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The Current Maturity and Bright Future of Worker Placement Games

Jesse Dean
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With the exception of perhaps hand management, worker placement is my favorite board game mechanic. The analysis required to determine the best series of action to take and how your opponent’s choices will impact what you can do is very appealing. Agricola was my introduction to the genre, though Stone Age was the first game of this type that I played, and I have greatly enjoyed playing a wide variety of worker placement games since then. As my preferences for length and meatiness have changed my preferences in worker placement games have similarly shifted and I have found most of the worker placement games since Agricola to be interesting only for as long as it takes to figure out how they work. Le Havre, in 2008, and Dominant Species, in 2010, are exceptions to this, but were fairly lonely until the past few months when the number of meaty worker placement options positively exploded.


Dungeon Petz, The Manhattan Project, MIL (1049), and Ora et Labora all push and prod the standards of worker placement in interesting directions, changing the standard structure of a worker placement game in unique ways while still being likely to be interesting even with in-depth play. I find it noteworthy that we got four of these games in such a short period of time considering that it almost doubles the number of total worker placements game that I like (previous examples being Agricola, Caylus, Dominant Species, Key Market, and Le Havre). I am not quite sure if there is anything specific that is causing this spate of good worker placement games, but the maturity of these designs leaves me hopeful that this is the start of a trend rather than being a unique data point.


The first, and greatest of these new designs is Ora et Labora, which followers of my blog should know that I have written extensively about in my review as well as my Best Games of the Year entry. While a lot of its excellence comes from small innovations and improvements over its cousin, Le Havre, the worker placement mechanism in of itself is very interesting and drives a lot of the tension of the game. The bonus action provided by the prior and the fact that you do not get your workers back until the beginning of a round after all three of them have been placed, results in a plethora of interesting little decisions. For example if you cut wood or peat, you get some valuable resources, but it slows down your ability to get your workers back, since taking these resources, rather than the others, does not sped up how quickly you get back the prior. It also forces you to be careful about paying other people to use their workers; it is possible to help another player as much as you are helping yourself by giving them access to your prior earlier. These are considerations you do not typically have to account for in a worker placement game, and it shows a rather refined understanding in both worker placement games and resource conversion games.


Dungeon Petz, which I have not yet decided if I am going to review, is Vlaada Chvatil’s latest attempt at a worker placement game. I like it quite a bit more than Dungeon Lords, as its rules overhead seems much more in line with the game’s overall depth. The worker placement in this game combines elements of blind bidding with the typical worker placement mechanic, where players have imps and money that they form into groups that are functionally identical to workers. These groups are revealed simultaneously, with the order of placement being based on the overall size of the groups. There is a relatively small number of locations on the board, and the value of individual spots is different enough that this leads to an interesting level of tension as the typical worker placement angst of choosing what spots to place is amplified by not knowing what the actual order of placements is going to be until after players reveal their groups. Looking also at Dungeon Lords it appears that Chvatil is most interested in making players to look more deeply into what decisions other players are likely to make in placement, forcing them to decide how to expend their worker resources in the face of potentially ambiguous player motives. I find the manner in which Chvatil implemented this to be more compelling in Dungeon Petz then it was in Dungeon Lords and hope that he has some more ideas of ways to explore this ambiguity in future releases.


Of these games I am least certain that MIL (1049) will hold up to extensive play thanks to the fact that I have only played it once, but despite this uncertainty I think its worker placement mechanic is fascinating, and worth noting. At the beginning of a round, MIL’s worker placement spots are unavailable, and can only be taken once a player starts to accumulate time tokens. Each time one of these tokens is selected it opens up a potential worker placement spot, but these spots cannot be taken without some level of sacrifice. Once you start placing your workers you are no longer able to take the actions that cause you to collect time tokens. This forces the action phase into an interesting game of chicken; the longer you wait the less likely you are to get the actions you want but the more resources you will be able to gain. While this particular worker placement mechanic is not what I consider to be the defining feature of the game, it is innovative and fun providing additional dimensions to what appears to be an already deep game.

