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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Working on the Railroad (Again)

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[This is my 100th blog post. I deserve a cookie.]

One of my good gaming friends is moving, making my very small circle of local 18xx'ers even smaller (it's just me and my wife now). So I decided I would hunt down a copy of 1825 Unit 3, one of the very few 18xx titles designed for only two players.

One problem: it's out of print and there are zero copies in the secondary market. Only one person on BGG has a copy listed for trade. He's overseas from me and didn't respond to geek mail.

So I decided to build one.

The project was a bit tricky because there is no single source of all of the materials. The files section for the game has some of what I needed, but major pieces are not available.

Here's what I did:

Rules. I got a scan of this from a generous acquaintance (which was greatly appreciated).

Board. The gallery for Unit 1 has a nice redesign of the combined boards for all 1825 Units and expansions (thanks Carthaginian!).



I don't need the whole board (yet!) so I cropped out just the part that encompasses the Unit 3 portion of the game and printed that area on two letter-sized card stock sheets (which I laminated and taped together with book tape on the back).

Private companies. The Unit 3 gallery has an image of these, which I cleaned up a bit, printed and laminated.

Train tiles. Again, the Unit 3 gallery has an image showing one of each type. The 1825 page at Blackwater Station has a train manifest for the game, so I knew how many of each I needed:

http://www.18xx.net/1825/1825.htm

Then it was just a matter of compiling the necessary images and cleaning them up a bit.

Track tiles. Back to Blackwater I went. They have a tile manifest, with links to image files for each tile (separately). I downloaded the graphics for each, with notes on how many of that type was needed. Then I constructed pages with all of the required tiles combined (16 per page), printed to cardstock and laminated.

The charters and shares and company tokens I printed from files on the Unit 3 files section (thanks tppytel!). I still need to glue the cardstock tokens to wooden disks, but I didn't have enough on hand.

Finally, I intend to print whole sheet labels of the game box to re-purpose a spare box that I've got (for now the game is living in a magazine ziploc, which works ok).

I may also put together a "bank pool" and "phase chart" as player aids.

Here's the final product:



And here's the end-state of our first play (I won!):



I'm now very tempted to build a Unit 2 (which is reportedly also okay with two players), before I forget everything that I just learned.
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Sun Aug 16, 2015 4:54 pm
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New to Me: July 2015

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The Voyages of Marco Polo

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

This is the best new euro I've played in quite a while; it might be top 10 material.

Marco Polo is an excellent mid-weight dice-placement, resource management, order fulfillment euro, themed around Marco Polo's travels to China. It has high inter-game variability and very strong asymmetric powers that may be too much for some people.

At the heart of Marco Polo is a dice-based action selection system. It's fundamentally worker placement, but with the strength of the action determined by the pips on the die or dice that are placed to perform the action.

Placement doesn't block others from using the same action, but raises the cost to do so -- in order to use an action that someone else has already used this turn, you must pay money equal to the value of the lowest die that you place to perform the action.

You're also barred from repeating most actions that you've already taken in a turn, unless you acquire black or white dice, which can be used to duplicate an action that you've already taken.

That core system is rock solid, interesting, and fun.

The available actions allow you to acquire camels or trade goods, acquire contracts (which are completed using camels and trade goods), move your dobber on the map (paying money and sometimes camels to do so), or get money.

Moving to a new city on the map allows you to place a trading post. In large cities, a trading post allows you to use the action space that's assigned to that city (based on random card distribution at the start of the game, with many more cards than can be used in a game). I love worker placement games that let you get access to exclusive or limited action spaces. Marco Polo has that in spades.

The first player to establish a trading post in a large city earns a one-time bonus. Trading posts in small cities give players some kind of income at the beginning of each round.

Money is tight! You need it for so many things.

Travel is important! But you can't neglect contracts (and vice versa).

You need camels! You need goods! you need extra dice!

As I mentioned, every player is given a special character power at the beginning of the game. These powers are strong. I'm not talking about "pay one less gold when buying blue things" level of power. It's more like: you never roll your dice -- pick their value freely when you place them. Or teleport around the board. Or don't pay any cost to use an already used action. Super powers.

The trick is to make the maximum use out of your own power, to offset the other players making maximum use of theirs.

Players are also dealt two end-game VP cards, which remain hidden. These all involve establishing trading posts in specified cities (usually inconveniently far flung). The points available from these cards vary significantly, which could be a problem if one player wins just because they got the more valuable cards.

But the game includes drafting rules for both characters and end-game VP cards. Once you've played enough to understand what's what, I strongly recommend you use the drafting rules. That should minimize concerns about the balance of superpowers and goal cards.

The game has a solid physical production, with lots of nice wooden bits and handsome board and card art. The game state is fairly easily readable, once you know how to read it.

Overall, this is a great package. Game play is taut and compelling. And the variability as to city action cards, player powers, and end game VP goal cards should make for serious replayability.

Highly recommended, with one caveat: This game induced the worst AP that I've ever experience playing a game (and I'm not at all inclined that way). I think that's somewhat inevitable: everything is very tight; it's very easy to screw up; you need to string together multiple actions in a turn to get where you need to wind up; and every opponent action has the potential of throwing you off your razor-edged plan. This seems to be getting better with greater familiarity. But I would never play this game with a person who is innately AP-prone. The fun would die.


Spyfall

(Image credit: imploded)

Fun, quick, social deduction game.

The players are dealt a single card each. All but one of the cards show the same location (e.g., they all show a police station). The one non-matching card simply says "spy."

Players then ask each others question. The players who know the location are trying to uncover the spy. The spy is trying to figure out the common location before being discovered.

Out of that simple set up emerges a great deal of clever canniness. Questions need to be framed just so, to elicit subtly confirming responses from non-spies, while leaving spies without any guidance on what to say. Answers to questions also need to be very carefully framed. Give just enough information to let your fellow non-spies know that you're on their side, without revealing anything that would help the spy figure out where you are.

That's pretty much it. But with a decent group it works brilliantly.

And it is so stressful and fun to be the spy. In a recent game as the spy, three or four people were questioned before me, and I gleaned just enough information to narrow things down to half a dozen locations. When it was my turn to answer a question, I was able to give an answer that palpably fit all of the locations that I had in mind. My answer fit well enough that suspicion swung away from me and I was able to sneak through for a win (by strongly endorsing another player's accusation of a non-spy who had consistently been too vague).

Good stuff.


Deep Sea Adventure

(Image credit: kazk)

An adorably small push your luck filler, similar in feel to Incan Gold.

Players are deep sea divers, exploring for treasures to bring back to the communal submarine. Each turn, players consume air from the common pool -- one unit of air per treasure that player is carrying. Dice get rolled and you either move forward, or abandon your explorations for the round and retreat to the sub. Movement is impaired by how much loot you're carrying.

All of that creates an interesting group dynamic. So long as nobody picks up a treasure, no air is consumed and all can go deeper into the sea (where the best treasure is), but once people start grabbing stuff the clock starts ticking. And players can defect and be dickish -- once you're pretty sure you'll make it back safely, pick stuff up to increase the rate of air consumption, making it harder on your opponents.

The dice keep it from being calculable.

Just enough to think about; doesn't outstay its welcome. Does what a filler needs to do. Fun.


Omen: A Reign of War

(Image credit: robrob)

Beautiful two-player card game, in the same general lineage as Battle Line.

Players are paying gold to play cards into one of three contested cities. The cards represent soldiers (high strength, one-time special power when played), oracles (weak strength, but special powers that trigger every turn), or beasts (very high strength, can either be played to a city or discarded to trigger a strong one-off special power).

If a specified number of cards are in a city, a "war" is resolved (based on the combined strength of units on each side). The winner gets the top face down "reward" card for that city, and players discard most of their cards from the city (loser keeps two, winner keeps one).

There are a lot of other clever little wrinkles, which make for some very interesting decisions.

The graphic design is top notch, with clear readable card information and unique evocative art on each card.

The only downside for my wife and I is that the game consistently produced snowball effects. One player would get a resource edge and then you'd have a runaway leader. With more experience, we could probably mitigate that through better play. But we're probably not going to make that effort. It wasn't much fun to be on the losing side of this game.

On a more general point, I'm wondering if two-player head-to-head card games just aren't to my taste. If you really like that kind of thing, this might be a great game for you.


