards are handled similarly. Some go to the common rack; others are held in hand. When building a route, a player can play cards from hand or from their partnership rack. This means you might accidentally take a train card that your partner was counting on using to complete a ticket you don't know about.

This all works very cleanly and gives me exactly what I wanted. The partnership elements are a lot of fun and a very nice twist on vanilla TTR.


Reef Encounter

(Image credit: turtleback)

An intricate tile-placement game, with a brain burning kink.

In Reef Encounter players are growing corals of different colors by placing square tiles on orthagonally adjacent spaces on a grid board. The process of placing tiles on the board is intricate and I won't try to explain it here.

A player can take ownership of a coral by placing a shrimp meeple on it. (These are, objectively, the best meeples ever.)

Players can remove a coral that they own from the board, placing the tiles inside an opaque "parrot fish" tower (to hide the number and color of tiles that they've removed in this way). This consumes the shrimp meeple.

Here's the kink: a coral tile can be placed over a tile of an already existing coral, if it is "stronger" than the targeted coral type. (E.g., if black is stronger than green, a black tile can be placed over an already placed green tile.) The relative strength of each reef type, relative to all other reef types, is tracked on a separate board. Tiles that are grown over in this way are taken by the player who caused them to be grown over. These removed tiles are an extremely important resource in the intricate processes that I'm not going to explain.

Kinkier: The relative strengths of the different kinds of corals are changeable. And the changes are driven by player actions. I.e., a player can take an action to flip the relationships between coral types. The mechanism for doing so (which I won't describe) can have sweeping effects, radically altering the game state. Players can also act to lock a strength relationship, making it immune to being flipped by other players.

Kinkiest: Remember that you can remove your corals and feed them to your parrot fish? This is how you get victory points. Each tile eaten in this way is going to get you points at the end of the game. But guess what? The point value of each color of coral tile depends on the relative strengths of the various colors or coral at the end of the game. So all of that manipulation of coral strength was not just about determining which corals can grow over each other. It was also about determining the end game VP value of those coral's tiles.

This is all very deep and interesting. To do well, you can't just grok the current game state; you need to be able to envision all of the possible game states that could be achieved by your or other players, by flipping the relative strengths of corals. And those possible alternate states need to be mapped onto the spatial puzzle that's occurring on the game board.

If you like really heavy brain burners, you'll probably love Reef Encounter. I admired it, but can't see getting it played enough to get good at it (sort of a theme this month).

And the intricacy of the game mechanisms is a pretty significant obstacle to entry. Teaching this is likely to be a heavy lift.


Pax Pamir

(Image credit: moraedin)

Leader bashing in a phone booth.

Pamir is a rethemed reimplementation of Pax Porfiriana. It's set in the "Great game," the British and Russian Empire's proxy war in Central Asia in the 19th Century. It adds a map component to the basic system of Porfiriana, which adds a layer of spatial strategy.

Pamir is a substantial improvement over Porfiriana with respect to rules clarity and graphic design. Designer Cole Wehrle clearly gets the credit for that, having brought a measure of discipline to the otherwise eccentric Sierra Madre Game style (though Ecklund still makes an appearance, having inserted a gratuitous "defense of British imperialism" into the rulebook).

In Pamir you win by having the greatest influence with whichever of three empires (British, Russian, Afghan) has supremacy when one of the four "topple" cards is bought from the card market. The topple cards are semi-randomly seeded into the last part of the deck.

For an empire to have supremacy, it must satisfy two conditions:

(1) Possess at least one of each of the four "modes" of assets: armies, roads, spies, and tribes

(2) Have greater strength under the current "regime's" mode than the other two empires combined.

There is always one "regime" card in play (though they are often replaced), each associated with one of the four modes. An empire's strength is determined by counting the number of wooden bits in play that match the current regime's mode and are controlled by players loyal to the empire.

For example, the current regime is Intelligence War (spy mode). Britain's strength in that mode is calculated by counting all of the spy cubes in play for all of the players who are currently loyal to the British. To be supreme, that total must be higher than the combined total of spies in play for all other empires combined.

Supremacy is hard to achieve and very fragile. As soon as a topple card becomes available to purchase, players will figure out which empire is supreme and (if not aligned with that empire) look for ways to destroy its supremacy. There are many ways to do this:

• Change the regime to a different mode.
• Destroy the wooden bits that contribute to the supreme empire's strength in the current mode.
• Change the loyalty of a player who is contributing necessary spies or tribes to the empire.
• Destroy the empire's armies, roads, spies, or tribes, so that they no longer have at least one of each type.

Doing any of those could well tip a different empire into supremacy; etc.

Pamir was one of the worst rules explanations I've ever given. There's just so much that's interconnected in critical ways.

It's also very hard to grok what's going on in the game. There are several pivot points; flipping any one of them will reconfigure everyone's prospects. And the spatial component constrains your ability to attack armies, roads, and tribes. (There's also a cool quasi-map that spies travel on, which I won't describe here.)

I really admire the design. It's smart and elegant and wonderfully realized.

But it was a bear to teach and play. With the right players and repeated play, I think it would be great fun. But I can't imagine trying to get it to the table again in my regular game group.


Joking Hazard

(Image credit: Asmor)

Cards Against Humanity with cartoon panels.

What I just said. By design, it can be extremely raunchy. Hostile work environment material. Fun if your sense of humor runs that way.


T.I.M.E Stories: A Prophecy of Dragons

(Image credit: eleskanyar)

Admirably designed scenario-based coop.

This is a modular coop adventure game, where different scenario packs are combined with the base system and components to allow you to play radically different types of stories (which I've heard can be really puzzly).

I don't like coops, so I just wasn't the right audience for this. I'm also not a fan of generic fantasy theming, so this chapter wasn't the best one to hook me.

I was very glad to have learned it. It's very polished and well-realized design. Just not for me.


Captain Sonar

(Image credit: flope)

Real-time hidden-movement team game.

The players are divided into two teams, with a MASSIVE privacy screen between them. The teammates each run a different station on a submarine, moving the sub around, scanning, and firing weapons in an attempt to figure out where the opposing sub is and destroy it (before it gets you).

The systems are very clever and the game works well as a game. I think it would be much better with more experience, because there are some blunders you can make if you don't know how to avoid them.

I played the radio operator both times I played, which means that it was my job to track the directional movements of the opposing sub, plot them onto a dry erase transparency, and move that sheet around on the map in an attempt to pinpoint the enemy's location. It was very satisfying to accomplish that and track the enemy as they move around. Ready weapons!

But I also saw a lot of scope for frustration, especially with the real-time game play and limited scope for communication.


Royals

(Image credit: W.Buchanan)

Old school card-driven area majorities game.

It's fine. Good looking. Clean playing. Not really my wheelhouse.


Thief's Market

(Image credit: TheBoardGameRenegade)

Dice drafting to buy cards. Meh.