The Manhattan Project is the last of these new games, and one that I have been playing a lot recently in preparation for a review. After reading the rules, I was interested enough in The Manhattan Project’s design to Kickstart it, and so far it has not disappointed me. At its basic level, The Manhattan Project is a pretty basic resource to VP conversion game, but the structure of the worker placement and recovery, and how the players interfere with these placements creates a fun dynamic. On a player’s turn they can place one worker on the central board and as many workers as they like on buildings on their own board or they can recover all of their workers. This could be a pretty solitaire experience, but main board actions allow for players to each other use other player’s buildings, and thus prevent that player from being able to take that action, or to attack them directly eliminating their aerial defenses before damaging buildings, making them unusable, until they are repaired. These two items help turn what would otherwise be a simple efficiency exercise into a game where constant attention to other’s action and choices is required in order to monitor the balance of power and help identify who most needs to be interfered with in order to win.

While all of these are strong designs, I consider Dungeon Petz and Ora et Labora to be the most interesting of these from a game design perspective. In each case they are the latest releases of a very experienced game designer who is apparently taking ideas that they implemented in previous designs, Agricola and Le Havre for Uwe Rosenberg and Dungeon Lords for Vlaada Chvatil, refining them and implementing them in new ways that I think are both ultimately superior to previous worker placement designs and show a greater understanding of how to effectively bring out the best in what worker placement has to offer.

As an optimist, I can’t help but think that perhaps these other designs, and Dominant Species from 2010, are signs of things to come. The last few months a very impressive one for fans of worker placement games and while it is possible that the sudden arrival of four good to great worker placement games in such a short period of time is an anomaly, I cannot help but hope that this is merely a sign of some really excellent future designs down the road.
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Fri Jan 20, 2012 9:59 pm
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Mob Ties, Tigris & Euphrates, and Acceptable Levels of Direct Player Interaction

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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In case you have not seen I wrote a review of Mob Ties: A Million Gangland Murders. Please check it out if you have time!

One thing that playing Mob Ties, and also revisiting Tigris & Euphrates, has made me reexamine is my overall stance on acceptable levels of player interaction. In the past I have been a fairly strong proponent of games that are mechanically meaty yet still have fairly high levels of player interaction, games like Dominant Species, Eclipse, or the various 18XX, where you are putting together an intricate web of actions that can have a big effect on both your own position as well as that of other people. For the most part, I still am a fan of those sorts of games, but playing Tigris & Euphrates and Mob Ties has made me realize that I do have an outer bound on my tolerance for direct player interaction, and both of them are outside of it. The fact that Tigris & Euphrates is outside of this bound is particularly disappointing to me, as it was probably my first “favorite board game” once I started to truly engage in hobby board gaming, and now I have to accept the game is mostly not interesting to me anymore.

In Mob Ties, you have five pawns called mobsters, each of which has varying respect levels and capabilities. These mobsters are used to collect income, due to votes based on respect levels, and are also required to directly affect another player’s mobsters, through the playing of action cards that are used for attacks. The first part of this interaction, where you maneuver for votes and can threaten, bribe and cajole each other in order to work out deals during the various situations in which the game requires votes to determine results, is pretty neat. Unfortunately the card-based interaction pushes the game out of my comfort level. Since it is fairly easy to eliminate each other’s mobsters, and because you have so few of them, it is almost trivially easy to be knocked out of the game by someone else misreading the game situation and making a poor decision as a result of that. The elimination of mobsters is not in of itself a problem, it is the overall level of impact that the elimination has on your position that makes me uncomfortable.

In Tigris & Euphrates my problem is similar in that you can affect each other’s positions casually with a great impact on the overall game state, though in this case the casualness of the ability to affect each other’s position matters to me more than the overall impact of the effect. In Tigris it is incredibly easy, sometimes requiring little more than the placement of a tile or two, to start a conflict that will end up benefiting a third party much more than it helps either the instigator or their target. I have seen countless games won or lost based on these decisions to start external conflicts, as players do not think out the secondary consequences of their actions and give a big windfall to a third party.

It can be argued that in either instance that skilled play among all players can pretty much resolve these problems, and push them into an entirely new level of challenge and entertainment and that is true, but I am not part of a highly skilled group of players for either game, so that argument is invalid for my particular situation and getting to that point is simply not going to happen with Mob Ties thanks to a negative reaction from my local playing group. For Tigris & Euphrates I have pretty much ruined the game for any local play by playing it a couple of hundred times on-line, so I am probably going to simply not play it anymore, since there are other games that I find more enjoyable, even with groups that have mixed player skill levels.

So playing Mob Ties and revisiting Tigris & Euphrates has made me realize that while I like for players to be able to effect each other’s position in games with more than two players, I prefer to make it so they have to work to do so. Making it so that you need to work to have a big impact on someone else’s position is much more acceptable to me then being able to do so casually.