Stockpile

(Image credit: punkin312)

Fairly simple stock market game, with not quite enough control for my taste.

This was a perfectly serviceable stock market game, where players acquire (or sell) shares in various companies, while the share value of those companies fluctuate (based largely on hidden information, with each player having some exclusive knowledge of part of the upcoming changes).

The system for acquiring shares is based on an Amun-Re (Cyclades) style auction (which I tend to like) with the auctioned lots being constructed by the players through card play. Some of the cards are played face down. So again, hidden information with limited player knowledge of what's been hidden.

I liked it well enough, but felt like there was a touch too much luck for my tastes. In my one play, information that I couldn't see tended to strengthen other players' positions in a way that I couldn't foresee or control. I suppose I could have aped other players' choices more, in an effort to hedge against changes that they were able to foresee. But if everyone did that, it would be a pretty bland experience.

Good design, but not for me.


Hamsterrolle

(Image credit: punkin312)

Fun with gravity.

Players take turns putting differently shaped objects on little shelves projecting out of the inside of a hoop. As the center of gravity shifts, the hoop rolls. Try not to have things fall off the shelves on your turn.

That's pretty much it. I'm glad to have played it, but it wasn't as good as Riff Raff or Bandu (in that balancing-odd-objects niche).


Nations: The Dice Game

(Image credit: earthvssoup)

Light dice-based engine building game with way too strong a luck effect (at least with two-players).

Roll your dice. Then take turns using them to pay for tiles from a center market. Some tiles are "wonders" which require an extra action (and stone) to "build" into your tableau. Tiles may give you extra dice (which you can immediately use) or "chits" that have some one-per-round value. If you've got a re-roll chit you can use it to re-roll any of your unused dice.

After buying tiles there's a contest for most books (VP reward), a target for food (VP reward), a contest for most swords (determines turn order), and then a target for swords (VP reward).

Repeat four times.

I was unsure whether to get this game, because I read several comments that the game was flat and uninteresting, with not enough narrative to engage. I didn't have that problem. I thought it was engaging enough as a light engine builder. And getting to use your acquired dice immediately is fun.

I didn't like the game for a different reason. The luck dependence is way too strong, at least with two players (I haven't tried it with more).

My wife and I played three games back to back (it's quick!) and we saw repeated instances where a streak of bad rolling created a structural disadvantage that couldn't be overcome (at least that we could see).

The game repeatedly produced frustration (and not the good kind).

Do not want.
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Sat Aug 1, 2015 1:17 am
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My crack at a 50-game collection list

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If you're interested:

Hobbes' 50-Game Collection

It was an interesting exercise putting it together (and I'm not quite done populating blurbs in the entries). I think I'd have a very fulfilling time playing just the list I put together.
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Sun Jul 26, 2015 6:51 pm
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A cautionary tale

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I made myself a New Year's resolution this year: I would play at least 50 of the unplayed games that I own.

Yesterday I finished. Thank goodness.

Initially, it was fun and I made a lot of progress very quickly. But gradually it came to feel like a chore. Instead of playing games because I wanted to play them, I felt pressure to play new games so that I could check them off my list.

My wife compared it (disparagingly) to the approach of some bird-watchers we know. Their primary interest is to see new birds, that aren't yet on their life lists. Once eyes are laid on a new bird, the box gets checked, and that's it. No further interest.

I haven't been quite that bad. Many of the new games got a handful of plays before I moved on to the next. But I did feel an uncomfortable pressure to keep moving on. And that got to be a drag.

I'm very glad to have the whole thing behind me. I don't plan to repeat the experience or anything like it (no 10x10 challenge for me!).

Instead, I'm going to spend some time thinking about what I'd like to play.
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Sun Jul 12, 2015 6:28 pm
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Memory Lane

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In November 2010, I did something that really changed my experience of the board game hobby. I helped form a local game group. BGG made that possible, because it allows you to search for BGG members in your area. That makes it very simple to contact local gamers (that you don't already know) and invite them to join your group. That worked out great for us. Our core group has been solidly chugging along ever since.

A few months later, in July 2010, I started to write entries in the monthly "New to You" geeklist, which is maintained by the inestimable

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The list is always an interesting read, with a lot of short-form first-impression reactions to games. I find it a really useful way to get a better sense of games I'm watching and to learn about new games.

And then, just a couple of weeks ago, I decided to copy all of my NTY entries and cross-post them to this blog.

One unexpected and happy side-effect of that cross-posting was that it led me on a very enjoyable and interesting trip down memory lane. The process of copying, pasting, and tagging all of my old NTY entries allowed me to revisit all of the "new" games that I've played in the last five years.

What a great trip it's been! Here are a few observations about where I've been over the last five years:

I've played a LOT of new games!

So how many "new" games did I play in the last five years? By my count: 315. That's a little more than 5 per month (more than one a week) for 60 straight months. Wow!

At least 90% of those are games that I researched, acquired (often by trading), learned, taught, and played. I enjoy every step of that process (with the exception of teaching, if certain players don't pay attention -- stop building patterns with your bits!). Quantitatively, that's a lot of enjoyment. If, conservatively, each game required an hour to research, an hour to learn, and an hour to play, That would be 4-5 hours per week of time spent enjoying board games. I know there are others who spend a lot more time than that on the hobby, but for me, that's a pretty solid degree of sustained fun.

On side note: As I've written below, I'm a collection churner, trading or selling games to acquire new games. As a consequence, most of the 315 games that I wrote about have left my collection. That makes me feel a little wistful, as I can remember games that I played and enjoyed, but that I later released into the wild (must resist reacquisition disorder). But if I hadn't done that, I couldn't have sustained my exploration of new games. No regrets!

I've played a lot of GREAT games!

Looking back over my list, I'm really impressed with the quality of the games that I've been able to play. So many were just were just amazing games. It really illustrates the depth and quality of our hobby.

In the late 1990s, when I started out in the modern board gaming hobby (transitioning out of the older wargames and Steve Jackson style microgames), I only had access to a handful of these new "German" games. This was either games that I bought as imports or the cream of the crop that got reprinted in English by Rio Grande. I bought Settlers (which I've never much liked) and then expanded into Knizia (E&T, Durch die Wuste, Samurai -- all of which I still have!), and Kramer & Kiesling (Tikal).

I don't want to get into the debate about whether that old "German" school of design is better or worse than the more modern design tendencies -- I love them all! But my experience of the hobby was decidedly vanilla for several years (albeit a very satisfying and high quality of vanilla).

We added a few more modern games over the next 10 years or so (Stone Age, Puerto Rico, San Juan, Carcassonne, Oregon, Chicago Express) and that really broadened our horizons.

But after the game group formed things opened out into a much broader and deeper design space. And my list of new games played in the last 10 years really reflects that.

In addition to some other incredible classics (Acquire, 1830, Dune, Union Pacific, Stephenson's Rocket), I've been able to play a large number of "Hall of Fame" level games from perennial masters like Martin Wallace (Brass, Age of Industry, London, Princes of the Renaissance), Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, Le Havre, Fields of Arle), Stefan Feld (Notre Dame, Speicherstadt, In the Year of the Dragon, Castles of Burgundy). And some games of similar brilliance from other less-prolific designers, including Xavier Georges (Troyes), Andreas Steding (Hansa Teutonica), Richard Breese (Keyflower), Tom Lehmann (Race for the Galaxy, 1846).

Holy shit, just look at that list! All of those games were new to me in the last five years!

And there has also been a steady stream of very good to great games (e.g., 7 Wonders, American Rails, Clash of Cultures, Concordia, Cuba Libre, Dixit, Eclipse, Glen More, Glory to Rome, Indonesia, La Granja, Neue Heimat, Lancaster, Mysterium, Navegador, Palaces of Carrara, Panamax, Patchwork, Pax Porfiriana, Russian Railroads, Sekigahara, Shipyard, Taluva, Terra Mystica, Ticket to Ride, Vanuatu, Vikings, War of the Ring).

Admittedly, the design explosion has also produced a lot of stuff that I have little interest in (more on that below) and a fair amount of crap (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law).

But I've been pretty good about doing my research before getting a game, which means I've mostly managed to stick to things I like and steer clear of the mediocrity.

Bottom line: the games that I've been able to explore in the last five years have been of an incredibly high degree of design maturity and excellence. This kind of thing simply didn't exist 20 years ago. I feel extremely fortunate to be part of such a great hobby.