Roll a big pile of dice. Players take turns choosing some subset of the whole *or* stealing another player's selected dice and returning one to the central pool (rolling it first).

This should have produced some hard choices and fun stabbiness. It didn't.



Humanity Hates Trump

(Image credit: lunchboxLAD)

It sucks!

They phoned this one in. The prompts rarely connected in any logical way with the response cards. Never even slightly funny. (Despite the fact that we were a bunch of liberals, who had been drinking, who wanted it to be good.) My first ever 1 rating.
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Tue Nov 1, 2016 1:24 am
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The Gallerist

(Image credit: newrev)

Heavy game masterpiece.

This is an extremely well-designed and beautifully-produced heavy commodities investment game. Players are "gallerists," operating elite art galleries. The "commodities" are the aspiring artists that the players guide toward greatness (while profiting from their work).

At heart it's a worker placement game, with four action spaces (each offering two alternative actions). There's one wrinkle to the traditional worker placement mechanism -- you aren't blocked from moving to a place that's occupied by another player's meeple. Instead, that player is displaced and then rewarded with a bonus "kick-out action."

The action spaces and the actions that they allow are:

Artist's Colony

• Discover an artist (which gives you a small reward and a locked-in entry-level price for the first piece of art that you buy from that artist).

• Buy a work of art from an already discovered artist (which costs money based on the artist's current popularity and then slightly increases the popularity of that artist). You must have room in your gallery to display the new piece.

Sales Office

• Acquire a contract for a specific medium (e.g., sculpture, photography, painting).

• Sell a piece of art from your gallery. This can only be done if you have a contract that matches the medium of the piece you want to sell. The sale gives you money, based on the artist's current popularity and removes the piece from your gallery.

Media Center

• Hire new assistants (which costs money and may net you a minor reward).

• Increase the popularity of an artist (this costs you influence and will earn you a small reward).

International Market

• Acquire an end-game scoring token. This gains you influence and the token, but requires the permanent assignment of an assistant.

• Bid in an end-game auction for a "masterpiece" selected at the beginning of the game. This costs money and the permanent assignment of an assistant. It provides a small reward and the chance to win the end-game auction.

Those are just the main actions. There are several other minor but important subsystems (especially involving assistants and the management of "visitors" in your gallery).

Everything is tightly and smoothly interwoven. You need to be very careful to manage your various resources (money, influence, tickets, visitors, art in gallery, contracts, assistants). If you misstep and bottom out on one or more of these resources (especially money and influence), you will suffer until you can claw your way back into liquidity.

While there's a lot of multi-player solitaire in the design, it's got a healthy measure of player interaction. Think of each artist as a company, and each piece of art produced as a share. Once you own shares in an artist, it's in your interest to push the popularity of that artist up, thereby increasing the price of that artist's work. And once you make that commitment, it's in the interest of other players to ride your coat-tails, buying works from that artist and letting you do all of the work of increasing its value.

The winner is the player with the most money at game end (with lots of different end-game scoring opportunities to boost scores).

If you like heavy and intricate games, you owe it to yourself to try the Gallerist. In that niche, it's extremely satisfying to play, with rich connections between the different resource streams and an interesting degree of shared incentives.

And it's really a beautiful production, with a handsomely understated art style and color palette.

A top 10 game for me.


Concordia Britannia

(Image credit: Oblivion)

An excellent two-player experience for a great game.

I've played and enjoyed the Concordia base game a number of times. It's a great mid-weight euro with a really interesting card-drafting mechanism at its heart.

I finally got a chance to try it two-player, on the Britannia expansion map. I'm happy to say that it worked very well and was a lot of fun.

There are no special rules for this map; it's just smaller and tighter (and played with the bare minimum of Senator cards). The game play is much faster with only two players, and feels a lot more like a race than at higher counts. You're each pushing hard to grab key scoring cards and map positions. You need to keep a close eye on the end-game; it will come sooner than you expect.

We really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to trying it with the extra rules from Salsa (which I haven't tried yet, but they look really fun and interesting).


Barony

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Lightly-themed spatial knife fight.

This is a tight little game, with lots of stand-offs and thrown elbows. You build stuff and try to keep it from being destroyed (while destroying other people's stuff).

The board is a semi-randomly laid out hex map comprised of five different terrain types.

On that map, players place two cities, which can be used to spawn knights.

Knights can move around and destroy things (using a very simple deterministic combat system -- if any player ever has two pieces of wood in a hex, he kills any other player's singletons in that hex -- importantly, this means that you can never move a single piece into a space where an opponent already has two; you'd die instantly!).

Knights can also be converted into villages or strongholds. When this happens, the active player takes a terrain token matching the type of terrain where the new building is placed (each terrain type is worth a different number of terrain points). Terrain points are not victory points, but once a player has at least 15 points worth of terrain tokens, they can be converted into victory points (this requires an action).

If one of your villages is destroyed, the attacker gets to steal one of your terrain tokens (of their choice). Grrr. You'd better watch your back and remember to convert terrain into VP. Strongholds can never be destroyed (they're strong!).

Villages can be converted into cities (which immediately earns you 10 VP and gives you another city you can use to spawn knights).

The kicker is that each player can only do ONE action per turn:

• Spawn 2-3 knights in one city.
• Move two knights one space each.
• Convert any number of knights into villages or strongholds.
• Convert one village into a city.
• Turn in terrain chips for a single 15 VP bump.

Because each of those actions is small, plans will generally take several turns to accomplish, and the other players will likely see what you're up to. This creates a chess-like quality to the game, with moves creating implicit threats that must be countered (either by a defensive move or a counter-threat). With the full boat of four players, there's a lot to think about.

Barony is an interesting spatial game, mostly abstract, with loads of direct confrontational interaction. And the components are satisfyingly chunky.

Recommended, if you like that kind of thing.


Guilds of London

(Image credit: Oblivion)

Solid area majority game, that didn't really grab me with two.

This is a nicely produced mid-weight area majority game. The play area is made up of square tiles that represent the Guilds of London! You place your liverymen onto these tiles, in an attempt to have first or second most when the tile gets scored.

Game play is driven by multi-use cards, which can be used to move liveryman, acquire more liverymen, or perform a special action. Some special actions cost "gold," which you pay by discarding other cards.

The iconography used to describe special actions is pretty opaque at first, and you will need a cheat sheet. Oddly, the player aids provided in the game are incomplete. You will definitely want to print one of the aids from the BGG file section. (This was a weird flaw in the physical production of the game.)

The game play was good, with interesting card play, but I didn't love it. For my taste, there was too much area majority rejiggering. It would probably be better with three or four, but it would still be an awful lot of area majority back and forth.
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Fri Sep 30, 2016 10:41 pm
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Game Mechanics That I Love (Whether I'm Good at Them or Not)

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On a more positive note, here are some things that I almost always really like in a game. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite games combine more than one of these (e.g., Keyflower hits every item on the list.)