What are your own personal limits for player interaction?
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Wed Jan 18, 2012 3:30 pm
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Initial Impressions: Sekigahara

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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GMT is one of my favorite game companies. Part of the reason for that is there delving into the heavier eurogame market with titles like Dominant Species and Urban Sprawl, but I also like their willingness to release daring lighter wargames that abstract out some level of unnecessary detail to make a fast, fun game that is easily playable in just a handful of hours. Sekigahara is the latest in that line and with 1.5 games under my belt I am pretty impressed with it.

I was aware of Sekigahara before its release, and while I found some of the information on it interesting, it was insufficient to interest me enough to pre-order it. What was sufficient to fully catch my attention was a combination of a very good response from my geekbuddies (7.83) and the overall positive reviews for the game (including an 8.18 average rating as of right now). The news that it sold out at the publisher level and the fact that there was only one copy left at Coolstuff was enough to push me to get a copy, after all with how well it was regarded and the game’s limited availability it probably would have been pretty easy to get rid of it.

Sekigahara is set in the period of Japanese history immediately following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After his death occurred the order he tried to establish began to unravel and two powerful daiymos, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari, battled for the fate of Japan. The loyalty of the various other daimyos was uncertain enough that several switched sides over the course of the war and even during specific battles.

So Sekigahara simulates this uncertain loyalty by having each player play with a hand of loyalty cards. In order to use a particular block in battle you need to be able to play the loyalty card associated with that block’s faction. Player’s take turn playing cards and revealing units, with the units particular strength causing an increase on the impact track. After the battle is over, relative position on the impact track determines both the winner of the battle and how significant losses are.

This uncertainty about the overall loyalty of your opponent’s troops, or even what troops are in a particular stack is such that it permeates the game with uncertainty. A large stack of troops may be moving towards you, but it may be a paper tiger, with no real capability to do anything to you. This bluffing, and the decision when to call that bluff is an important part of winning the game and is part of what provides the game with so much tension. You do not know your opponent’s true capabilities and identifying when the risk is worth the reward is the skill that is most frequently used in this game.

There is a bit of luck in the game in the form of what units you have coming out and what loyalty cards you draw, but these are what I consider “good” randomness, as it exists in the form of varied capabilities as opposed to random results. It is possible that the luck of the draw will negatively affect you in an unexpected ways, particularly when you redraw after a particularly tough battle, but on the whole I do not find the luck in game to be a major deciding factor in the game, though I doubt it will be significant enough to bother anyone who is actually interested in the game. The units themselves are even less likely to have an effect on the game, though getting a stack of similar units is probably a little bit more favorable, the ability to place a reinforcement unit in any friendly recruiting area is sufficient that it seems to matter only slightly.

Sekigahara seems to mostly about dealing with strategic ambiguity. You know what the constraints are for your units, but are uncertain what they are for your opponent. Thus the decisions you make are either ones where based on the information you have available you are fairly convinced you will win, ones where you are attempting to force your opponent to reveal to you their impressions of their hands vs. the unit groups they have on the board, or ones that are forced upon you by poor circumstances where you need to engage in battle because otherwise you will lose. Each of these options is replete with tension, making the game among the most tense I have played, with each choice having numerous repercussions across the board and thus ways to cause the game to spiral out of your control.

My first full game of Sekigahara was this past weekend against my girlfriend, Minerva. Though she does not play many board games these days, back when she was a more regular player we frequently played Command & Colors: Ancients and Twilight Struggle against each other, so I thought that perhaps Sekigahara would be interesting enough to lure her back in, at least for the short term.

I had her play Tokugawa while I played Ishida. I had heard that Tokugawa was easier to play, and as she is now less practiced in board games, I figured that would be a good start. While I was able to handily defeat her easternmost army, early on she was able to put her forces in her capital to good use, plowing up the road seizing resources and eventually approaching one of my castles. In a bit of a panic I sent forces from my own capital to reinforce my castle, despite her insistence that she had no plans to attack the castle, and the next phase she proved that may not have been entirely true as she brought in her army and smacked mine down, causing me to lose three blocks to her one, with two of the remainders retreating into the castle, and Ishida himself retreating down the road. My next attempt to reinforce my castle troops was equally unsuccessful thanks to one of my units switching sides during battle, and I lost even more troops to the attempt, leaving me in what I felt was a pretty desperate position. She had a large army preparing to hit me from the east and had even begun to threaten the north, while I was running behind her in both available reinforcements and hand size.