I'm definitely a euro gamer.

I always enjoy reading people's geeklists about the games that they're excited to acquire at Gencon, or Nurnberg, or Essen, each year. One thing I've noticed is that these kinds of lists often don't have a lot of overlap. I'll read an Essen list with 50 items on it and find that I have no interest in any of them.

That's usually because the other person's list is exclusively made up of dungeon crawlers, zombie games, and the like — experience games, with strong fantasy, horror, and sci-fi themes. And I'm just not interested in those kinds of games. (Not that there's anything wrong with them.)

My five-year new game list solidly confirms my status as a solid euro gamer.

I've dabbled in 18xx (and would happily do so more, if the games weren't so difficult to get tabled in my group), and light wargames (e.g., Sekigahara, 1775, Hammer of the Scots) and a handful weuros (Polis, Conquest of the Empire, A Few Acres of Snow, Mythotopia, Twilight Struggle, Dune, Starcraft), and a smattering of dexterity or party games. But easily 90% of the new games I've played in the last five years have been euros.

I think it's cool that our hobby contains "subdomains" of wargamers, thematic gamers, abstract gamers, and eurogamers. The hobby's richer for having those separate strands woven through it. And I can, sometimes, be tempted to play games outside my core interests (with enjoyment). But it's clear that I don't do that very often.

I've had so much fun.

One of the things that surprised me about the experience of parsing my way through my five year history is how often I was able to remember the specific game plays that I had written up. Sometimes it was because the games were played at a memorable event (e.g., an all day birthday party or a vacation cabin at Lake Tahoe). But other times it was just a matter of having a really good time with my friends. (Or remembering the very rare bad moments, like the awkward spats or bits of social carelessness).

When I tagged my entry for Bruges, I could remember playing on my back patio, on a warm evening. The game was so-so, but the friendly companionship was great. And I can remember the absurd "summoning a genie" song that a friend of mine played all through our one play of Five Tribes. Or the goofy, beer-infused fun I had turtling my way to a victory in four player Starcraft (with lots of good natured trash talk). Etc. Etc.

There's a long string of these distinct memories, which really confirm for me how much I've been enjoying this hobby of ours. So many moments of delicious tension, triumph, grudging pleasure for an opponent whose clever move just dicked me over, good-natured teasing, satisfaction when a complicated plan works exactly as I'd hoped, and the sense of aesthetic pleasure at manipulating the wonderful micro-universes that these games provide — clever, puzzly, exciting, and beautiful amalgams of physical design, brilliant modes of thought and decision, and relaxed social sharing.

It's just been so great.
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Sun Jul 5, 2015 9:54 pm
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New to Me: June 2015

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This was cross-posted from my entry to the June 2015 "New to You" geeklist.


Fields of Arle

(Image credit: akroatis)

Excellent entry into Rosenberg's "harvest" series, optimized for two.

Fields of Arle is a two-player-only descendent of Rosenberg's "harvest" games (Agricola, Ora et Labora, Caverna, etc.). It shares many of the features of that lineage: worker placement, farming, animal husbandry (with animal breeding, space requirements, and support buildings), land reclamation (constructing dikes, draining land, and cutting peat), goods conversion (materials are shipped away to nearby cities and return as finished goods), buildings with special powers, and a harvest phase where you sow what you've reaped and then pay maintenance costs.

But this is a game about prosperity, rather than near-starvation. So you're filling your barn with expensive vehicles and constructing prestigious buildings, rather than sharing your living room with a sheep. Things are still tight, but there's no sense of anxious dread.

After two plays, I'm comfortable saying that this is a great game. It's almost a perfect fit for my wife and me, as gamer spouses. It's got medium weight and length, with a strong developmental arc and lots of decisions. The worker placement isn't brutal, but it gives plenty of opportunity to get in each others' way. There are a number of ways to specialize and (unlike Agricola) no penalty for doing so (except that you're rewarded for having a well-balanced stock of farm animals).

The physical production is great, with lots of wooden animals, stickered player markers, thick boards, charming art, and clear iconography (for the most part -- there's some wonkiness around different colored arrows that still eludes me).

I've mostly played Rosenberg's "harvest" games two-player, so I was really excited when I heard that he had designed one specifically as a two-player game. I pre-ordered it, despite the big price. And I'm very glad I did. This is a definite keeper; a very handsome and mature entry in Rosenberg's design space.

Highly recommended.


Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York

(Image credit: da pyrate)

A really enjoyable historically-themed area control slugfest, with card drafting, money management, and blind programmed actions.

At base, this is an area control game, with a well-integrated dose of historical theme (the struggle between the Lancaster and York families for control of England in the 1400's). Players take control of locations (castles, towns, and ports) and personalities (nobles, ship captains, and bishops), all of which can give you income or "control points" (the latter are used in determining area control for each of the map's regions).

But everything is up for grabs. Players can try to bribe personalities to switch allegiance or can use armies to seize control of locations. Defensively, players can bribe their own allies to keep them loyal or raise extra troops to defend locations (which also have their own innate garrisons).

All of that costs money. And you can't be strong everywhere. So how do you decide what to do each turn? Answer: secretly.

Each player has a really well-designed player mat that abstracts everything on the game board into a clear schematic, hidden behind the biggest player screens I've ever seen in a game. Each turn, you must decide where to move your nobles and ships, who to bribe (or counter-bribe), and where to raise armies in attack or defense. All of this is plotted on the player boards and then simultaneously revealed.

People who don't like blind bidding and programmed movement may not like this. There's a lot of scope for misreading others' intentions and screwing up in a big way. But I really enjoyed it (which, honestly, might have been because things broke my way; I might have felt differently if I'd spent the game guessing wrong and getting kicked to the curb). But your planning isn't completely blind. You know what matters to you and to others, and so you'll be making educated guesses about what you and others might be doing.

Another point worth noting: the players are divided into two factions (Lancaster and York) and there's a meta area control contest each round. The faction with the most "votes" based on areas they control will control the throne for that turn, with each of the dominant family members netting some points. So there's a shared incentive not to go after your "ally" too badly. That said, there's nothing stopping you from back-stabbing if it makes sense.

Finally, it's worth noting that the physical production is outstanding. The components are of very high quality (except for my wooden cubes, which had that odd dusty mildew that some wooden game bits get). The map, player boards, shields, cards, and tokens are all thick, functional, and really attractive. I thought the game remained very readable, despite the density of stuff going on. Great design work!

I really liked this game. But with a 3+ hour duration and the heavy dose of hidden/blind planning, I'm not sure how often it will get played.


Lords of Scotland

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)

Clever and highly interactive card game, with good art design (at least in the Z-Man edition).

Lords of Scotland is a simple and fairly quick card game, with a lot of interesting kinks.

• Each round, players can play cards in front of them, with the goal of having the highest numerical total value at the end of the round. At the beginning of the round, random cards are turned up to determine the point pay-outs for the round. These are awarded to the players in order of their set value. E.g., in a three player game, the point cards are 10, 7, and 5. Whoever has the most valuable set chooses the 10, next most valuable gets the 7, and worst gets the 5.

This random allocation of point chunks each round reminded me of the second phase of For Sale. Sometimes there will be a wide disparity in possible points and players will have an incentive to fight hard. Other times, the spread will be narrower and a player could hang back and save resources for the next round's fight. I thought that was interesting and fun.

• When you play a card in front of you, you can play it face up or face down. If you play it face up, there's a chance it will trigger a special power (each suit of cards has a different power). To trigger, it must be the lowest valued card of that suit in play by anyone.

This creates a very interesting trade-off between playing a high value card for end game set scoring (even though it won't trigger its power) or playing a lower value card in order to use its power (and strangle other people's ability to use that power, by lowering the bar below which they'll need to play to trigger the power).

• The card powers create lots of interesting interactivity, especially those that let you discard or steal another player's card. That felt a bit swingy and overpowered in our one play BECAUSE WE TOTALLY FORGOT THAT YOU CAN PLAY CARDS FACE DOWN! This meant that we never hid our really strong cards, opening ourselves up to powerful screwage.

I enjoyed the game quite a bit, despite the fact that we didn't use an extremely important rule. With that tweak, I expect future games would be even better.

An attractive, clever, and fun filler.




Brew Crafters

(Image credit: ckirkman)

A worker placement, order fulfillment, resource management game themed around operating a micro-brewery.

