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First Impressions of Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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Early last year I got a copy of Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix in a NZ Only Math Trade. Published by Mayfair Games in 1996 it is the newest in a family of very similar car racing games by Wolfgang Kramer, which started with Niki Lauda's Formel 1 from 1980. The design seems to have changed very little over the 16 years.

Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix comes with a double sided board (unsupprisingly Detroit race track is on one side and Cleveland on the other). Six car race regardless of the number of players. Players are dealt a hand of cards which have movement numbers for one or more of the cars. When a card is played, the cars are advanced the number of spaces indicated in order from top to bottom. However, if the track is blocked, then that movement is lost. After the deal the cars are auctioned off to the players and there is prize money for each race ($200,000 for 1st place down to $10,000 for 6th place but nothing for cars that don't finish). Each race is one lap. The winner of the game is the richest player after 3 races.

The deck is 49 cards. 39 of the cards move 1 to 6 cars, 1 to 6 spaces. The other 10 cards include a 10 movement card for each car that is auctioned off with the car, 10 movement wild card which is not part of the standard deck (and seems overly powerful) and 3 switch cards (that seem very weak). According to the rules all the cards apart from the 10 point cards are dealt out and it doesn't matter if some players get more cards than others. That felt wrong to me and I suspect it would feel wrong to many of the people I play with. So I unilaterally decided to deal out as evenly as possible and then give any remaining cards face down to the owners of the cars at the back of the starting grid. (I also decided to leave out the weak sounding switch cards and overpowered wild 10).

The first game I played was a 2 player game with Anne. We played the Detroit race track. This meant we were playing 3 cars each. We ended each race with at least 6 cards in hand (no risk of any cars not finishing). There was one odd card with 2 players. This game took a very long time to play, in particular Anne took a long time to play each card. Possibly having 3 cars each and 22 or 23 cards each made it too complex for what it is.

A few days later we introduced Jarratt and Peter to the Cleveland circuit. There were 3 odd card and in each race half the players had 2 cars while the other half had one. This meant that hand sizes varied between 10 and potentially 13 cards. Sometimes people didn't have enough cards to finish, which made the game more interesting.

The following week we switched back to the Detroit track and this time had 5 players (Andrew and Lance being the newbies). Only one person got a second car each race and there were 4 odd cards so hand sizes varied between 8 and 11 cards. Anne won first race, I won the second race, possibly Peter won the last race. Everyone agreed that we should swap seats after the auction so that players sit in the order of their cars on the starting grid (which is suggested as a tornament variant in the rule book).

The next game was a 6 player game on the Detroit track again. Following our discussion on Wednesday we did swap seats after the auction. But the auction wasn't really that interesting - a couple of cars were fought over but otherwise people only paid $10,000. Surprisingly the cars all finished. There were 3 extra cards and with one car each so each player had 7 or 8 cards. It seemed that the cars at the back of the grid had a better chance of winning (possibly due to the extra card). The races were won by Nigel, Andrew P and Anna. Anne came last in every race.

Our latest game was with 3 players. The 39 cards deal out nicely. Andrew paid lots for his cars in the first race but came in 1st. In the second race he came in 1st and 2nd and had a substantial lead in cash.

Having played 5 games in about 3 weeks with 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 players I am left with the strong impression that this is a game for 3 or 4 players. With 2 players it seems that there are too many cards, giving too many choices (potentially causing analysis paralysis) and hence that it is too easy to get all 6 cars home. With 3 players there are 2 cars each (2 cars give more opportunities for clever play than 1 car) and the 39 “basic” cards deal out evenly – things are nicely balanced. With 4 players half will get 2 cars and half will not and the 3 odd cards seem to benefit the players with cars at the back of the grid, on the positive side the game is competitive, it is a pity that there aren’t 40 basic cards. With 5 players most players will get only 1 car (which is a little boring) and the 4 odd cards counts against the players at the front of the grid. With 6 players the auction becomes a lot less relevant with most people getting a car for the minimum $10,000. With only 1 car and less interesting auctions the game is not as interesting for 5 or 6 players as it is for 3 or 4.