Then, much to my surprise she retreated. She had her hand on my throat and was slowly throttling it, but instead of finishing me off she fell back, focusing more on bringing in reinforcements, while retreating her forces back to more defensible locations. So, I took advantage of this opportunity and started to grab resource sites and seized one of her castles, pushing income of both cards and reinforcements from her side to mine. This was enough to allow me to get into a strong enough position that when her Tokugawa-lead army engaged with me during the penultimate round I was able to achieve a total victory, defeating her army and killing her daimyo, allowing me to achieve one of the instant win victory conditions.

Discussing it with her later, I learned that the reason for her retreat was that she realized that after her two victories her army was now a paper tiger and that any attempt I made to fight against it would result in her defeat. So she fell back until the loyalty of her clans were more assured and she had a good chance of winning future conflicts. Of course I had no way of knowing this. At the time I was going to try to pursue a different strategy as any attack against her at that point seemed suicidal, and I had almost given up on the game. A continued confidence in her actions would probably have caused me to simply avoid her large army and probably assured her victory.

So the game was lost not on any individual battle, but simply on a lack of ability to manage perceptions. This is very different from most any other war game I have played, even among the block games, that I cannot help but want to explore this one in much greater detail. It seems like it is worth the effort.
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Tue Jan 10, 2012 8:01 pm
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Looking Forward Into 2012

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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So with my review of 2011 out of the way, let’s go ahead and take a look forward into 2012.

Left Over From 2011
Thanks to some helpful input from commenters and friends I think I can safely remove both Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy from my list of games to acquire. Neither of them overcomes my biggest problems with Feld’s designs and are thus probably not worth playing. Similarly some pretty convincing arguments were made that I should check out Bios: Megafauna. I probably will at some point in the spring. I have enough new games to absorb and savor now that I would prefer to keep this one till later. I also tend to delve a bit more into Dungeon Petz and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and will probably be discussing both here. I may do a review for Dungeon Petz but that is only if I can find something new to say about it. Ora et Labora is at Coolstuff and I plan to pick it up tonight. I will probably be playing it as much as I possibly can, assuming I can successfully sell it to everyone around me. The main reason I have been able to clock in 26 plays of Mage Knight since November is its popularity in the local play group. If I can build a group that is similarly receptive to Ora et Labora I will be a happy man.

On the Review Docket
In the near future I will be playing and discussing both Mob Ties: The Board Game and The Manhattan Project. Mob Ties is a game I was not previously interested in but the publisher sent me a review copy to take a look at even after I warned him that I am not normally into games focused on negotiation games. His willingness to do so is pretty exemplary and deserves kudos so I am going to give the game a fair shake and see what happens.

The Manhattan Project is a game I Kickstarted, but will be sent an early copy for review so I am pretty excited about it. While I do not think it will be a game I love quite as much as Ora et Labora, Agricola, or Caylus it looks like it will still be a pretty strong worker placement and will likely be at the top of the second tier of worker placement games. It is rather unique both thematically and mechanically and I think those combination of factors should be enough that it is worth owning, particularly if the theme appeals to you or you are fond of worker placement games.

Upcoming in 2012
Its still early and I am sure there are going to be a bunch of new games coming out this year that will catch me by surprise, but I already have a few that I am looking forward to pretty seriously.

CO₂ has the combination of striking graphic design, a unique theme, and Vital Lacerda as the designer. Together these are enough to catch my interest, and I am looking forward to see what this design has to offer. Knowing Vital it will be a pretty hard-core eurogame which should appeal to at least some of the readers of this blog.

Kanban: Driver's Edition, about managing an automatic factory, is also by Vital Lacerda and even though I am not quite as excited about it as I am about CO2, it still looks like it will be worth checking out. Other factory management games have not quite worked for me before so hopefully this one has enough interesting things going on to make it worth my attention.

The Great Zimbabwe is the latest Splotter game and that alone deserves some attention, but its description is also pretty exciting:
“The Great Zimbabwe is a logistico-economic game in which players are tribal leaders in Africa trying to please the gods by building monuments.

Buying technology, building craftsmen, gathering resources, and worshipping a god are among the many decisions necessary to win in The Great Zimbabwe. But the main way of getting there is building and developing a network of monuments. The higher the monuments, the closer the players will be to victory. But player must balance many subtle aspects of the game. If they develop their economy, if they worship a powerful god, if they use a lot of technology, they will need to score more victory points.