The game owes a lot to Agricola, with several mechanisms recognizably borrowed from that classic. But the main worker placement engine is built into a game about producing goods for money and victory points. There's a very interesting assembly line that needs to be fed and operated in order to keep product moving out the door. That assembly line can be enhanced with various accessories that make it more powerful in various ways.

You can also hire expert employees, who give you special powers and form local partnerships with spice and coffee companies, which allow you to trade for advanced ingredients.

And there's a tech tree, with four branches, each of which gives you goodies as you advance. The last space on each branch is an end-game VP booster.

You get a huge number of employees and beer recipes, from which you use a different subset each game. I expect this will really enhance replayability.

There was a lot to grok in the first play, especially as the brewery enhancements and special employees all have text that needs to be read carefully the first time you see them. With future plays, we won't need to re-learn the core mechanisms, and I expect it will be easier to get up and running.

The game plays very smoothly, with some turn angst when you get frozen out of stuff you need, but there are a lot of alternative things you can do, so you're never entirely stiffed.

Solid economic game, with great looking bits. It's a keeper.


Cacao

(Image credit: jesb)

A clever and pleasant entry into the Carcassonne niche, with really nice looking components.

Very quick, light, tile laying game, with interesting spatial scoring considerations. Tiles are square and come in two flavors. There are "jungle" tiles which provide various benefits and player village tiles. The player tiles have from zero to three workers on each of the four edges.

Village tiles are played orthagonally adjacent to jungle tiles (and may never be orthagonally adjacent to other villages). When placed, the workers provide whatever benefit is shown on the jungle tile touching their edge. Place a two-worker edge next to a cacao plantation jungle tile and you harvest two cacao.

If you place a village tile so as to create an empty space between two or more village tiles, you get to fill it with a jungle tile. That tile immediately provides benefits to adjacent workers (of any player).

The jungle tiles let you harvest 1 or 2 cacao, sell cacao (for from 2 to 4 gold each), mine 1 or 2 gold, collect sun tiles (which let you overbuild your own village tiles near game end, allowing you to re-score especially valuable locations), establish influence over temples (which offer majority scoring at end-game) or advance your water carrier along the water track (which scales from -10 to +16 VP at game end based on how far you've advanced).

With two, it played in under 30 minutes. It looks great and offers some fairly interesting spatially-dependent tactical play. Pretty fun!


Monikers

(Image credit: AlxHague)

Really great, silly, fun party game.

This is a nicely produced version of the public domain game, Celebrities.

There's a large deck of cards, each naming a different person. Teams take turns, with one member trying to give clues so that teammates will correctly guess as many cards as possible.

In round one, clues can be anything other than the name of the person. Round two, the clue can be only one word. Round three, pantomime only. No words.

I ordered this immediately after watching the video review from Shut up and Sit Down:




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Tue Jun 30, 2015 11:52 pm
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New to Me: May 2015

United States
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Love the world.
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This is an archival post of a write-up I did for the New to You geeklist in May 2015.

1846

(Image credit: sourwyrm)

Excellent "shorter" 18xx with variable start conditions.

This is an excellent 18xx title. As compared to the rest of the series, it's relatively short (~4 hours). And it's got some features that I really enjoyed.

The private companies offer an interesting mix of special powers, and if you're playing with less than the full complement of five players (as I will almost always be doing), you'll have a different set of them in each game.

The public railroad companies also have minor special features and, again, if you're playing with less than five there will be some randomness in which companies are present in the game.

That combination of unique characteristics and variable availability from game to game is very appealing. I'm a huge fan of variable set-up in games, as it keeps things from getting too scripted. I can see playing this game repeatedly without it feeling samey.

There are also a number of other minor tweaks that distinguish 1846 from other titles in the series. For example, all track construction costs money (unless a special power allows free construction in a specific context).

Also, companies float at 20% and keep the remainder of their shares in their treasuries. The company pays itself dividends for every share it still holds. And companies can sell their shares to the open market to get a cash infusion (at slightly below market price). And if it makes sense, they can later buy them back (at slightly higher than market price). This adds an interesting element of cash/stock management to the operating rounds. But beware, companies will take a hit to their share price if they've got any shares in the open market at the end of a stock round. This is all very cool.

This might be my favorite 18xx!


Arboretum

(Image credit: punkin312)

Excellent, mean, thinky filler card game (with charming art).

Cards are in suits running from 1 to 8. On your turn, draw two and play one to your tableau. Cards can be drawn from the face down deck or any discard pile.

In your tableau, you're trying to build orthagonally connected sequences of cards in ascending numerical order. In order to be scored at the end of the game, the sequence must begin and end with a suit that you're eligible to score.

Eligible to score? Yep. To be able to score a sequence, you must have the highest sum of cards in that suit in your hand at game's end (with the added wrinkle that an 8 is worth 0 if anyone is holding the 1 of the same suit).

This creates a huge potential for dickish blocking and anxiety. Your opponent building a valuable sequence in Oak trees? Keep that 7 in your hand and they won't be able to score it. Ha ha! But your hand size is only 7 and you need to keep cards in your hand to ensure you can score your valuable sequences. Which is more important, keeping your scoring opportunities alive or blocking your opponent. You can't do everything.

With two it was fun, but maybe a little too calculable. It might be a little too easy to know what your opponent is holding as the game draws to a close. That would be harder to do with more players (at least for me!). But I wonder if the downtime would become a problem with more than two. Especially if you've got an AP calculator in the mix.

For me, this fits a similar niche as Parade (numbered suits, with mathy sequencing concerns), but is more complex. I suspect I'll continue to prefer Parade as a lighter travel game. But Arboretum might get the nod as a game night opener or closer with people who won't play too slowly.

Very good game!


Mythotopia

(Image credit: percatron)

Variable set-up, 2-4 player Snow without the history.

My wife and I had a lot of fun playing A Few Acres of Snow when it first came out. So I was very interested when I heard that Wallace was designing a reimplementation of the core game concept (deck builder crossed with light strategic conflict and development on a map), with the goal of making it playable by up to four.

So what do I think? I'm pretty happy with it (at least as a two-player game, which is all I've tried so far). It plays well, with a moderate weight and length, and provides a lot of interesting choices.

I miss the historicity of Snow — I find it really satisfying to load your settlers into canoes in New York and send them upriver to establish a foothold in wilderness Albany (and then worry about whether you'll be able to build a stockade before they're wiped out by raiders). Mythotopia doesn't have that kind of thematic appeal. It's just dudes on a generic fantasy/medieval map.

But the game play is still a lot of fun. And the disconnect from a specific historic setting freed Wallace to introduce significant variability in the game set-up, ensuring that each play will have a different configuration of resources and objectives (and no single dominant strategy).

I've heard complaints about the endgame bogging down at higher player counts. I can see how that might happen, but it wasn't a problem in our 2p game.

I'm glad to have another game built on the Snow engine, to breathe more life back into the system.


Bausack

(Image credit: KNUT STROEMFORS)

How the hell did you do that?

This is more of an activity than a game, but it's a fun activity.

Choose eccentrically shaped wooden bits and use them to build towers.

That's pretty much it, but there are also a series of variant auction rules that you can use to decide who must use which block. The most interesting are the ones that allow you to stick someone else with an absurdly difficult piece.

I get a kick out of being surprised when something really unexpected actually works.


Kashgar: Händler der Seidenstraße

(Image credit: wamboyil)

A "queue-building" order fulfillment card game.

Each player has three merchant "caravans" (i.e., vertical rows of face-up cards) that are traveling the Silk Road trade route to the market city of Kashgar.

Play is very simple. On your turn, you select one of the cards at the "front" (i.e. bottom) of one of your caravans, either perform one of that card's actions or pass, then move the card to the back of the caravan.

There are cards that let you (1) get more cards (either from the standard deck or the smaller "special" deck, which has better cards in it but is harder to access), (2) get more stuff (i.e., various spices, gold, or mules), (3) thin a queue by permanently deleting cards, or (4) complete a contract card. A contract card may require one or both of the following: a minimum number of mules as transport (these aren't spent) and the expenditure of a specified mix of spices, gold, and mules (these are spent).

Some of the caravan cards have points on them. But most of the points come from completing contract cards. The game end is triggered when someone gets to 25 points (you then complete the round, so everyone has the same number of turns). Most points wins.