It does seem odd that even though this game has gone through 5 incarnations over 16 years the basic rules seem to be the same and even the basic card deck hasn't changed much including the over powered 10 point wild card, the wierd switch cards and the lack of a satisfactory way of dealing out cards with variable numbers of players. The changes seem mostly to be in the different race tracks and extra rules (slipstreaming and banked curves in Daytona 500, betting and pitstops in Top Race etc).

There are a number of variants discussed on BGG and other websites -- many of them to do with alternative uses for the switch cards. Though I didn't see any to do with uneven deal. So perhaps I am making too much out of this perceived problem.

I had thought that the extra cards could be auctioned off either before or after the cars were auctioned. But would anyone pay $10,000 for a card if they had paid $10,000 for a car? My idea of adding the cards to the cars at the back of the grid is not perfect (it seems to advantage those cars too much), so I’d be keen on trying a different solution, perhaps even the original uneven deal idea.

I am also keen on trying my hand at designing my own track, and the basic structure of the game seems sound enough to allow us to bolt on extra rules like the slipstreaming rule for Daytona 500 or Andrew’s suggestion that instead of auctioning the total ownership of the cars, that shares are sold instead (a bit like Manila or Cable Car).

Ultimately this game has more than justified the trade I made for it.

(First played February 2011)
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Mon Jan 16, 2012 6:17 am
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First Impressions of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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Ankh-Morpork is a city state in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. It would be a disservice to Terry Pratchett and fans to make a serious, heavy boardgame set in Ankh-Morpork. You might expect a Discworld themed game to be designed by Steve Jackson (of Munchkin fame), but in fact Discworld: Ankh-Morpork is designed by Martin Wallace.

This is a much lighter game than I expected from Martin Wallace. Game play is basically play a card from your hand and do what it says. Everyone has their own secret objective, and a hand of cards which they use to establish minions and build buildings in various districts of the city of Ankh-Morpork. The cards are all illustrated in a style that is familiar from the book covers and most cards have special action text plus several icons at the top. These icons relate to the standard actions. Most actions on a card are optional but must be executed in order of the icons (from left to right). For each building you own, you may execute an additional action associated with the region it is in (only one building allowed per region). There is reverse hand limit, at the end of your turn if you have less than 5 cards you draw until you have five again. Many of the cards allow you hurt other players collectively or individually. For example the Fire Brigade card allows you to choose someone else's building. They must give you $5 or it burns down.

In addition to the main card deck and the 7 secret mission cards there is a card for each region and 12 random event cards. The secret missions are such things are gaining control of a set number of regions in the city or owning $50 worth of buildings and cash. As this is Ankh-Morpork, the throbbing economic heart of the Discworld, money plays an important part in the game. Given the designer; it is unsurprising that there are loans. There are also trouble markers. When a minion arrives in a region that already contains a minion, trouble follows. The existence of trouble prevents the erection of buildings and allows assassination.

In the first game we played my goal was to establish control in 4 regions to win. Peter guessed and blocked me the first time. But two turns later I managed it. I don't know what the others were trying to do, it wasn't obvious. My second game was was a three player game. This time we concentrated on frustrating each other and the game took longer, before Peter won by getting minions into 10 areas of the city. There were attempts to confuse the other players by making it look like we could be going for two different goals. In the third game I started with the aim of making $50 which seemed hard. I grabbed what ever money I could and established as much control as possible to disguise my real goal. When the opportunity arrived to swap goals, I got the goal of 8+ trouble markers. Trolls and Demons arrived shortly after to create 10 trouble, though I expect I could have got to 8 without them.

If you are looking for a heavy strategy Martin Wallace game with multiple paths to victory then this is the wrong game for you. If you are looking for a non-serious, take-that, game with thematic art and jokes about the Discworld series then this is your game.

(Played December 2011)
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Mon Jan 2, 2012 11:47 pm
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First Impressions of London

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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I'm a fan Martin Wallace's games (particularly Brass, Princes of the Renaissance and Age of Steam). So given the opportunity, I was keen on trying out London.