Clever use of turn-order manipulation, economic development in an almost close environment, scarce natural resource use and logistical optimization to deliver goods from craftsmen to monuments: you only get one action per turn, so be smart! The Great Zimbabwe is a race for victory in which you decide how far you want to go and at what speed. Then other players' decisions change everything...”

Indonesia is the only Splotter game that has really stood the test of time for me, but I have high hopes that this will also meet my tastes.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers is Uwe Rosenberg’s upcoming title, and while I am pretty excited about the fact that it seems to be him back to doing the sort of resource conversion titles that he does best, I suspect he will not be able to top Ora et Labora for me. Still, this one sounds unique enough that it will probably be worth checking out and will likely be a solid second tier worker placement title.

1989: Dawn of Freedom is an item that I have on pre-order but I admit my enthusiasm is cooling and I may even cancel the pre-order. This is not due to any particular belief that the game will be poor but simply my playing habits have shifted enough that I get few opportunities to play these grand card-driven strategy games anymore so I am not sure how often I will get to play it. I may just get it to hold on to until I get opportunities to play them again though, so we will see what happens.

I am also looking forward to Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts but not overwhelmingly. I am pretty happy with the base game + the first three expansions, and while I am sure Alien Artifacts will be fun I am not sure I really need more. This will not stop be from buying it, of course, but it is stopping me from caring all that much about when it arrives.

Goals
Personally I want to continue the trend of 2011 in playing a smaller number of total games but playing them a lot more. I got to enjoy some really in-depth exploration of 18XX games in early 2010 and while I do not intend to revisit that particular rabbit hole in the near future, I do have a lot of longer games, both new and old, that I would like to explore in-depth.

I plan to continue being active on my blog even as the rush of new games slows to a crawl instead I will focus more on new thoughts on the games I am playing as well as more general topics. Once late summer hits, I will start doing pre-release perspective articles, will write my “Gamer’s Games of 2012” geeklist and will then due a lot of the same sort of things on my blog that I did in 2011: first impressions, reviews, and general discussion.

Is there anything you would like to see out of my blog? Any games coming out that I should be keeping an eye on? What are you looking forward to?
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Fri Jan 6, 2012 7:04 pm
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2011 In Review: Part Four (“The Best”)

Jesse Dean
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Chicago
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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(Most Of) My Top 10 For 2011
I still have some games from 2011 to play (most notably Mob Ties, courtesy of the publisher, and Sekigahara, courtesy of my wallet) but at this point I feel comfortable determining what nine of my Top 10 games of 2011 are. I suspect that if Sekigahara and Mob Ties fail to meet my needs that Dungeon Petz will fill in the #10 spot, as my second play of it yesterday increased my appreciation of the game’s potential.

9. Eclipse
Board Game: Eclipse

Originally I intended for this post to be made up just of games that I rated an 8 or higher. Unfortunately, in the process of playing and reviewing Eclipse last week, I ended up deciding my actual rating for the game was a 7. It is probably the best of the games I rated a 7, though so it is perhaps not too out of place here.
Eclipse is a pretty good grand strategy game that does an excellent job of conveying the overall look and feel of a space 4X game in a pretty reasonable play time. The decisions are delightfully tough and the game does a lot of things right. I am concerned about both the implications of the available missile technology on the game and the fragility of initial exploration draws, but neither of these are sufficient to make me think the game itself is not worth playing, I intend to play it quite a bit and will probably get it on to the table again on Wednesday, simply that it is not as effective in fitting my grand strategic needs as Colonial, Space Empires 4X, and Warriors & Traders. If you want to read more I have a review here: A Total Eclipse of the Grand Strategy Genre?

8. MIL (1049)
Board Game: MIL (1049)

Though the rules overload on MIL (1049) is a bit high, once you can get past that MIL is quite a game. The game has two phases, in the first you perform mostly resource buildings actions that require the use of time counters to indicate the passing of time and its effects on your extended family; after a certain number of counters are added to the knight he dies and his heir, if any, takes over the family lands. As you do so it reveals access to more powerful actions in the “spheres of power” that allow you to convert your resources into victory points and directly interact with other players. The decisions involved in which “spheres of power” to select with your knights, and when to transition from the resource generation actions to the “sphere of power” actions are both fairly entertaining particularly with how the game simulates the vassal-lord relationship that was so important during this part of the middle ages. I have only played MIL (1049) once am looking forward to it getting a wider release so I can get a copy and explore this one in more detail.