Cards that let you complete contracts are crucial, so you'll need to dig for those early. It's also valuable to thin your caravans so that it doesn't take so long for your important cards to cycle back to the front. You can even thin a caravan down to a single card, in which case it is always available to be chosen for its action.

The game plays very quickly, and includes some interesting deck-building type choices (with the interesting twist that you also need to manage the fixed sequence in which your cards can operate). With three caravans, you can try to optimize each one for a different purpose (e.g., contract fulfillment, resource generation, etc).

Two-player felt a bit too zero sum and luck dependent (which is how I often feel about two-player card games). But it plays up to four and I'm looking forward to trying it at a higher count.

There is no English version of the game, and there's lots of text on cards. So you'll either need to read German or use paste-ups or a cheat sheet.


The Staufer Dynasty

(Image credit: punkin312)

Good (but not great) area control with travel cost management.

Hansa Teutonica is one of my favorite games, so I'm always up to try another game by Andreas Steding.

This is a fairly quick and very tight area majority game, with a spatial limitation that's based on moving clockwise around the six segments of the circular board. Each player has only three actions for each of the game's five rounds. So there's very little time to accomplish much.

There's a clever turn order mechanism, which I won't describe, that creates a trade-off between doing important stuff now, at the cost of going later in the next turn.

On your turn, you either get more dudes from your general supply or put some dudes on the board. To put dudes on a board space, you must pay one dude per space that you need to traverse to get to your destination (moving clockwise from the current location of the king), and then pay more dudes to occupy "offices" within the location that you're targeting.

After both players have taken all of their actions, 1-2 regions are scored. The regions that will score each round are mostly determinable, though in a few cases the choice of space to score is contingent on the game state at the end of the round (in a way that you will know in advance and can try to manipulate).

Players score decreasing points for most offices, second most, etc. Big dudes (who are harder to get) count double. And ties are decided by whoever occupies the leftmost office (which increase in cost towards the left).

Throughout the game you have chances to acquire treasure chests, which are used either for end-game set collection VP, one-off special powers, or to purchase always-on special power cards.

At the beginning of the game, players are dealt three end-game VP targets, which can produce a lot of points. One nice catch is that end game VP can only be scored based on dudes on the board at the end of the game, and dudes that are used to score majorities at the ends of the various rounds are removed from the board. So you'll need to make some difficult choices about whether to put dudes out to score in the current round, or to salt them away for end-game scoring.

Total JASE. I won't even try to debate that. But it's a clever combination of euro mechanisms that produce a very tightly constrained set of difficult choices. It all hums along pretty smoothly once you know how it runs. (But I doubt I'll try to teach this to anyone besides my wife; there's just so much fiddly special power information to manage that it would be a pain to teach. "What's this do again?" I also see some potential for AP, since you've got significant look-ahead to how the regions will score throughout the game.)

It's a good game, but not great.


Norenberc

(Image credit: nekrataal)

Medium weight simultaneous action selection, worker placement, and set collect (with cupcake meeples).

Another Andreas Steading game! (With art by Josh Cappel and an extravagant set of custom meeples.)

Players are buying and selling goods (and recruiting guild members and special power characters) from various guilds. All of this builds toward end-game scoring based on various set collection criteria.

The best stuff about the game:

• The physical production is very nice. Lots of silly custom meeples (cupcakes, beer, hats, etc.)

• There's an interesting simultaneous card selection mechanism for determining which guilds you'll operate in each turn. This produces some really nice timing tension.

• There's a lot of interplay variability. The price of the various goods will fluctuate each turn based on numbers that are randomized each game (but known and therefore predictable, within each game). There will also be a random subset of special power cards that will be available to recruit each game.

• The money economy in the game is interesting (and in conflict with your VP generation goals).

Here's what wasn't so great:

• The money economy seems a bit fragile. You need to be very careful to stay liquid. If you overspend, it's possible to wind up in a hole that you can't dig out of. That happened to my wife in our first game and we decided to quit halfway through, because her position was futile.

• It's also possible to just limp along, without your engine ever kicking fully in. That can be a bit frustrating.

Overall, the game's a bit of a glorious mess, with lots of competing priorities to manage. But it hangs together well enough and it presents some interesting trade-offs and timing decisions.

The game is designed to scale with the number of players, but it was probably a bit too zero-sum with two.

I'm very glad to have finally played it, but I'm not sure if it's a keeper. Good, but not great. Probably better with more than two, but that might make it more prone to the fragility problem, with some players getting kicked to the curb and unable to recover.


Louis XIV

(Image credit: i just lost)

Classic euro, with a dry historical theme pasted onto a solid set of mechanics.

There are four rounds in which the players take turns playing cards to either put their dudes onto various "noble" spaces or retrieve dudes from the general supply for later placement. When you place dudes, you start in the space shown on your card and put down up to three pieces. You can dribble them out across diagonally adjacent spaces in "trail of bread crumbs" fashion (which is pretty familiar, for a Dorn design).

After everyone has finished playing all of their cards, the noble spaces are scored, providing money, task tokens, or other good things based on dude majorities and/or payment of dudes or money.

Task tokens are collected to fulfill the requirements of task cards in hand. Once fulfilled, task cards are worth VP at game end and give you a permanent special power for the remainder of the game.

A solid, old school euro. I've heard it's good with two and would like to try it at that count.
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Tue Jun 30, 2015 5:00 am
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New to Me: April 2015

United States
Davis
California
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Love the world.
mbmbmbmbmb
This is an archival post of a write-up I did for the New to You geeklist in April 2015.

Wildcatters

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)


A long, handsome, complicated, and very interesting logistics and majorities game, where synergy is king.

The players are four major international oil development companies. Each turn a player selects one card from a face-up array of eight. This card indicates which one of the eight oil producing regions the player can act in (players can also build some infrastructure in non-producing regions).

Players can build drilling rigs, refineries, rail networks, and tanker ships. They can then take "oil actions." These include exploration, building pumps, and shipping oil.

All of these operations are in service of extracting and delivering oil to one of the seven continents. Many of the operations cost money. Others cost shares of your own company's stock. At the end of rounds 5 and 7 (of 7), majorities score VP for most oil delivered to each of the continents, most shares held in each of the four companies, and most money.

There are also important set-collection VP for taking over wildcatter operations and for building a high number of refineries.

Money and shares are very tight, and everything is interconnected in interesting and constraining ways.

Importantly, there are several opportunities to leech off of other player's activities, deriving some benefit (at a cost) during their turn. You'll also often need to sell your oil to other players' refineries, which may help them as much or more than it helps you. But you still need to do it!

With instructions, our first play ran about four hours. I expect a second play with the same group would be the advertised two-hours. That would be a very satisfying time/weight/decision ratio. There's also supposed to be an official two-player variant in the works. I'd like to try that out.

The game reminded me a bit of Brass/Age of Industry (which I love), in three ways: (1) Card play geographically limits where you can act. (2) You need to use other player's infrastructure to conduct your own operations, and pay them for the privilege. (3) There's an interesting logistics puzzle where you must produce goods and then ship them to a market (which has limited capacity).

There were two rough edges that we ran into, which are probably learning-game problems only: (1) Components are limited. This came as a surprise to one player when he built all of his pumps about 3/4 of the way into the game. This left him very hobbled in the concluding turns. Pace yourself! (2) As mentioned, the game depends heavily on inter-player synergy. You need others to be working near your work to do well. If you wind up in a backwater by yourself, you're probably in trouble. Spread out!

A very good game!


I, Spy

(Image credit: tranenturm)


A thematic hidden identity espionage game, with lots of ways to stab at vague shapes in the dark.

This is a hidden goal influence game themed around pre-World War I espionage. Each player is secretly aligned with one of the six European powers. If that nation has the most "power" at game's end, the aligned player wins.

Every card that you play gives "influence" points to one of the countries. There are also actions you can take in locations on the board that give influence to the countries. Every couple of turns there is a scoring round. The influence from the cards players used in the preceding turns is tallied up. Countries can also get influence from face down "politician" tiles assigned to that scoring round. The country with the most influence gets a specified number of "power" points. Second place gets fewer, etc.