Inter-Play Variability

I am always glad when a game has significant variable elements that modify the game's strategic landscape from play to play. I love modular boards (e.g. Food Chain Magnate) and randomized distribution of features (e.g., Hawaii, Voyages of Marco Polo).

Variable start-up is especially satisfying when each game uses a randomized subset of the total pool of available components, so that each game presents a different mix of options and constraints (e.g., Agricola, Pax Porfiriana, Keyflower).

When I play games like this, I really enjoy the initial process of taking in the set-up and thinking about how the new configuration will affect the game. Those will be expensive. These are nearby. There's a choke-point over there. There is no stone!

Besides the fun of that pre-game assessment, variability helps keep a game from getting stale and scripted. I love it.

Worker Placement

I really like how worker placement creates brinksmanship. The knowledge that other players may take the things I need forces me to prioritize and then decide how and where to push my luck. Can I postpone getting food (which I absolutely need) for one more round? or should I lock it down now and forego some other critical need (which may be taken away before I get another go)? It's stressful in a fun way!

Worker placement is a mature enough mechanism now that it has a lot of interesting variations. One of my favorites is when you're able to acquire an exclusive worker placement option, which only you can use (e.g., Russian Railroads and Terra Mystica). This can be so satisfying, when the other players are sweating bullets about when to grab an essential action and I have one in my back pocket.

Alliance of Convenience

I really enjoy it when a game allows more than one player to benefit from an action or resource. This can create really interesting shared incentives and cost-benefit calculations. It also leads to a lot of direct interaction, which can be mutually beneficial, parasitic, or destructive.

Share-based train games (like Chicago Express, American Rails, or 18xx) are a classic example of this. If only one player owns stock in the company, that player will reap huge rewards from increasing its value. If two players are dividing ownership, then they each have an incentive to push it (because they'll both benefit relative to the other players). But if an ownership split is unbalanced, the minority owner gets to be a free-riding leech (which can be a lot of fun for the leech). And if all players get an equal stake in a company, that company is likely dead in the water. Who is going to waste a turn creating equal value for all players? All of that complex interaction emerges organically from the relatively simple mechanism of shared ownership.

I also really enjoy games where players can opportunistically use each others' stuff, especially if that deprives the owner of its use. Often, this involves making some kind of payment to the owner. In different situations, the owner may get shorted or come out ahead. Again, this gives rise to some very satisfying complexity. And it can also feel really thematic. Great examples of this include Age of Industry and Keyflower.

Engine Building

I almost always enjoy engine building in a game, where you can use an action to improve the effectiveness of your future actions. This can produce a snowball effect, where each increase in your engine's power leads to further increases. If you do it right, you can crank out huge amounts of stuff toward the end of the game.

While it's fun to get the end-game payoff from running an amped up mega-engine, I also really like the narrative arc that building the engine creates. At the beginning of a game of Agricola, for example, you're a puny couple of farmers, living in a one-room clay hut crappy little dwelling of some kind, with nothing to your name. Gradually, painfully, you improve your situation. And, if you managed things right, you'll wind up with fields overflowing with crops and livestock, a large family, assistants, tools, and a huge stone house. And you built that, step by step.

Some of my favorite games of this type are Age of Industry, Fields of Arle, Hansa Teutonica, London, and Keyflower. I'm also really looking forward to A Feast for Odin.

Geography

I love it when a game is embedded in a place that needs to be navigated and claimed. This involves a special kind of spatial thinking that I find really satisfying. You need to assess the lay of the land, and think about where you can act, at what cost, and where others are likely to go. Sometimes you're moving pieces around a map, trying to outmaneuver opponents. Sometimes you're building parts of your game engine onto the board itself, with facilities that need to be located and connected. Maybe you need to be near sources of important supplies or markets for your goods. Maybe you need to build your stuff in a pattern of mutual support, or you need to rush toward goals and claim them before others. Landscape features (e.g., rivers, mountains, cities) may need to be taken account, as they slow movement, increase construction costs, or provide benefits. Blocking other players out of locations can be hugely important, creating interesting incentives.

And if you add in direct conflict (destroying or seizing other players' stuff on the board) you introduce a whole new set of considerations. In addition to optimizing the efficiency of your stuff, you now need to worry about its security. Where are your weak points and critical features? What's within reach of opponents' forces? And what can you reach? (My wife generally dislikes that kind of thing. I'm mediocre at it, but enjoy the thinking involved.)

Some of my favorite games that are tied to geography include Terra Mystica, Age of Industry, A Few Acres of Snow, 18xx, and Hansa Teutonica.
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Sat Sep 17, 2016 5:56 pm
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Game Mechanics That I Really Do Not Like (i.e., Things I'm Terrible At)

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There are certain design elements that I really dislike (usually because I'm terrible at managing them, leaving me frustrated in a bad way). I don't think I've ever enjoyed playing a game where these elements were at the center of the design.

Tastes obviously vary, so I'm not saying that these are objectively bad things. Just that I hates them.

So, here they are. Blech.

Simultaneous action selection

This is the one that prompted me to write this post. I had heard good things about Happy Pigs, as a light economic game. I read up on it and sort of dismissed the fact that it involves a simultaneous selection mechanism. But it does, bigly. (As Trump would say.)

Every turn, a card is turned up that shows how many of each action can be performed by all players collectively. The players then simultaneously select one of the four actions and divide the available number between them. For example, if there are 8 "sell pigs" actions available and only one player chooses that action in the simultaneous reveal, that player gets to perform the action 8 times (or get coins for any unperformed actions). But if four people choose "sell pigs," they each get to do two actions. The goal is to do what the other players aren't doing, which requires some good educated guesswork.

Happy Pigs reminded me, forcefully, that I suck at that kind of guesswork. Every turn, I misjudged and wound up with the short end of the stick. Over the course of the game, I had far fewer actions than the other players. That was frustrating.

The designer of Happy Pigs had the smarts to include a variant that does away with the simultaneous reveal. I'd be willing to try that, but I wouldn't want to play the simultaneous selection version again.

Negotiation

I'm also terrible at negotiation games. My negotiations always seem to produce one of two results: (1) I get the short end of a lopsided deal, or (2) nobody will make a deal with me and I wind up on the outside looking in. I really have no idea why this is, but it's definitely the pattern. This makes negotiation games miserable experiences for me. Sad! (As Trump would say.)

That's why I really dislike Settlers.

I was initially pretty interested in the pending game New Angeles, to the point that I'd preordered it. Then I remembered -- I hate negotiation games. Cancelled! Phew! That was a close one.

Mancala

There's something about the look-ahead planning required to successfully manipulate a mancala that my brain simply cannot grok. I learned this a long time ago, when my kids were little and they would destroy me at Mancala. They were seeing things that were entirely opaque to me. My turn: move 2-3 pits. Their turn: move 6-8 pits. Repeatedly.