7. Warriors & Traders
Board Game: Warriors & Traders

Warriors & Traders would not have been on the list if I had written it before today so, much like Dungeon Petz, its position is very tentative. Essentially Warriors & Traders is a very eurofied vision of the grand strategy genre, with no luck and plenty of resource management, but enough consideration for political control and the maintenance and movement of armies to still fit within the overall mold. The game is incredibly tight, with only 20-25 actions devoted to building one’s position in a typical game, and one of the primary goals of any player should be to get into a position where they can get as many additional actions as possible. One of the biggest ways to do this is to perform a country unification; each player starts controlling the capital of one of the major countries of the era and by seizing a core set of provinces of that country, and a few disputed ones on top of that, a player is able to get a number of bonus actions related to the final size of the country. Advancing along the tech trees also gives opportunities for bonus actions, but the difficulty in climbing is such that I remain uncertain how frequently and effective these actions are compared to other opportunities as the tech tree, in of itself, does not give victory points unless you are the farthest along it; the temptation seems great, particularly later in the game, to stop advancing in order to seize territory. The game also does a pretty good job of providing an effective array of strategic options. Gaining and holding territory will likely be the source of the bulk of player points, but eliminating enemy units, building fortresses, and converting gold into victory points are all options. Still the whole seemed to be pretty solid. I need to explore this one more to see how the various options really weigh against each other and if expressed concerns about the static turn order are legitimate, but I see a lot of promise for this one to provide a fast, interesting grand strategy experience.

6. Yomi
Board Game: Yomi

Yomi was both the first and the most played of the new games I tried out in 2011 and it is the only new complex card game that I encountered this year that will remain in my collection into 2012. I was never a huge fan of the fighting video games that Yomi emulates, but the game play is enjoyable enough to keep me coming back. The game has been compared to a glorified form of Paper, Rock, Scissors and that is not completely unfair, but the vagaries of hand management, special abilities, and the unique characteristics of each character are sufficient to give this one plenty of replay value. I bought a Complete Edition and do not regret it. At less than a dollar a play just for 2011, how could I?

5. Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas
Board Game: Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas

Colonial intoxicated me from the moment I first read its rulebook, providing the promise a game of colonization and exploration that more effectively included all of the essential elements than any of the other options currently on the market. It meets that promise fairly effectively too, with plenty of potential for alternative strategies based on exploration, conquest, colonization and development. The early experience of playing Colonial was such that I suspected that it might end up being my top game of 2011. That did not end up being the case for two reasons: 1) 2011 had not yet finished showing me all of the great games it had to offer and 2) the continuing fluctuation of the rules. I have not played Colonial since November because of the flux that the rules are currently in. Assuming things are settled with a definitive rules set in the near future, and that the final rules are good this game has the potential to rise on my final list. Until then, 5th for the year seems about right.

4. Space Empires: 4X
Board Game: Space Empires: 4X

When I first read about Space Empires 4X I admit that the news that you would use paper to track your purchases and technologies seemed so antiquitated that it was almost enough to stop me from purchasing the game. Fortunately I was able to overcome my initial biases because Space Empires itself ended up being a pretty cool wargame in space, taking a very minimalistic approach to the exploration and production aspects of the game in order to make it so the meat of the game, gigantic ship battles were particularly fun and engaging. Unfortunately the game suffers a bit from game length issues, and I think I have reached the point where I would generally prefer to play this only with two. If playing with more I would chose Eclipse even though I prefer Space Empire 4X’s design, Eclipse simply manages more players more effectively. You can read my review here: GMT's Foray Into Space 4X Games.

3. Vanuatu
 

Vanuatu is the most brutal new Euro I played this year, where players are in a constantly shifting dance to both ensure that the other players are unable to get what they want while also being in a position such that it is not in anyone else’s interest to counter you. Effortlessly moving through the game denying other people their goals while also effortlessly advancing your own is the ideal, but in practice you have those nasty and evil people known as the other players who are working just as hard to accomplish the same thing, making the game the sort of constant and brutal struggle for supremacy that makes for the best gamer’s games. I have not written a review of Vanuatu, but a lady in my group has and you can see her review here: A Review Vanuatu - a game of strategy and screw 'em over!

My Best Game of 2011
Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game

Normally I don’t have this much difficulty picking out what I see as the best game of a given year. In 2010 Dominant Species was an easy choice and in 2009 it was Hansa Teutonica. Earlier years are similarly obvious either because there was only one game released that year that I considered good or because there was simply one game that stood out compared to all other competitors. The only other year that this was an issue was 2007, where Agricola and Race For the Galaxy both vied for my affections. At various points one or the other has been my #1 game, currently it is Race For the Galaxy, and I suspect that their relative position will change again someday. I am stuck in a similar position in 2011 deciding between two outstanding but very different designs that are both exceptional games in an exceptional year: Mage Knight Board Game and Ora et Labora.