The cards are used to move around the board, get money (to buy "asset" special power cards), put "trace" counters on other players, do hurtful things to traced players, and do hurtful things to the country's influence. There's also a system for gaining control over the face down politician tiles. Control lets you peek at them (to see whether they help or hurt your country, or have other special powers that will activate if they are scored). You can also swap two politicians, or discard one and replace it with a fresh face down tile from a draw stack. Politicians can have very large effects during scoring, so this sub-system is pretty important.

On reading the rules, I was pretty sure I would enjoy the game, and I really did. The cat and mouse game of helping your side, but not too much, was deliciously stressful. And the actions on the board felt thematic and fun. One of my friends observed that there was more game to it than he expected, and I think that's right. It's fairly meaty.

It ran longer than I'd hoped, maybe 2.5 hours with rules explanation. It didn't outstay its welcome in terms of my enjoyment, but the length makes it an awkward fit for our Tuesday night sessions.

The production values are good overall. I really liked the art on the cards and production tiles. There are a large number of hand-drawn portraits of various personages of the period. This gives a nice historical feel. The board was functional and ok, but a bit bland and a little too obviously computer drawn.

Overall, I liked the game quite a bit.


At the Gates of Loyang

(Image credit: LanaDove)


Extremely tight efficiency game of growing, trading, and selling vegetables.

I'm very glad to have finally played this. It's an extremely clever, tight, resource conversion and order fulfillment game, themed around being a farmer in China 2000 years ago.

You get fields in which vegetables can be sown (and harvested incrementally in later turns).

Then there's a wonky little card drafting system which ultimately gives each player two cards to play to their tableau.

Then players take turns doing as many actions as they can afford or choose to do, using their cards and harvested vegetables.

The possible actions include:

• Trading one kind of vegetable for another on one of your installed market stall cards.

• Fulfilling an order from a one-off ("casual") customer.

• Fulfilling an order from a repeat ("regular") customer. Regular customers are interesting because they want to buy the same pair of vegetables each turn. If you can't meet that demand on a turn, you pay a penalty.

• Use a "helper" card with a rule-breaking special power, then discard it.

• Buy a vegetable from your dedicated "shop."

• Sell a vegetable to fill an empty spot in your shop.

• Sow a vegetable in a field.

After all players are done with their actions, players decide how many victory points to buy on the sequentially numbered VP track. The first advance bought costs 1 coin, any further advances cost a number of the coins equal to the number of the space on the track. So, if I'm currently on space 4, I can move to space 5 for 1 coin, then move to space 6 for 6 coins, etc. This is enjoyably difficult.

This is an excellent two-player game, with lots of difficult trade-offs and very tight constraints. My wife really enjoys it. Every one of our games has been decided by a single point!

The production values are great as well, with colorful Klemens Franz art and six types of wooden vegemeeples.

Highly recommended.



Polis: Fight for the Hegemony

(Image credit: jsper)


A beautiful two-player war-euro, with a brutal population feeding requirement that can easily leave you in a death spiral.

This is a really handsome production, with interesting mechanisms and lots of historical theme.

It's two player only, Athens against Sparta. Players build land armies, fleets, and merchants. Armies can interdict land travel, fight other land armies, and besiege cities (hopefully to take them over). Fleets can interdict sea travel and fight battles at sea. Merchants travel on trade routes to foreign markets to trade commodities (or silver) for grain (or sometimes silver).

You also have a sneaky git called a Proxenos, who can take over cities through treachery (which costs silver). Unlike sieges, which involve a die-roll, Proxenos bribery is guaranteed success if you have enough money. The Proxenos can also bribe his way past interdicting units when traveling. And he can be captured if he's trapped in a successful siege. You then need to ransom him back.

The heart of the game is a brutal starvation economy, with two currencies in terribly short supply: prestige points and grain. You need prestige points to make any kind of military move. And you need grain to feed the population of your cities. If you can't feed a city, it goes neutral.

How do you get grain? For the most part you need to trade for it. This means that you need goods to trade. To get goods, you use troops to levy tribute from a region in which you have a city. That costs you a prestige point. Then, if you have enough commodities, of the right type, you can trade them with a foreign market. IF, your trade route to that market isn't interdicted, and IF you have a merchant you haven't used yet in the round, and IF the foreign market goods haven't already been taken by your opponent. If you get stymied, you're in trouble. This game is strewn with potential death spirals. It would be easy to fall into one, run out of food, and starve your way to a loss.

There's a little card-based mini-game for resolving land and sea battles between player forces. It was a bit wonky, with a degree of fiddliness that seemed out of synch with the smoothness of the rest of the game.

Incidentally, combat is a great way to get more prestige. I fought some battles just for that reason. I didn't really care if I won. I just wanted the poets to take note, so I could raise more tribute from the country-side.

Everything is tightly interwoven and the game works very well. It really is a great piece of design. The only downsides are the long play time and steep learning curve. (You might want to start with the shorter learning scenario included near the back of the rules.)


Impulse

(Image credit: MrPretty)


Another weird, intense little Chudyk card game (which is a good thing)!

It's a space empire 4x game mixing spatial movement on a map with card combos. Once you get your head around the wonky rules, it works very well and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

There's a tableau of face down (unexplored) cards, on which players can move their ships (cruisers and transports). Move into or over an unexplored card and you get to explore it. When you explore, you take the card you've discovered, put it in your hand, then take any card from your hand -- including the one you just picked up -- and place it face up in the place of the card you removed from the table. This gives you some control over how the map develops, which is cool.

Transports that move onto a card immediately activate the card's special power. These powers do things like:

• Command (activate more cards -- this is where the crazy chaining combos spawn).

• Build (build new ships).

• Execute (immediately use the action of a card from your hand, installed technologies, or deck).

• Research (play a card into your personal tech slots, giving you powers others can't use).

• Plan (letting you stash cards into a private action queue for possible later activation -- more combo chaining potential here).

• Mine (converts cards from your hand or the deck into minerals -- stored minerals boost the powers of your actions -- more cascade-fodder here).

• Refine (trash minerals for VP).

• Trade (trash cards in hand for VP).

• Sabotage (try to blow up opponent ships in spaces where your ships are present).

There's also the "impulse," a shared card queue that every player gets to add to and use as part of a turn. The impulse can never exceed 4 cards (it gets trimmed at the end of a players turn, first in first out). So the impulse is a changing chain of actions, which you can exert some control over, knowing that everyone is going to share it. Cool and fun.

Then there are rules for cruiser combat, which involves blind card draws (based on number of ships involved in the fight) boosted by "reinforcements" played from your hand. Some luck here, but larger forces (and larger hands) tend to prevail.

Despite the small size of the package and the minimalist component design, this is a fairly rich blend of possibilities. It's mostly tactical, but the tactical choices are fun and its possible to pull off some very cool combo chains. And it isn't devoid of strategy. The control you have over placing explored cards means you can groom your corner of the map to create a particular strategic potential, which you can then tailor your tactical choices to exploit.

I've enjoyed the game, but my opponents have been fairly lukewarm. I've played it twice now with my wife and she didn't like it much. I think that direct attacking was too important for her taste.


Akrotiri

(Image credit: Percatron)


Handsome two-player exploration, spatial deduction (kind of), and pick-up-and-delivery game. Very cool.

Players are ancient Greek explorers, searching for lost Minoan temples. Tiles with fragments of islands are drawn and placed, creating a complex archipelago. New tiles come with resource cubes that can be snagged and delivered back to the home island for money (there's a simple supply/demand pricing mechanism that pays more for resources that are more scarce).

The weird kind-of-deduction thing involves "map" cards that can be purchased. They tell you where temples can be found and excavated. Each shows a temple in the center of the card with one or more colored icons above, below, left, and right of the center. Those colored icons correlate to icons that appear on the island tiles that make up the growing archipelago.

A map card functions as a set of specifications, telling you where it is legal to excavate a temple. So, e.g, if a map card shows blue above, green to the right, and gray below, you can build a temple on any island space that has a blue icon above it, green anywhere to its right, and gray anywhere below it (based on the icons on the already placed tiles). Maps come in three levels of difficulty, with increasingly complicated specifications that must be satisfied. The higher the difficulty, the more points the card is worth if used to build a temple.

Also, building your temples gives you more action points per turn and also unlocks end of game scoring cards.

The game is mechanically fairly simple, but the geometry of how shipping lanes link up, where resources are placed, and where you can build based on your map cards can be a bit brain burning. My wife had unusually bad AP and complained quite a bit during the game about how she was having a hard time grokking the spatial aspects of the game. Then it turned out that she beat me and said she really liked it.