When a mancala is incorporated into a game in a way that makes it essential to success, I will not enjoy that game. That's why I really disliked Trajan. If you can't figure out how to manage the rotation of your pieces, you will fail. A game designed so that overall success depends on a player's ability to solve a certain kind of puzzle strikes me as really limiting. It feels like one of those video games where player progress absolutely depends on being able to solve a puzzle or complete a difficult dexterity/timing challenge. If you can't do it, the game's over. Yuck.

By contrast, Finca and Gold West were okay, because the mancala element was much simpler and/or more tangential to success in the game. (Though I still didn't like that aspect of those games.)

Luck-Based Results

I don't mind luck in a game, if it serves to introduce randomness into the game's strategic landscape. So, for example, I really like dice-drafting games where the roll of the dice presents a set of options, and then the players decide which option to pursue -- especially if there are ways to mitigate the or modify the randomized set of options. For example, I really enjoy the dice-rolling in The Voyages of Marco Polo, Troyes, Panamax, and The Castles of Burgundy. I'm also fine with the luck of the card draw, if the cards are drawn into a drafting pool that's available to all players. (Especially if acquiring a card is just one available action among many -- e.g., Mombasa.)

What I really dislike is luck that determines the results of a chosen action. If you roll well, you succeed. If you roll badly, you fail -- your action is wasted. In a wargame, where part of the experience is dealing with indeterminacy, I'm okay with that kind of luck; especially if there are lots of moments of luck to average out over the course of the game. But I hate this kind of thing in a euro.

I guess this dislike is a little different from the ones discussed above above. I don't dislike luck-based results because I'm bad at dice-rolling (there's no such thing). I just don't like to have a critical point of success or failure to depend on a single moment of luck.




Maybe I'll write a companion post about "Game Mechanics That I Really Like," once I've dried the bitter tears from my cheeks. (I came close to something along those lines in this post: One of my "Sweet Spots". That actually describes games where luck determines the array of available actions, but doesn't determine your success in taking actions.)
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Sat Sep 10, 2016 8:50 pm
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New to Me August 2016

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Scythe

(Image credit: jameystegmaier)

Beautiful, well-crafted, engine-builder on a map (with dudes).

There are two big things to talk about when discussing Scythe: the physical production and the game play.

As good as the game play is, the thing that really distinguishes Scythe is the art. When I first saw an image of one of Jakub Rozalski's paintings, I immediately stopped browsing BGG and went looking for more of his work. His stuff is gorgeously executed and delightfully weird (grim but romantic Eastern European diesel-punk). [Just look at that hardass on the musk ox above, the little girl on the reindeer in Lappi finery, the oil derrick and mech in the background. Brrr!]

Happily, the physical production of the game is completely up to my original expectations based on that first image. There's a huge amount of Rozalski's art in the game. The board is good looking and functional. The iconography is sensible. The player boards are well laid out. The little indented spaces to keep wooden bits from sliding around is an excellent touch. The miniatures are just okay (imo), but that's a very small niggle. Overall, this is Golden Geek level physical design. Nailed it.

I've only played once, so I'm not able to evaluate how well-balanced the game is (but in that play, scores exactly correlated to the players' varying experience with the game, which I take as a good sign).

Although Scythe has a direct conflict military element, that isn't the only or even the main goal. The game is an engine building euro, where you're trying to score points by achieving a set of goals. The point value of those goals varies with your "popularity" with the folk. To do well, you need to achieve lots of goals and be highly popular.

Some of the goals have to do with maxing out the development of your engine in specific ways. One is based on fulfilling a secret objective card that you're dealt at the beginning of the game. And the last two are achieved by winning battles.

So fighting is mostly valuable as a way of achieving those goals, and once you've won twice, the value of fighting goes way down. You can use it to take over territory and resources, but that didn't seem to be a huge factor.

Mostly you're trying to acquire the resources to buy the upgrades and workers/fighters that you'll need to achieve goals and boost your popularity. (You also get points for controlling territory and resources at the end of the game.)

There's also a fairly simplistic "choose-your-own-adventure" type element. If your leader piece is the first to enter certain designated spaces on the map, you get to draw an encounter card. The card allows you to choose one of three outcomes. These generally raise or lower your popularity and/or give you stuff (in a mostly inverse relationship between popularity and stuff). This felt a little tacked on, but it was fun enough. And it provided a way to get a lot more of Rozalski's art into the game (which I suspect was the main point).

Scythe has asymmetrical player powers, with some interplay variability. Every faction has a unique special ability and is randomly assigned an action board that mixes up the resource costs and benefits of performing the game's standard actions. I really like asymmetrical powers when they're done well, and this looks pretty promising.

Overall, Scythe is a fun, polished, medium-heavy, longish, multi-player resource management euro, with a large dollop of direct interaction, and over-the-top physical production value. It's almost worth owning just as an artifact of our hobby. Fortunately, it's also a very good game.

My rating could go up with more plays. It's unlikely to go down.

Recommended.


City of Iron: Second Edition

(Image credit: WarcraftZIVI)

Intricate steampunk/fantasy deck- and engine-builder, with smooth play and whimsical Ryan Laukat art.

Players are rival city-states, each attempting to build the most impressive empire (measured by VP, of course).

The great majority of the available VP come from collecting goods. There are 10 different types of goods, of varying value. At three times during the game (the end of rounds 3, 5, and 7), points will be awarded for having the most (and second most) of each type of good. For example, if you've got the most turnips, you'll get 2vp. The player with the second most, will get 1vp. At the other end of the value spectrum, magic crystals will score 6 and 4vp.

So how do you get the resources? Two ways:

(1) Pay money (and sometimes also books) to buy a building from the market (which partially flushes and then refills each round, with increasingly expensive and valuable buildings becoming available later in the game).

(2) Conquer a distant town. You do this by playing cards with a high enough total "attack" value to overcome the town's defense, and a high enough total "range" value to cover the distance between your empire and the target town. Successfully conquering a town gives you the resources they produce. The more valuable towns have higher defenses and are farther away. You can also attack towns that have been already conquered by another player, wresting control away from them.

Buildings and towns also provide you with cash at the end of each round. Some buildings produce books, or other benefits.

The most distinctive element of the game play is the deck building and hand management. Each player has two different decks to manage: civil and military. Civil is stacked toward nonmilitary actions; military is full of fightiness.

If you draw a card, you will be drawing from one or other of your decks. When you play cards, you discard them to their respective discard piles.

When you play a bunch of cards to perform an action, you get to decide the order that they'll go into the discard pile. When your draw pile is exhausted, you flip over the discard pile, without shuffling, and it becomes your new draw pile. This means you get to semi-stack your deck as you game goes along.

At the end of each round, players have an opportunity to add cards to their decks. Each player has a large stack of cards available. Most are common to all players, but each faction has a couple that are unique to them. Any number of cards may be bought, by paying the indicated cost in coins and books.

Importantly, bought cards go directly into your hand, rather than your discard pile. So they're immediately available to play on your next turn.