London is a development/economic game covering the development of London from the Great Fire of 1666 to the 20th Century. The board shows a map of London divided into boroughs. The players build buildings and businesses in London but unlike his earlier games these do not get built on the map. The map is used to indicate the "ownership" of boroughs and the development of the Underground. Most of the game play centres around the cards rather than the board. The deck of 110 cards is divided into three parts A, B, C which represent the division of 400 years of history into 3 chucks. Each part of the deck is shuffled separately and stacked. Like Brass, the deck controls the length of the game. The end game phase starts once the draw deck is empty.

When drawing cards one can take cards from both the draw deck and from a number of face up cards (which are arranged in two rows). Most games that use this mechanism (e.g. Liberté, Ticket to Ride or Union Pacific) have a fixed number of face up cards which are refilled from the face down deck. London takes a fresh approach. The face up cards come from player’s hands. These are cards that are spent to play or activate other cards or cards discarded when over the hand limit of 9. Cards added to the display are added to the top row if possible. If there are no spare spaces in either row the top row is discarded and the bottom row becomes the new top row.



The cards are complicated, most of them are unique and they all have pictures. They are best compared with those in card driven games like Twilight Struggle. They come in 4 colours (brown - economic, blue - science and culture, pink - political and grey - paupers). Most of them represent buildings or businesses. The implicit base cost to play a card is to "spend" another card of the same colour (the spent card ends up in the face up display for players to pickup if they wish). Some cards have additional costs (usually cash). Most of the cards are played in front of the player. Most cards are worth a number of points at the end of the game but some have additional advantages that are available as long as the card is face up and not over-built. At the bottom of these cards is a section that relates to "activating" the card. Activating a card often has a cost (a card or money). It gives a benefit (and possibly a penalty) and in most cases means the card is turned face down. Though some cards remain face up for multiple activations. The two part process of building a building and later activating it seems to be a development of the building and flipping of buildings in Brass.

A turn consists of drawing a card (from display or draw deck), then do an action and finally discard down to 9 cards (discards go to display). The action is one of four choices:
Play cards
Run city
Buy land
Draw 3 more cards
Note that it is not possible to pass and this restriction can become important at the end of the game as players are penalised for having cards in their hand.

As in other Card Driven Games, cards in hand represent the opportunities that you have. Playing/building a card cost you another card/opportunity of the same type/colour. Interestingly you are penalised at various points in the game for having cards in hand (hogging your opportunities?).

The Play Cards action is mostly about building one or more cards/things. Though there are a few cards (Wren and the 3 Refugee cards which are discarded rather than built).

The Run City action is when you get to activate one or more of your face-up cards. In most cases this will result in the card being turned down. It is just about the only way to get more money and possibly reduce poverty. Poverty Points are a similar concept to the Loss Points in Automobile. Everyone starts the game with 5 and at the end of the game they gain one for each card left in their hand. Every time a player chooses the Run City action they count the number of cards in hand, add the number of stacks of cards they have built and subtract the number of boroughs they have bought. If this is a negative number (highly unlikely) they reduce the number of Poverty Points (black cubes) they have otherwise they increase it by this number. A number of the buildings have penalties or benefits which also change the number of Poverty Points you have. In the final scoring the player with the fewest Poverty Points discards them all, the other players discard the same number and then use a chart on the board to determine what the remaining Poverty Points will cost them in VP.

The Poverty Point system provides an incentive to over build buildings rather than create more stacks. It also provides an incentive against choosing the "Run City" action too often.

The Buy Land action allows the player to buy a borough. This cost money, but you immediately draw a number of cards and will score victory points at the end of the game. It will also reduce the Poverty gained by one each time you "Run City". There are also extra points available when the Underground cards come into play.

Of course there are loans in the game. They can be taken at any time but only paid back at the end of the game. The interest rate is 50% and there is a steep VP penalty if you can't pay.

As is common in Martin Wallace games it wasn't clear what the strategy should be at the beginning of the game. Buying land could give you some useful cards but that advantage is minimized as you near/reach the hand limit. Run City didn't seem useful until you had a number of buildings built. But how many buildings should you built side by side (rather than on top of each other) given the Poverty Point penalty of having lots of building stacks?

