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Game night: 28 Jan 2012 - the Finnish Countryside, Leprechauns, and Slanders...in Spaaaaaaace!!

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We had our first game night of the new year last night. Only one other person came, so we got to play some games that often don't get played when we have our more typical 5+ people. Me, my wife Joanna, and our friend Ken settled in for some gaming.

What do you mean I can't get to Finland from Denmark?

Our first game was 10 Days in Europe, a lightweight route-building game with a lot of luck and not much strategy. Still, it's passable for a few minutes at the start of a night, or with kids.

The first part of the game you're just drawing tiles, one by one, and fitting them into your stand. I tend to do this pretty quickly because it's usually obvious where to put things; e.g. 2 like-colored countries should be 1 space apart from each other (in hopes of a matching airplane), etc. Joanna and Kenny were much more deliberative during this phase. I have no idea what they were thinking about for so long, but as Joanna won both games quicker than I'd have thought possible, and I was no where near done either time, there must be something to longer preparation. Unfortunately, the game's just not that interesting, at least not enough to warrant that type of prep-work.

They're always after me lucky charms.

Joanna was feeling good about her 2 wins at 10 Days. So good, in fact, that she was in a mood to be magnanimous. She allowed me to pick the next title, and didn't even veto Keltis: Das Orakel, which is one of my top 3 favoritest games and one I tend to be pretty good at (innumerable iPhone/iPad games against the Hard AI will do that for you).

There were a couple of early mirrors that Ken and I grabbed. Joanna used the Oracle a few times before it was (as usual) left behind. She tended to lag in points by around 8, which worried her, but I told her not to be too concerned as the end-game points are much more important than being ahead or behind by a few throughout.

The first Leprechaun space was ideally suited- just far enough that you had started to build up some chaff in your hand, but not so far along that you couldn't easily dump it and hope for better. So it's hardly surprising it got a bit crowded there:

Ken had some sort of brain seizure toward the end and didn't press on to the last blue space when he could've, allowing me to swoop in and score the last stone. He had 2 mirrors to my one, and all three of us scored the Leprechauns (first time I've seen that), leaving Joanna pretty far out ahead before final scoring. Nevertheless, I squeaked out a narrow victory (possibly closest finish we've seen in the game) 76-75-73. I told Joanna that 1 point was probably within the margin of error for the scoring throughout the game, but I still marked it as a victory for me. She was not amused.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a sad-sack would-be claimant to the throne could only afford a lousy 5 intergalactic agents to advance his agenda.

Though it was late (for us, e.g. around 9:30pm), we decided on another game. I'd been wanting to try Carpe Astra ever since I'd picked it up the last go-round with Tanga. Usually I do not like learning a game while teaching it - I prefer to learn the game ahead of time. But this one seemed simple enough that we popped the cardboard off the frames and ran through the rules.

Let me just say, it sounds a lot more complicated than it really is, at least with all the phases and stuff. Kenny and Joanna's eyes glazed over a few times, but we soldiered on and started playing. I went first, on the reasonable assumption that since I was the one holding the rules in my hand, I was best suited not to screw anything up.

I'll get this out of the way up front: the game is abstract. Yes, it could be about anything from sheep-shearing to serving tables at a fancy restaurant, but I enjoyed the poli-sci (get it?) setting. It fits, and allows for some flavorful flavor text, and is a decent 'hook' to hang the various game mechanisms on. But the game is at its heart a placement-heavy spacial abstract of sorts. Not what you picture when you read 'bribe or slander, whatever it takes to claim the galactic throne' or however the cover reads. Nevertheless, I felt the mechanics were generally sound and provided for some interesting decisions...at first.

I jumped out to an early lead, being able to complete both of my cards on several of the early turns, also taking advantage of the events to earn some scarce coins. A few turns in, things looked like this:

Yeah, the yellow guy is me, and yeah, that's only 1 lousy agent out on the board. You see, in this game the points from majorities are clearly visible to everyone, and everyone knows who's winning at all times. This means that the leader will have a galactic-sized target painted on his forehead for the other players to tee off on him at will. Yeah, it's that kind of game.

It's also a brain-burner. You have to be able to imagine the effect of adding a tile, moving some of your guys, maybe spinning a tile or two, and compare that to the score cards in your hand, keeping sure to have a guy on the Senate, your home tile, or your opponent's home (in the case of a slander)....it actually gets pretty complex. If you don't have much of a head for that sort of thing, you'll end up looking like this:

High Priest Ichthon ponders his options

My initial lead was so commanding, and I am so versatile and savvy (uh, yeah) that I was able to maintain my lead throughout the game, despite having those two blasted interlopers chewing at my flanks for 4 or 5 turns.

Speaking of which, the last 4 event cards in the game were the kind that offered drawing extra cards for the prize, meaning no new cash was injected, meaning money was VERY TIGHT by the end of the game. I managed a narrow victory 12-11-11 but only because we'd overlooked that if one person earns all the support tokens from a single faction (with none in the supply), they are supposed to get 6 points rather than just 4. Since we never saw that till the end, we chose to score that you'd only get 4 points.

Had we scored the right way, Joanna would've had 13 and won. This is her, realizing that:

But then Ken's final turn decision would've been harder, as he'd be effectively handing the game to me or Jo. You see, both of us had a monopoly on one of the factions' support, and in our game Ken took from me knowing I was in the lead, realizing that though he and Jo couldn't catch me, he could at least take 2nd in that faction. But if we'd realized that that monopoly was really worth 2 extra points, he would've had to decide whether I or Jo would win. I know who he would've chosen (hint: not the guy who mercilessly slandered him throughout the final 6 turns of the game...), but that kind of forced kingmaking always leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

I felt like the game worked OK, but only just OK. They missed an opportunity with giving each faction a special power (even only a one-shot one, or something), because the flavor text is interesting, but everything is too symmetrical. I get why they limited you to just 2 cards in hand (usually) - any more and your head would explode with figuring out all your options. But it also means you're at the mercy of what you draw. And the king-making in the end-game is pretty bad.

But, it was still kinda cool. I liked to read the flavor text on the various cards I played; it really does help get you into the spirit of intergalactic intrigue. I would like to try it with the advanced variant of some face-up scoring cards to draft. But I suspect it's a game that'll only be welcome for a few plays before these annoyances become too strong to keep playing. But for $10 or $11 shipped, I'll feel like I got my money's worth.
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