Mage Knight the Board Game is the more innovative of the two, combining deck building and fantasy adventure gaming, both of which I am normally indifferent to, into a game with incredible depth and replayability that is more than the sum of its parts. I have played it 25 times since late November, and while it is doubtless that rate will go down with time as familiarity and a desire to play all these other games pulls me away from Mage Knight, I have no doubt that it will continue to receive a good amount of plays in 2012. In fact, it was the first game I played in 2012. It is good enough that it has caused me to reevaluate my previous indifference to Vlaada Chavatil’s designs. Where I previously looked at most of his releases with a bit of calculated indifferences this and Dungeon Petz is sufficiently good that I will have to pay more attention to his releases in the future. If he can produce a masterpiece like Mage Knight, then it would be a mistake to ignore his future works.

Where Mage Knight the Board Game impressed me by its ability to push forward the boundaries of current game design, Ora et Labora impressed me with the mastery it represented. While it is well within the bounds of the design style displayed in Rosenberg’s previous great designs, Agricola, Farmer of the Moor, and Le Havre, it is clear that Rosenberg has taken what he has learned with these designs and pushed it even farther, producing an effortless blend that is quite possibly the best worker placement/resource conversion game produced to date. At the very least it has convinced me that nobody makes these games quite like him, and that will be very difficult for any other game of this style to compare any time in the near future. How can I be interested in the worker placement/resource conversion games of any other designer when Rosenberg does it so, so well?

So this is the dilemma that I currently am grappling with. Mage Knight and Ora et Labora, my third and fourth 10s, must be chosen between. I could buck responsibility and just declare a tie, but I will not and instead declare Ora et Labora my Top Game of 2011. My enjoyment of Ora et Labora and its decision space, suffused as it is with nostalgia for previous Rosenberg designs, is sufficient to push this one slightly over Mage Knight the Board Game. Congratulations Ora, you are an amazing game and you deserve every bit of praise that will be awarded to you with your impending release.

Board Game: Ora et Labora
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Tue Jan 3, 2012 8:59 pm
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2011 in Review: Part Three (“The Rest”)

Jesse Dean
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I have said this before, and I am almost certain I will say it again but 2011 was a pretty good year for board games. It exceeds precious years in average game ratings, and exceeds all previous years except for 2007 in number of games that I consider to be “great” (9) or better and all years but 2010 in games that I consider to be “very good” (8) or better.

The number of different new games I played from 2011 (25) is down from 2010 (42), and even though I know that there are a number of further 2011 releases that I will still be trying out, I doubt I will hit 42 different games again. This is probably for the best, as after I played the vast number of new games that I tried in late 2010 I went through a period of pretty intense burn-out in early 2011 that ended up lasting into the summer. That will not happen in 2012.

For my next two “2011 in Review” blog posts I will be explaining my thoughts on every game I played that was originally published in 2011. This first one will be focused on the less impressive games of 2011 while in the second I will discuss the best games of the year.

2: Very poor game. I refuse to play this.

A Few Acres of Snow
There is a lot to like about A Few Acres of Snow, and on the whole I think it is both a pretty good design and one that it, along with Mage Knight the Board Game, is an important step in the overall progression of deck-building games. The way each individual location has an associated card that you add to your deck upon claiming is especially interesting as it forces you to add potentially sub-optimal cards to your deck in order to get victory points and progress across the board. I enjoyed my play of it, yet I rate it a 2. Why?

Namely it is the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy that has apparently broken the game. I can stand games needing minor house rules or clarifications, but a broken strategy pretty easily puts a game into the “very poor game, I refuse to play this” category. At the point that a fix is discovered I will revise my rating (probably a 7), and probably will return to my exploration of the game. Until that point it keeps that 2.

3: Poor game. Will strongly resist playing.

Martian Dice
I am not in the target audience for Martian Dice. In fact I doubt I would have ever played it if I had not received it as my door prize and had some time to kill with a friend while we were waiting for our plane after BGG.Con.

It has the typical three rolls, keep a subset of dice and reroll the rest set-up that seems to be the standard for dice games, with the twist that you have to as many “death lasers” as your opponent’s “tanks” otherwise you do not score for the round. You get points for each human, chicken, or cow you kidnap with bonus points being awarded if you get a set.