All of this makes for some difficult and interesting choices as you try to build and manage your two decks to get the cards that you need, when you need them. It's clever and fun.

There are a lot more flavorful little bits, all fairly tightly interwoven and thematic. For example, your original city can only support five buildings. You can get around this by building new districts. Or, you can use the explorer card, along with enough range cards, to discover and settle distant lands. Some of these require that you play a sailing ship or airship card. These new lands come with a "district" that provides population. Districts also boost your card draw each turn (in either civil or military, depending on type).

Also, each land has four terrain types. Buildings that you buy have to match one of the terrain types of the land where they're built. Want to build a crystal mine? You'd better colonize a floating island. (Or conquer a town on one.)

That probably sounds like a lot to process, but it makes sense in play. I think City of Iron comes close to being overwrought, but stops just short of it.

Expect your first plays to be slow, as players will need to look through all of the cards in their deck of available cards, at the end of every turn. And there are a lot of choices to be made, many of which will require careful resource planning.

Recommended, if you like this kind of game. A nice package overall. So far, I've only played it with two, but my wife and I are eager to try a full boat of four. I expect it will be better at that count, with less zero-sum and runaway leader tendencies.



Via Nebula

(Image credit: hexanauta)

Light but interesting Wallace pick-up-and-deliver, with a thin layer of goofy theming.

When I first saw mention of Via Nebula, I had no interest in it. The art design is off-puttingly twee (something that seems to be a trend, to my curmudgeonly dismay). And the price is absurdly high (something else that seems to be an irritating and accelerating trend).

Then I saw someone mention that Martin Wallace had designed it. That warranted a closer look. Then I heard that Space Cowboys was publishing it — another point in its favor, as they do good work.

If you look past the mawkish theme, it's a solid little game.

The board is a hex map. Some of the hexes are resource spaces, which will be seeded randomly with resource tiles of different types and values (varying number of resources and VP awards).

Some are building spaces, which players can claim to place their buildings on.

Most are unclaimed connection spaces (covered in mysterious fog). Once these are cleared of their mysterious fog, they serve as universal conduits for the movement of goods.

(There are also a handful of dead spaces, which can't be used (because they're occupied by scary monsters)).

On a turn, a player can perform two actions, from this list:

(1) Activate a connection space. Remove a mysterious fog token from a connection space. Some spaces contain a spooky petrified forest. These require two actions to activate.

(2) Place a worker on an unclaimed resource space (claiming any VP award and making the resources shown available for anyone to use). The worker remains tied up in that space until its supply of resources is exhausted, at which point the worker returns home and the space becomes an active connection space.

(3) Claim a building site. This excludes other players from claiming the site.

(4) Move a resource. If there is an unbroken path of adjacent active connection hexes between an active resource space and a player's claimed building site, the player can move one of the available resources to that site.

(5) Build a building.
Spend resource tokens you've accumulated to pay the construction cost of a building card. (You have some secret building cards dealt to you at the beginning of the game, others are available in a public row, which refreshes when depleted.) E.g., a particular building might cost a stone, a grain, and a pig. If you have any unused resources on your site after you've built the building, these go into your "storage."

Buildings have different costs and grant different VP or special powers. When someone has built all of their buildings, the game ends.

The main source of tension and interaction in the game is the common building pool. If one player is angling to build a particular building and someone else snitches it, the first player may be stuck with unusable resources on their building site. Why is that bad? Resources in storage count as negative VP at game end.

Overall, the game is a bit of a jostling race, with players building networks and claiming resources to fit their own needs, while trying to deny benefits to opponents.

It's a good light medium network-building euro. I'm not sure if it's a long-term keeper, but it's good.
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Wed Aug 31, 2016 10:20 pm
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New to Me July 2016

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July has been another "busy in real life" month for me, with a grand total of one new-to-me game played (but it's a good one).


Imhotep

(Image credit: bkunes)

Better than expected light/medium game of timing and dicksmanship.

As a rule, SdJ nominees don't interest me much. I always like to try them (and try to like them), but they're usually too simple for my taste.

Imhotep was a pleasant surprise in that regard. It's fairly simple, but I found the game play to be fun and interesting.

On you're turn, you do one of four things:

(1) Move up to three stone blocks of your color to your "sled."

(2) Move a stone from your sled to an empty spot on one of the available boats. (Each round a card is turned up to determine how many boats, of what sizes, will be available for that round.)

(3) Move a boat to one of the available construction sites and unload the stones carried by the boat. Each site can only be visited by one boat per round. Stones are unloaded in order, from bow to stern. A boat can only be moved once it has a minimum number of stones on it (usually n-1, where n is the capacity of the boat).

(4) If you have one available to you, you can play a special action card. This lets you perform a stronger version (or combination) of the actions described above.

The construction sites are nicely laid out on sturdy boards. Each has different rules for the benefits provided when stones are placed in their various spaces. One site gives cards (which can be special action or special scoring cards). Others give immediate or end-game points, based on their special scoring rules.

Notably, each of the site boards has an A and B side, with different rules. This allows you to mix and match the combination of scoring rules for each game, providing good interplay variability.

The heart of the game is timing and brinksmanship. Once a boat has sufficient stones on it, any player can move it to any open site.

The choice of whether to sail a boat (and where) creates interesting opportunities for brinksmanship, screwage, and tactical alliances. This makes for a very interactive game, with lots of trash talking and wheedling.

Despite the very low rules overhead, the game is fun to play and interesting. Not a great game, but much better than I was expecting (and very good as a light/medium game that's pretty quick to explain and play).
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Sun Jul 31, 2016 3:13 pm
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New to Me June 2016

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Oops! Too busy this month to write up detailed game summaries.

Here are some quick reactions:

Inhabit the Earth

Quirky, interesting tableau builder feeding into a multi-front race game. I'll probably never try this with more than two. Turns can take a long time to figure out. With three or four, the downtime would be unbearable.

Empires: Age of Discovery

Lots of interesting choices and stabbiness. Good theming. Nice production. Really good game!

I was surprised to discover that Dominant Species took its worker placement system from this game. That was the thing I liked most about Dominant Species, and I liked it more in this game.

Quadropolis

A perfectly fine puzzle/tile laying game with a cool mechanism for acquiring tiles. Excellent physical production. After a few plays it started to feel samey, but I'll probably keep it as an accessible and fairly quick light-medium game.

Signorie

This is a clever design, with an interesting dice selection mechanism at its core. I liked the game play, but it felt a bit off with two. Much of the game revolves around collecting sets of "alliance" tiles from major families. As they're collected, new ones are drawn to fill the empty slots. But ones that nobody takes remain in place. In my one play, this led to stagnation, with most of the available tiles being ones neither of us needed. That was a significant problem.

Best Treehouse Ever

Cute, light, tile placement game. Fun filler.
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Fri Jul 1, 2016 2:56 pm
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New to Me May 2016

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Gold West

(Image credit: sekwof)

Solid midweight resource management euro, with a nice look and feel.