Hand management plays a big part in London. A big hand of cards gives you plenty of choices but comes at a cost. It is also important to develop your "engine" so that you have a source of cash, points, cards and a way of avoiding too many poverty points. Though as building turn over or get built over your "engine" is very dynamic.

There is the possibility from time to time of choosing when to cause the top line of the display to be discarded, reducing the number of face up cards for players to your left to choose from. Similarly when you add cards to the display you might consider how useful they might be to your fellow players (though this may have little impact if that card is the only spare one of its colour in your hand).

You might consider the other players when choosing which borough to buy, and there are also a few cards that allow targeted actions against other players. But overall I suspect the two main influences on the other players are keeping your Poverty Points much lower than them and choosing when to end the game by using up the draw deck.

Like many cards games with lots of different cards, knowledge of the deck will give a seasoned player an advantage over a newbie.

It was the first time for all of us and due to over hasty rule reading we played a few things wrong. Most importantly we misunderstood the Wren and Refugee cards. We understood that they weren't buildings so we didn’t play them in front of us like the other building cards, we "played" them to the display (where Wren in particular got eagerly picked up by the next player) rather than "playing" them to the discard pile. So Wren got played about 8 times in the game rather than just once! There as a tendency for eager players to want to play/build a card and then immediately activate it in the same turn!

Overall I think London was an interesting Martin Wallace economic/development game with a novel card drafting mechanic, and elements of Brass like two phase builds and the loss/poverty points from Automobile. I'm a little worried by the lack of interaction between players (though some people may see that as an advantage!). I'd play it again but I am not yet convinced that I need to buy it.

(Played on 8 January 2011)
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Sat Dec 10, 2011 11:26 pm
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First Impressions of The Speicherstadt

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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In The Speicherstadt by Stefan Feld, you are an importer in the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, buying ship-lots of goods to try and fulfill specific contracts for victory points. You can also sell, trade, save goods and also hire firemen to protect your warehouses. Most of this is done by acquiring cards. Each round a number of cards are available and the players bid for the cards. Nothing unusual as Euro games go.

But the point of difference with The Speicherstadt (apart from its name) is the bidding mechanism. This is an interesting (and often frustrating) hybrid of "worker placement" and auction. Each player has 3 meeples and over 3 rounds place these above the cards they wish to bid on. The first meeple placed above a card gives its owner first "dibs" on the card, the second and subsequent meeples give their owners second and third "dibs" etc. After all the meeples are placed then the cards are evaluated left to right. The player owning the first meeple above a card decides whether to buy the card at a price equal to the total number of meeples above it or remove his/her meeple (hence dropping the price) and letting the owner of the next meeple decide whether to buy or not.

People use the cards they buy to fullfill contracts etc. If someone ends up not buying a card they get a consolation coin. There isn't much money in the game. Knowledge of the distribution of cards is very important. There are only limited numbers of each type of card and the deck is built up of 4 sub-decks (called seasons) each with their own characteristic (e.g. ships are rare at the beginning of the game and common at the end)

There are elements here of "worker placement" as players claim dibs on cards, bidding the price up as players stack their meeples above a popular card and dutch auction as players remove their meeples dropping the price for remaining players. This bidding mechanic is both clever and frustrating. Being first player gives you full choice of "first dibs" spots but little control over prices. Being last give you the opposite situation.

This game seems to be a straight forward and slightly boring do-stuff-to-get-points game driven by a very clever bidding mechanic. I would like to see this bidding mechanism used in an otherwise more interesting game. If you like trading games there are the nastier games like Before The Wind and Die Händler, or more negotiation oriented games like Settlers of Catan and Bohnanza.

(Played on 10 November 2010)
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Thu May 19, 2011 10:16 am
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First Impressions of Glory to Rome

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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Anna and Andrew brought back a new card game from Brisbane, which Anna tried to entice me to play by telling me that I "might not like it"! After a couple of weeks of this I called her bluff and we played it with Nigel one Friday night (while Sharon, Anne and John B played On the Underground at the other end of the table).