The game is very interesting and really attractive on the table, but watch out for AP lock up and brain melt.


Colt Express

(Image credit: lacxox)


Programmed movement cowboy brawl on a gimmicky 3D cardboard train.

I enjoyed my one play as a light social game with some "oh no" chaos and take that interaction. Fun enough in that niche, but not really my thing.


Harbour

(Image credit: EndersGame)


Rug repeatedly pulled out from under me. Not in a good way.

This is a small worker placement game, with one worker only, and a strangely constrained and volatile resource management core.

You accumulate resources of various types in order to build "building" cards from a central pool. Those buildings are also the worker placement spaces (as are other player's built buildings, if you pay them a resource for the privilege).

I won't try to describe how the resource system works, but it's a wonky and a bit unforgiving. It's also subject to direct player manipulation, which can radically revalue the resources (meaning you don't have as much money to build as you thought you did). I felt continuously wrong-footed in the game, never quite having what I needed (in part because the other players' actions would shift the value of things before I could use them). I found that pretty frustrating.

There's a lot that we didn't explore in the game (special player powers, hidden end-game VP goals), the rules explanation was rushed, and I was tired. So it wasn't an ideal chance at a first impression. I might try it two-player to see if it is better at that count (or with better understanding). But I might not.


UR

(Image credit: GeoMan)


Thinky spatial area influence game. Blech.

It's a well-designed game, but I didn't like it. Too much work, for too little enjoyment. That's partly the result of me not grokking the game. I didn't understand some of the rules for a few turns, and only started to see the strategic implications late in the game.

Might improve with repeated play, but that's totally not going to happen.
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Mon Jun 29, 2015 3:00 pm
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New to Me: March 2015

United States
Davis
California
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This is an archival post of a write-up I did for the New to You geeklist in March 2015.

Shipyard

(Image credit: cnidius)


This is a fun and interesting midweight euro, where you're building ships to meet VP criteria.

Some of those criteria are based on secret government contracts that you're dealt at the beginning of the game (all but two of which must be discarded by you at game midpoints, so you're forced to whittle them down to one contract by game's end).

You also get VP for meeting special criteria that apply when you've completed a ship (they're different kinds of inspector judging ship's "shakedown"). You have some control over these VP goals, which is fun. It lets you dynamically tailor the scoring rules to what you're able to accomplish. I liked that.

Mechanically, there are a lot of rondels controlling player choices. There's one for action selection and others that regulate access to various bits and bobs — employees (permanent special powers), crew of various kinds, and ship attachments.

The game's intricate and presents a lot of choices, which I liked. But I can see a lot of potential for fun-crushing AP with the wrong players. I'll only play it with folks I know to be brisk.

Overall, this is a very solid order fulfillment euro. More thinky than playful, but I like that. And I really liked the art design (I'm a sucker for industrial revolution period-style art in games.)

Excellent!


La Isla

(Image credit: thfreak)


This is a quick, light, spatial, area enclosure game with a modular board and a huge deck of multi-purpose cards (i.e., lots of replayability). It was more fun than I was expecting, based on some of the lackluster reactions it has received.

Each turn you get a hand of three cards. You must assign each card to a different slot (A, B, or D -- phase C is used to place a man on the board). The slot you chose for each card determines what the card will do for you -- A = become a continuous special power; B = acquire a cube of the specified color; C = promote the VP value of one of the five kind of animals.

You can only have three special powers active, so eventually you will be required to replace your previously played powers with new ones.

Whenever you bump an animal up the VP value track, every player that has collected animals of that type gets one VP for each animal possessed. Collected animals also give VP at the end of the game, based on the position on the track. And complete sets of all five kinds of animals are worth 10 VP at end game.

How do you get animals? By surrounding them with your dudes on the weird modular board. How do you place dudes on a space on the board? By playing two cubes matching the color of the target space (that's what you do in phase "C.")

My wife crushed me in our first game. I made the classic Hobbes mistake of souping up my powers instead of getting VP. She's also generally better than me at spatial games. In the next two plays, I decided to focus on points. Surprisingly, that helped!


Murano

(Image credit: fretnut71)


This is a midweight euro, themed around Renaissance development of the famous glass-making islands of Murano (in the Venetian Lagoon).

Players manipulate a modified rondel mechanism to select actions -- there are ten "gondolas" in actions spaces around the board. On your turn, you must move a gondola counter-clockwise around the action space track. You can move any number of spaces, so long as you don't move a gondola into an already occupied space. This makes things jam up in interesting ways. But you can also pay money to move gondolas that are in your way, allowing you to perform a critical action at an increased cost. This all creates a puzzley tactical problem, which was fun.

Your main source of VP are secret end-game VP goal cards (which you purchase by using one of the action spaces). Once you have some end game goals, you'll need to use all of the other available actions to develop the islands so that they match your goals and provide you the most points at the end of the game.

I liked it better than my wife and friends did. They grumbled about the lack of control that comes from not knowing what other people are trying to do, and the bad luck of having someone disrupt your secret plans accidentally.

A solid euro with some interesting constraints on action, but with a strong dose of hidden information and luck.



The Witches: A Discworld Game

(Image credit: PZS69)


Players are apprentice Witches, solving problems as they pop up throughout the various locales in the Kingdom of Lancre (from Terry Pratchett's witch-based Discworld novels).

I was motivated to acquire and try this, as a tribute to Pratchett, who died on March 12.

It was pretty light, as I expected.

Each player's turn begins with a new problem popping up at a random location (determined by a flip of cards from the draw deck). If there's already a problem in that location, it gets worse and you flip another card; etc until you find a spot for the new problem.

Then the player takes two actions. Each consists of movement, and then interaction with the destination space. You can't move through other players or problems (unless you play a broomstick icon card, which lets you go anywhere you want).

Solving problems requires you to beat the difficulty number of the problem with the roll of dice. I won't explain the details of the dice-rolling system, but it's clever and provides some opportunity to mitigate bad rolls.

If too much trouble develops, or the wrong kind of trouble, the game can end early, with all players losing. This creates a mild prisoner's dilemma, as all players need to keep the game from sinking, but there may be good reason to defect and force others to carry your share of the load.

There's also a system that can punish you for using magic effects too often.

One drawback is that the tension never really ramps up too high. It's fairly easy to avoid the game ending conditions, which takes some of the interest out of the crisis management elements of the game. This is probably because the game is being pitched to include family play.

The art is thematic and fun, and the game's a moderately enjoyable romp. I'm glad to have tried it, but prefer Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, which has more direct player interaction and a greater variety of card effects.



Antike II

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)


I don't remember enough about the original Antike to make a useful comparison.

It's a Gerdts rondel game, which is always a good thing. I like the bite-sized turns that system produces (it really helps to tamp down AP).

Gather resources, build dudes, move dudes, build cities, build temples, purchase tech increases. Scoring is based on a set of achievement cards. First player to satisfy one gets it, so the game's a bit of a race.

Our first play (with four) was a marred by three of us not being familiar enough with the game to see the strategic implications of different choices and situations, which led to a lopsided runaway win.

Even without that problem (which probably wouldn't reoccur), it seemed like the game might tend toward a similar arc: expand out until you bump into neighbors, build temples for defense of key points, then grind out resources to see who is the first to get over the finish line.

It all works really well, but I suspect this just isn't my kind of game. (I'm starting to think that I'm not a fan of mutliplayer dudes-on-a-map games in general, even though I want to be.)


Imperial Settlers

(Image credit: tycjan)


This is an okay tableau builder, with asymmetric faction abilities, lots of card powers, and direct player aggression. The kind of thing I'd usually really like. Not so much.

Our four player game took over two hours, which is way too long for what this game offers.

I suspect this might be better as a two-player game, with a shorter play time and more ability to observe and react to opponent play.

But I won't find out. The game was completely ruined for me by the absurd graphic design. All of the special power text and icons are in a ridiculously small font, leaving the great majority of the available text space blank (see above). WTF?

It's hard enough to read my own cards in my hand; tracking what other players have played to their tableaus (which is crucial) is just not going to happen. Really bad design work here.
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Sun Jun 28, 2015 11:00 pm
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New to Me: February 2015

United States
Davis
California
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This is an archival post of a write-up I did for the New to You geeklist in February 2015.