I like (almost*) everything about this game. The theme (mining in 19th Century California) is appealing; the game play is straightforward, interesting, and balanced, with multiple paths to victory; the art design is clean, attractive, and very functional; and the game doesn't outstay its welcome.

There's a lot of replayability built into the design, with a modular board, semi-random distribution of resource tiles on the board, variable order fulfillment cards, and variable special power tiles. I'm a big fan of this kind of thing, as it keeps every play fresh.

Game play is simple. Each turn you will:

(1) Activate a mancala-like track (which is depicted, thematically, as a sluice box). This determines what cubes you'll have to work with on your turn.

(2) Spend any metal cubes to fulfill orders (for VP), acquire a special power tile (for end-game VP), or advance on the shipping track (which is a solid VP source in its own right, but often be a way to prevent wasting metal if you don't have enough to do the other actions.

(3) Build a camp or settlement, or loot a space. Choose a face up resource tile on the map and take the resources shown on the tile. If you built (which requires wood/stone) you get to put a marker in the space, which can earn you longest-chain vp at end game. You also take the marker and put it on your player board to compete for "influence" in that terrain type. If you "loot," you still get the resource cubes, but don't get to place a marker on the board or take the tile for influence.

You put your new resource cubes into one of the spaces of the mancala track. You get some immediate VP, based on how far back you put the new stuff.

That's it. Quick actions feeding into a number of interconnected VP systems.

The main criticism that people will likely level at Gold West is that it doesn't offer anything new. And it really doesn't. All of the systems have been seen before.

But everything blends together into a nice coherent whole. It's a good game, which I'd be happy to play as a 60+ minute medium euro. It's not quite a great game, but those are few and far between.

(*My one complaint about the physical design is the decision to use the big bulky stagecoach meeples on the tiny little spaces of the shipping track. There isn't room for more than one without stacking, and they don't stack well. It's inevitable that some will fall and obscure player status on the tracks. This was a notably bad decision, considering how attractive and sensible the rest of the physical design is.)


Dilluvia Project

(Image credit: SapoLJackson)

Intricate heavy euro marred by significant production problems.

In terms of the game play, this was my favorite new game of the month. But there were so many irritating and inexcusably sloppy production problems, that I couldn't give it top honors for the month. "Purple" cubes that were almost exactly the same color as the red player cubes. Not enough player cubes provided to get through a complete game. Orange and brown disks that should have been light yellow and light red. Point tracking meeples that didn't match the pawns depicted as points everywhere else in the game. An absurd black monolith turn marker. With a game at this price point, it's really bad form to have these kind of easily avoidable problems. I also wish they'd stuck with the original theme of undersea city building, especially since they kept the "dilluvian" title.

With that out of the way, the game play offers a lot of interesting and novel twists on established mechanisms.

Each turn starts with an opportunity to buy bonus tiles from a grid market. Players claim different rows and columns, by parking their "zeppelin" next to one of the outside squares of the grid. Then everyone gets to buy tiles in turn order. The tile nearest to your marker costs one coin, the next two, etc. Players who have holes in their rows or columns, due to earlier players buying stuff, get "compensation" of one coin per hole.

The bonus tiles are seeded randomly to the grid and then refresh each turn to fill in holes. They do a wide range of interesting things, which may have different values for different players (depending on circumstances). This is all fun and interesting.

Then comes worker placement, with players taking turns placing worker disks to perform actions. There are a couple of interesting kinks here. You can place as many of your disks as you want on a space, allowing you to perform multiple iterations of the chosen action. Each player also has a "leader" disk. If you're the first player to use your leader disk at a particular action, you get the bonus associated with that action.

This is a city building game, so a lot of the actions build up to placing buildings on the shared board. You need to claim spaces on the board, accumulate the necessary resources (of different colors, matching the special needs of each building type), then take the building action. Once built, your buildings all provide you with income in the three main currencies (prestige, money, coins). This income entitles you to collect the currencies at the end of each round.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the game is the way that you score points. As you gain prestige (either as a reward for certain actions or as income at the end of your turn), your prestige marker moves around the scoring track. Every time it reaches a multiple of 10, you score points based on the number of buildings you've built. So prestige is important because it triggers scorings, but buildings are important because they determine your actual VP when a scoring is triggered. This is clever and fun.

There's a lot going on, with opportunities for interaction in the tile market, worker placement, and jostling for real estate on the board. Turn order can be really important (but you'll need to spend one of your actions to get ahead in turn order).

I've played this twice, 2p with my wife. It works really well at that count. Sadly, I doubt I'll get to play it with more. The game's length and its significant rules overhead would make it a poor fit for my regular group.

This is a very good game, marred by inexcusably slopping production decisions. I should not have to paint cubes and buy extras in order to play.


Android: Mainframe

(Image credit: cristiQ)

Nice little card-driven area enclosure game with excellent bits.

Players are competing to hack a computer server something something. This is done by enclosing areas on the grid board, with only your nodes inside the enclosed space. This yields points equal to the number of enclosed spaces, multiplied by the number of your nodes.

The board is black plastic, with nicely formed slots and divots for placement of bright blue dividing rods and your node tiles. The electric blue against black looks really nice, in a thematic, Tron kind of way.

Player actions are determined by playing or discarding cards. There's a common market of cards that you can choose from, or you can play one of your special cards. Every player has a different mini-deck of special power cards. You draw a subset of them each game, creating lots of variability between plays and asymmetry between players.

If you play a card, you get to perform the action it depicts. If you discard a card, you get to place another node somewhere on the board.

I've only played this as a two-player so far. It's a good fast-playing game, though the luck of the card draw as the market refreshes can feel a bit swingy. Very nice game overall.


Karuba

(Image credit: Thorin2001)

Very light tile-laying route-building simultaneous placement race game.

Players have identical tile sets that depict paths through the jungle and are playing on identically configured jungle boards (showing different colored starting points and ending points -- i.e., "temples"). Numbers are drawn, bingo-style, then everyone simultaneously takes that tile from their set and decides what to do with it.

You can either place it on the board or discard it to move one of your four colored explorers along an already established path. The number of path exits on the tile determines how many spaces the explorer can move.

Some tiles come with gold or gems. Explorers that stop on those spaces collect them for VP. Explorers that reach temples get a diminishing number of VP based on whether others have been first to reach that temple on their boards (i.e., first gets 5, second gets 3, etc.)

It's thoroughly multi-player solitaire, with no interaction (other than the race to be first to the various temples). Play is pretty brisk and the choices are interesting in a puzzly way.

We did run into one weird thing. Since players are racing, sometimes you want to know whether an opponent is getting closer to a temple before deciding what to do with your tile. This often leads to two players waiting on each other to act before acting. I couldn't see a solution for this in the rules, and their are no player screens. We house-ruled it with an "on three" simultaneous placement. But it felt like a kludge.