The theme of the game is that the players are dodgy property developers rebuilding Rome after the fire in 64AD. Points are gained by completing buildings and by hording building materials.

Like Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico where someone chooses an action and everyone gets to do it, the current start player decides the action that everyone will do. Unlike Race and Puerto Rico this is not done by choosing from a special set of cards or tiles but by playing a card from one's hand. The cards are multi purposed (they are building materials, buildings made of those materials and specific actions). The other players can either play a card with same action (colour) or pick up. Those that play can also do the action. This can be mitigated by getting clientele cards in your display. These can get you actions when they match the card the start player played regardless of whether you played a card or picked up. Completed buildings also give you extra powers.

Why play Glory to Rome when you can play Race for the Galaxy? Because it is more interactive than Race for the Galaxy, which has a multi-player solitaire feel to it. Not only can the start player (or "Leader" in Glory to Rome terminology) choose actions that are more beneficial to themselves than their opponents. Some action affect other people directly and some actions affect the pool of cards to draw from. So if you like that style of game where you choose action for yourself and other players but you want more interaction than you get with Race for the Galaxy then try Glory to Rome.

(Played on 5 November 2010)
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Tue May 17, 2011 10:19 am
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First Impressions of Wizard's Quest

Ian Anderson
New Zealand
Wellington
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Wizard's Quest is a 1979 Avalon Hill game that has been sitting on Peter's shelf for years. He has mentioned it once or twice as a simple dice-battler, but hasn't made any serious effort to get it played. Lately I have been thinking about "dice-battlers" and I found a re-write of the Avalon Hill rules into plain English. So I got it on the table and got Peter and Nigel to play it with me.

Wizard's Quest turns out to be a step sideways from the usual Risk inspired, conquer-the-world, dice battler games. Firstly each player is aiming to be the first to recover their three treasures which the opposing players have put in awkward places on the board. Secondly there are orcs and a dragon which are hostile to everyone (and orcs seem to breed faster than humans!). Thirdly even though armies vary in size and battles can last several rounds of dice throwing, in each round each player only throws one die. Each time they throw the die they calculate what "die-range" to use. If you throw a number in the range (1..N) you kill that many enemy units. Throw a number that is too big and you kill no-one - unless both players throw too high and then they both loose one unit (this final part was a rule we overlooked). Basically N is the number of soldiers or orcs in the army if there less than 4 otherwise N is 4 (though there are modifiers for terrain etc). What may not be immediately obvious is that an army of 2 is about three times as powerful as an army of 1, and an army of 3 is about six times as powerful as an army of 1.

Each round of the game starts with the non-player forces (the orcs, the dragon and the wizard). These act randomly. This is assisted by having the board divided into 6 numbered regions and each region divided into 6 numbered spaces. So two die rolls will identify any space on the board (well not quite as there are 8 castles in addition to the 36 numbered spaces). Orcs fill up empty spaces and castles and breed and then go on the rampage once they reach their maximum army size of 4. The dragon flies around the board eating orcs and humans though once he has eaten humans he stops. The wizard causes peace (which is a mixed blessing) in the region he visits and has a deck of card which are mostly helpful.

The orcs tended to frenzy in my direction, while Peter and Nigel got their first two treasures quite easily (Peter carved his way through my main force to get to one of them). Somehow I managed to get to my second treasure before Nigel got to his third to win the game in about 90 minutes if I remember right. As I eluded to earlier we overlooked one rule.

There are huge amounts of luck due to the non-player forces and the cards. The orcs and dragon can set you back so much that it can take 2 or 3 turns to recover. Hence the game could drag on for a long time if everyone suffered this fate. The quantity of luck can reduce the feeling of skill and reduce the opportunity for long term strategic planning. On the plus side despite the long sequence of actions in a round, the game flows quite smoothly and each battle is quick and simple.

Overall I'd class this as a refreshing, though more random and slightly silly alternative to Nexus Ops as a quick "dice-battler" when you don't have hours to spare on one of the longer games of this type.

(Played on 3 November 2010)
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Sun May 15, 2011 8:56 am
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