Brass

(Image credit: GeoMan)


My wife and I are used to playing Age of Industry with two, either on the regular maps for a more relaxed experience, or on the excellent two player maps by Klode, for a tighter game.

So I was very glad to find that there was a well-regarded two-player variant for Brass (developed by Henri Harjou and Tim Harrison), with a beautiful map file (developed by Michael Schacht). It scales the action down to a smaller number of cities, with a matching reduction in the number of cards, while keeping all of the other rules intact.

It was great. It has the same core mechanisms as AoI, but adds:

(1) A division between two technological eras (canals v. rails), with a partial game reset in between. All of your canal links and tech 1 industries are removed before the rail era begins, forcing you to think and plan hard for how to realize some benefit out of them before they disappear. Very interesting and stressful (in a good way).

(2) A different system for generating money and managing loans. Rather than getting paid cash each time an industry tile flips (as in AoI), instead you move up an income track. Then, at the beginning of each turn, you receive income based on your position on the track. When you take a loan, you move down the income track (rather than paying end of turn interest as in AoI). Those changes are elegant and interesting.

(3) A greater emphasis on selling cotton, and an interesting system for managing foreign cotton demand.

Loved it. Really looking forward to trying it with more players.

Huge thanks and praise to the folks who designed the excellent 2p materials. That is an example of BGG at its finest.



Onward to Venus

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)


This is medium weight hybrid euro-dudes on a map game with scoring based on area majorities. The production values are top notch (especially in the limited edition, which is chock full of wooden bits).

I enjoyed it. It has a lot of interesting mechanics:

• There is a mix of military unit types, which trade off between strength and mobility in interesting ways.

• You use your units to claim tiles that are seeded onto the planets (and moons) that make up the game space, moving from orbit to the surface to do so. Once they've landed, you can't use them again until the next round (when they all go back up into orbit ready for redeployment). This creates a fun dual-use trade off. Sometimes you need to land lots of units, in order to overcome a strongly defended tile you're trying to capture. But that depletes your supply of possible actions for the turn (unless you build more units, which begin in orbit, ready to use).

• Mines and factories determine your end-of-turn income and also determine majority control of planets for determining end-of-game VP.

• There are a boatload of nicely-illustrated cards, with a mix of interesting powers. And there are lots of chances to draw more cards, so you'll see and use a bunch of them.

My group didn't like the game as much as I did, and some of the negatives they griped about were:

• The "crisis" system, which can create growing threats of serious harm on the various worlds, didn't have enough consequences. In the early game they weren't threatening so we ignored them. In the later game, they were easily dispatched.

• The "tension" tiles, which create rare opportunities for direct player v. player aggression, weren't numerous enough. To be fair, that was probably a consequence of a weirdly improbable tile draw. About half of all tension tiles in the game wound up on the moon (where they had little effect because there was anything worth fighting over there).

• The luck of the dice could be pretty swingy. That kind of thing normally bothers me more than others, but it didn't seem to me that anyone had wildly disproportionately good or bad luck over the whole arc of the game. Yes, there were moments of spectacularly bad luck, leading to groans/cheers, but I found that to be part of the fun.

Sadly, I'm unlikely to play this much more, given the generally tepid/negative reactions of my group. Too bad, as I found it to be reasonably fun and charming.


Gardens

(Image credit: joeincolorado)


On its surface, this is a pretty and fairly simple edge-matching tile layer (think Carcassone). But it has an element of route blocking that makes it much more strategic and interesting.

The key rule is that when you place a tile, you must be able to place your gardener on the new piece, by moving the gardener along the pathways that have been laid down in prior turns. The kicker is that you cannot move through another player's gardener. Also, each player has a second gardener that can come into play. Once both are on the board, both can be moved on a turn (one to place a tile, the other to grab a strategic spot or block opponents).

So there are a couple of layers of spatial thinking going on and you need to keep an eye on other players and what they're trying to accomplish.

Plays pretty briskly, especially if players choose their next tile as soon as they've placed one (so they can start planning before their move).

Pretty good overall, as a thinky superfiller with opportunities for screwage.

The two player rules involve playing two colors, which I never like. So that's disappointing and will limit play a bit.


Patchwork

(Image credit: evantozer)


Abstract quilt-themed game with spatial tile-laying, currency/income ("button") management, and time management (think Thebes).

Tetris-shaped pieces are spread in a randomized ring around the central time board. Each has a cost in buttons and in time.

On a player's turn, she either buys one of the next three tiles in the ring (clockwise from a marker that moves to the vacated space when a tile is bought) or spends time to get buttons.

The time track is also the game clock. When both players reach the end, the game is over.

Some spaces on the time track are divided by either a button or a leather patch. When a player passes a button, she gets income equal to the number of buttons showing on the tiles she has already placed on her board. If she is first to pass a leather patch, she takes it and uses it to fill any one space on her board.

The first player to build an uninterrupted 7x7 square gets a marker worth 7 pts at game end.

Scoring is based on the number of buttons on hand at the end of the game, plus the 7 pt bonus if anyone has it, MINUS two points for each empty space on the board.

This is a very clever spatial tile layer, with difficult trade offs between money on hand, pieces that will generate future money, and time. An excellent quick two-player puzzle duel.


Deus

(Image credit: punkin312)


I enjoyed my first play, even though it was a bit marred by my unfamiliarity with the rules. I forgot the hand size of 10 and I hurt myself by not remembering that some temple bonuses are capped at a certain number of VP.

On your turn, you either:

(1) Construct a building onto the map (play a card, put a meeple of the matching type onto the board, and then activate your queue of cards of the same type that you just played -- including the one you just played). The cards in the queue all execute their special powers.

In addition to the main flavors of buildings, you can build temples, which give you end game VP formulas.

(2) Discard cards. This allows you to activate the discard power associated with one of the colors of cards that you discarded (and then draw back up to five). This is a powerful way to quickly get stuff you need (money, resources, meeples, VP, more cards).

There's also competition on the map to get good locations (including adjacency to "barbarian villages" which award VP to players who "attack" them).

Game ends when all temples are built or all barbarian villages are pacified.

Overall, I think it's pretty promising and look forward to trying it again with the right rules! Rating is provisional until then.



The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet


(Image credit: lacxox)


Ok, you're a planet.

This is a cute little tile layer for 2-4, themed around the twee classic (for everyone who studied French in high school), The Little Prince. If you know (and like) the book, then you'll probably get a kick out of all of the thematic bits. But it isn't necessary in order to appreciate the game.

I probably wouldn't have given it a second look, except that someone with great taste in games evangelizes about it:

Jimmy Okolica
United States
Washington Township
Ohio
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Players are building small planets, which will consist of a 4x4 grid of square tiles. The tiles come in four flavors: interior, left horizon, right horizon, and characters. The first three comprise the planet's surface, with various bits of art on them, e.g., animals, volcanoes, baobob trees. The characters each have a end-game VP scoring rule.

At the end of the game, players apply their four VP rules to the features on their planets to see who wins.

The interesting twist is the tile selection mechanism. Whoever is the active player decides the order in which the players choose tiles from the set that's on offer. This means figuring out who needs what, and trying to game the order to screw everyone over. Whoever gets the last tile becomes active player for the next turn.

So far, I've only played it 2p, which has its own mind-@#!& variant tile selection rule. Choose three, look at them, place one face down and two face up. The other player chooses one (without seeing the face down tile first). Then the active player chooses from what's left. This creates some opportunities for double-thinkery.

As a 2er, it's good, but not great. I really want to try it with a full boat to see how the screwage works out.


Sanssouci

(Image credit: Camdin)


Quick, pretty, tile laying game.

The gist is that you're using card matching (from a very small hand) to acquire tiles, which must then be matched to spaces on your individual mat, so as to create the best array of scoring.

I found it claustrophobic and frustrating. I expect that repeated plays might reveal how to make longer term moves to mitigate short-term bad luck. But man, did I have a lot of short-term bad luck.



Ziegen Kriegen

(Image credit: Gonzaga)


Extremely light trick taking game with only one suit -- high card takes the trick. The wrinkle is that, in the first four rounds, low card draws a card with two values and chooses one of them. The sum of the four values chosen is a cap on player scores. The winner of the game is the player with the highest point total that is less than or equal to the cap.

Good at what it does; but not really my favorite kind of game.
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Sun Jun 28, 2015 4:00 pm
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