This is a perfectly fine game, though too light and luck dependent for my taste.


Android: Netrunner

(Image credit: bhz1)

Classic asymmetrical LCG.

This was as smart and interesting as everyone else has said.

But my wife hated it, and I don't have the time and energy required to make the most of it.

Glad to have tried it!
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Wed Jun 1, 2016 1:19 am
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New to Me April 2016

United States
Davis
California
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Love the world.
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This was a great month for new-to-me games. I didn't play many, but most of the ones I did try were excellent.

In fact, I had an extremely hard time deciding which of the top two games to list as the "best" of the month.

But ultimately, I gave Star Wars: Rebellion a bump for nostalgia. Star Wars is pretty deeply embedded in my geek-programming. I was just 13 years old when the first (I refuse to say fourth) Star Wars movie came out. There I was, sitting in a darkened theater on a Saturday afternoon, when this happened:



I was hooked.


Star Wars: Rebellion

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)

A strong evocation of the original Star Wars story arc, thoroughly infused into a fun, card-driven, counterinsurgency game.

First, the obvious. This game is beautifully produced. There are a ton of nicely-sculpted minis (made of a strong material; I have no concerns about breakage), stacks of nice-looking cards with original art, and a functional and attractive board showing a map of the main planetary systems and a couple of simple bookkeeping tracks. (I was annoyed to find Naboo on the board -- when I play the Empire I'll be tempted to test the Death Star there.) It's a very nice package, consistent with the relatively high price point.

Happily, the game play is also excellent. Here's a quick overview:

Leaders

The main driver of game play is the set of "leaders" that each faction controls. Everything you do in the game will be performed by your leaders. They are the action currency of the game (with differing capabilities based on their skills and tactical strengths).

Assign Leaders

Each turn begins with the players deciding how to "assign" their leaders for the turn. Leaders can be assigned to attempt a variety of "missions" or held in reserve.

To assign a leader to a mission, you select a mission card from your hand, place it face down, and place one or two leaders on top of it (collectively, the assigned leaders must have enough of the right kind of "skill" icon to meet the minimum skill requirement shown on the mission card).

Leaders that are held in reserve can be used later in the turn to (1) trigger strategic movement of units on the board or (2) react to and oppose an opponent's mission.

The assignment phase already presents an important and interesting decision. How do you allocate your scarce leader resources between your missions, strategic movement, and holding resources back to foil your opponent's missions?

Perform Actions

Once the assignment phase is over, players take turns performing a single action (either a mission attempt or a strategic movement), until both sides pass.

Missions. To attempt a mission, flip over one of your face down mission cards and move the assigned leader(s) to the planet where the mission will take place.

Some missions are "resolved" (i.e., are automatically successful). You just do what the card says.

But others require an "attempt." If an attempt is unopposed, the mission will automatically succeed. But if the mission is opposed, dice will need to be rolled to determine its success.

A mission is opposed if there are enemy leaders on the same planet with skills that match the mission's skill requirement. Those can be leaders who were already there (from earlier placements in the turn) or an additional single leader that your opponent moved from her reserve to oppose your mission.

Players each tally up the relevant skill icons on all of their leaders on the planet and roll that many dice. The player attempting the mission must achieve more "successes" on the dice roll than their opponent in order to succeed with the mission.

Missions do all kinds of cool, thematic, and useful things. As just one example, in my game Han Solo sabotaged military production in an Imperial system. Vader responded by capturing him. Later in the turn, the Imperials "interrogated" Han, successfully extracting key information about the location of the rebel base. This was thematically evocative and had a major effect on the course of the game.

Strategic Movement. The rules for strategic movement are simple. Just place one of your reserved military leaders (i.e., one with tactic ratings) into any star system. You can then move units from adjacent systems to the one where you placed the leader. The leader effectively draws units into that system.

The only limitations on strategic movement are (1) you can't move units from a system that already has one of your leaders (they're busy), and (2) ground units and TIE fighters need to be transported on starships in order to move (the different starships have different capacity to transport these units). That's it. A nice clean system that creates interesting strategic considerations with very little overhead.

If units move into a system that's already occupied by enemy units, there may be a battle. I say "may" be a battle, because each system has two "theaters," ground and space. Ground units only battle ground units and space units only battle space units. If you only move space units into a system that only has enemy ground units, there won't be a fight. The space units will just glare down at the occupying troops.

I won't describe the combat system, which involves the plastic minis, dice chucking, a simple differentiation between heavy and light units, some fixed defense units with special powers, and leaders playing "tactics" card (which can be critical). It's fun and is simple and quick enough not to bog down the strategic part of the game.

Refresh Phase

After the players have finished performing actions, there's a refresh phase. Depending on which turn it is, you may recruit new leaders (who also come with one-time special powers) and/or produce new military units.

The military production system is very simple. Each planet has icons representing what units it can build. The icons indicate whether the unit is ground or space and whether it is little, medium, or big. The player's have boards that indicate which of their specific units fit those categories (e.g., the Imperial small, medium, and large ground units are storm troopers, AT-ST, and AT-AT, respectively).

With one exception, you only get to produce units on planets that are "loyal" to your faction. The exception is that the Empire gets a weak version of production at any planet where they have ground troops. These planets are "subjugated" rather than loyal. You can never build or deploy units on a planet that is sabotaged or that has enemy units in-system.

Each planet also has a number indicating where to put built units in the player's production queue (spaces 1-3). This determines how long it will take for the unit to be ready for deployment.

After all units have been placed on the production queue, the units on the queue are advanced one space. Units on space three move to two, etc. Units that were on space 1 get deployed to your production-capable planets.

Again, this is a nice, clean system that gives some food for thought without getting in the way.

Counterinsurgency

Way up top I said that this is a counterinsurgency game. In other words, while it's sort of a simplified wargame, it's an asymmetric wargame. The rebels don't win by beating the empire in open warfare. They win by not losing.

The Empire has much greater military resources, but it doesn't know the location of the rebel base. This is the thematic and mechanical hook of the game (and the films). To win, the Empire must find the rebel base and destroy it (before time runs out and the increasing sympathy for the rebellion triggers an Empire-wide uprising).

The rebels must misdirect and distract the Empire and build political support from the unaligned systems through diplomatic missions, guerrilla actions, and the occasional small battle. Over the course of the game, the rebels will have access to "objective" cards. Those cards state specific goals (e.g., gain loyalty on every populous world in a region, win a ground battle on a subjugated system, etc.). If those goals are achieved, the game clock is advanced toward rebel victory.

The Empire uses probe droids (a deck of cards that includes all of the locations where the base isn't located -- think Clue on steriods), intel missions, and the landing of ground troops to gradually figure out the location of the base.

Once the Empire finds the base, they need to gather enough troops there to wipe out the force that the rebel player has been secretly building over the course of the game (constructed units can be deployed to a virtual "rebel base" holding box on the map; this allows for a build-up without revealing the actual location of the base on the map).

Conclusion

I've only played once, but here are my overall impressions:

• If you're a Star Wars fan, you need to at least try this game. It's basically Star Wars: the Game. I would have killed to have this when I was a kid.

• It's a lot of fun. The two sides play very differently, with rebels hiding and striking from the darkness and the Empire grinding their way forward, seeking to crush the puny rebellion once and for all. This is all driven by the major characters from the movies, with lots of thematically appealing (and strategically important) missions.

• There's a fair amount of rules overhead, but the rules are actually fairly simple. Once learned, they get out of the way. There are a lot of clever design choices, with fairly simple mechanisms producing interesting decisions (with good graphic design making the game easier to play). And the theme and mechanisms are in close enough harmony that the game feels very intuitive play.
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• Be warned, the game is long. Expect four hours at least. That said, you really don't notice the passage of time. My friend and I had been playing for three hours before I noticed how much time had passed (I was getting hungry!). It felt more like 90 minutes.

The long play time is unfortunate, because it means that the game won't get played very often. On the other hand, we were completely engaged the whole time, without any sense of downtime or tedium.

In short, set aside a big block of time if you're going to play, but expect it to be worthwhile.

• By every measure, this is a great game. It's one of a handful of games I've rated "9" (and I don't rate games "10").

Brilliant.


Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

(Image credit: myparadox)

The pinnacle of engine-building.

My wife and I have always enjoyed engine-building games, where you invest resources to buy assets that produce resources. You do this until you've got enough of a resource engine going to start buying assets that produce victory points. There's a lot of satisfaction in getting your engine up and cranking, allowing you to do much bigger and flashier things in the late game.

Through the Ages is the pinnacle of the genre. It has a wide range of choices, difficult maintenance problems that must be carefully managed, and a long arc that allows you to guide your civilization from the bronze age to modernity.

The game has a huge stack of cards, offering a lot of variety in how you choose to customize your position. These are sorted into four "ages," which allows the game to ramp up over its arc, with more powerful (and expensive) cards coming out later in the game. The cards also provide a lot of satisfying thematic hooks.

I'm not going to try to describe the rules in any detail. There's just too much to cover. But here are some high points:

• Each turn you can begin by playing a political card. These cards potentially affect all players. It's one of the main sources of interaction. These include events (some good, mostly bad), aggression and wars, and an opportunity to colonize new lands. Colonization is interesting because it involves an auction in which the players bid military units. Whoever wins the auction, gets the benefits of the colony but has to "spend" military units (presumably sending them away to occupy the new land).

• Then you perform actions. There are two kinds, civil and military. Civil actions let you do things like acquire cards from the central card row, build buildings, develop new technologies, play cards from hand, etc. Military actions allow you to build new military units and draw military cards into hand.

• Your current government type determines how many actions of each type you get each turn. This also determines your hand size limit for civil and military cards. You can change your type of government as the game progresses, by paying the appropriate costs and actions. This will change the number of actions you get of each type, increase the number of buildings you can have in operation, and may give you some other minor bonuses.

• There is a very clever system for tracking your development of technologies and your assignment of population to different tasks. The system also automatically tracks maintenance costs (food requirements, level of corruption, and the level of "happiness" required to avoid unrest). Once you understand how the system works it becomes very simple to see what's going on and make changes.

• Military plays a significant role, and there are a lot of interesting things you can do with your military units (raids against other players, supremacy in events that reward the strongest or punish the weakest, wars, and colonization). If your opponent starts building a military, you can't entirely ignore it or you'll be punished. But in my couple of plays it hasn't been overwhelming.

I've only played this two-player, with my wife. We've really enjoyed it. This is a very mature design, without many rough edges. The systems are solid, interesting, and smooth. (The biggest hitch for us was learning the different ways that military costs are paid for different kinds of military actions; that felt a little wonky.) There's a fair amount of complexity, but the book-keeping doesn't feel burdensome. The game is longish (2-3 hours with two) but doesn't outstay its welcome.

If you like engine-building card tableau games, and don't balk at playing heavier games, you should definitely give this a play. I don't know how it would be with higher player counts, but as a two-player game it was excellent.

If it weren't for Star Wars Rebellion getting played this month, TTA would easily have had the top slot. This is a great game.


The Climbers

(Image credit: ZaNaBoZa)

Clever, visually interesting, 3-D abstract.

Players compete to get their dobbers to the highest level of a constantly changing tower of multicolored blocks of different sizes.

Game play is very simple. On your turn you may move a block, changing its location in the tower and/or the orientation of its differently colored faces. Then you may move your dobber on the tower. You can only move onto or over block faces that match your dobber's color or that are neutral gray.

You can step up from one block to another, but only by a half-step. Each player has a short ladder that lets them move up a full step (once per game) and a long ladder that lets them move up two full steps (once per game). Ladders can also be used as bridges to cross chasms.

The game ends when every player in turn is unable to move their dobbers to a higher level in the tower. The player with the highest dobber wins (with ties broken in favor of the player who got to that level first).

There are a few other minor rules about block placement and dobber movement, but that's basically it.

I really liked it. This is a game (like Taluva) where the three-dimensionality of the play space isn't just a gimmick. It's fundamental to the game. You really need to get your head around what's going on spatially. Once you do, you'll see lots of clever opportunities for trickiness and dickishness.

Our one play also had a fun opportunity for collusion. One player had raced far ahead to the top of a very tall spire, with the remaining three of us lagging way below. If the game were to end, the spire player would win. So the rest of us agreed to collaborate, placing blocks to ensure that all of us could continue to move higher in the structure, thereby deferring the game's end. This alliance continued until we started to get into striking distance of the lead. As our common interest started to fade, it was fun to see who would defect first, shifting the game back from being a semi-coop into a dog-eat-dog competition. This made the game much more interesting than I was expecting (though maybe a bit frustrating for the early leader).

The game also looks great on the table. Lots of people from other games kept coming up to watch what we were doing and try to figure out the rules just by observing. It drew a lot of attention.

The Climbers is longer and heavier than a filler, but simpler and more social than a euro. In it's niche, it's strongly recommended.

One last note: if you have access to a lazy susan, you should use it to play this game. Otherwise, players will need to constantly get up and walk around the table to see all of the possibilities.


Odin's Ravens (second edition)

(Image credit: chichisbud)

Tit for tat 2p racing game, with players having identical decks of cards.

I've never played the original edition, so I can't compare the first and second edition game play. I can say that Osprey has been doing some great work releasing really handsome versions of out of print games. I'm very glad to see them occupying that niche. This is a beautifully produced game, with really nice graphic design and art throughout.

Unfortunately, I didn't like the game much. I'm not faulting the game. It seems well-designed, with good opportunities for clever tactical play. I'm just not much of a fan of racing games.
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Sat Apr 30, 2016 11:44 pm
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