After the handful of plays we had at the airport I was done with it. The single item that separates it out from previous dice games was insufficient to make me want to play it again and if I ever had a desire to play this sort of simple dice game again I would just play Sushizock im Gockelwock.

4: Below average game. I avoid playing and would need to be persuaded.

Barons
When I first heard about this I was pretty excited about the idea of a combo-building card game with an area element to it. It was pretty interesting for the first few plays too, as I got a hang for the system and figured out how the system worked and what decisions were important. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm been to drag once I hit 5 plays, and with my 6th play I realized I was done.
When it came down to it, I simply expect more out of my complex card games then Baron provides. While there is some subtlety and interesting decisions involved, it did not provide me with the same level of mental gamer candy that I have come to expect in my complex card games. I really liked some of the interaction between land placement and the knights, but that was not enough to overcome the tedium that defines the rest of the game. It just did not work for me.

Quarriors!
Quarriors takes the super-trendy deck-building mechanic and replaces the cards with dice. While in theory this could be an interesting sort of game, and I can appreciate the design on a general level, it is essentially just a reimplementation of the general “Lets Make a Game! About Dice!” idea that generally fails to work for me.

Really though, this is probably just another game that was not designed for me. I am not a fan of fillers in general, and dice games in particular. The main reason I ended up trying it out was it was new, short, and hot enough that it seemed like it was worth trying a few times. It ultimately was, but I saw enough in those three games that I know this game is not for me.

5: Average game. I'm indifferent, but may be willing to play.

Belfort
I suspect that a couple of years ago, when I was slightly less discriminating in my tastes, I would have been pretty excited about Belfort. It has a fairly novel combination of worker placement and majority building, with scoring being based entirely on getting majorities in the game’s five districts and three types of workers. There are both shared and individual action spots where you can place your workers, to get bonuses and the ones that are available have a reasonably large impact on resource scarcity and just how much you can impact your opponent’s relative positions.

So if it has these relatively interesting qualities, why am I rating it a 5? Essentially I find the design to be just a little bit too clean, a bit too milquetoast for my tastes. There are too few sharp edges, too few opportunities to put your opponents into tough situations where they are forced to either choose between two equally bad decisions or make them take decisions that help you as much as them. The game just did not give me enough of a reason to care about the decisions being provided beyond the general sense that I should be trying to win. As it is, if I want to play a majorities-focused worker placement game I think I would probably pull out Dominant Species.


Helvetia
Helvetia is a perfectly competent little logistics game. I played it once and found it to be enjoyable enough for that one play, but see no reason to ever play it again. Any questions I had about the game were answered in that game, and all that would be left in future plays would be to see how successful you can be in managing the action selection mechanism and other player’s tableaus. While that is enough to make it so I would not actively oppose another play, it is not enough to make me want to play.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
My indifference to Lord of the Rings: The Card Game comes not from any deep-held criticism for the design or game play but from a far simpler source: I am not really that much of a fan of cooperative games. I would much rather be involved in an experience that involves me grinding my opponents under my feet in an epic battle of wits, or being ground down by them, then having to be involved with something where everyone wins or loses. I found the mechanics to be entertaining enough that I would not be opposed to playing it again, but I would really rather just play something competitive.

Tournay
My complaints about Tournay are similar to my ones about Barons; while there are some interesting ideas involved in it, the game is simply just not dense enough in meaningful decisions and to work for me as a complex card game. There are the sorts of things that I normally like in games, combos to build and meaningful spatial elements, but neither the combos or the spatial elements were engaging enough for me to want to play the game again.

As a caveat, I will note that my single play of this game had a fairly large rules error, and that playing it again with that rules issue again may prove to raise my rating. However, even with that error in mind, I doubt this one would go much higher than a 6 for me. There just is not enough going on for it to be something I am going to purposefully seek out plays.



6: OK game. Some fun or challenge at least. Enjoyable in the right circumstances.

Colorado Midland
My interest in Winsome-style games has declined a bit over the last year and my rating of this one may be a reflection of that. Manipulating the queue of incoming cards, and the incentive structure from shared ownership of particular mines was entertaining. Unfortunately, the game lacked enough interplay variability and depth to allow for me to maintain a strong interest in it after four plays. Now that it has been almost six months since I last played the game, I suspect I would be more inclined to dive into it again, but only after a bit of a graphics design overhaul. As it is I found the components actively detracted from the game play, which is in sharp contrast to other popular Winsome designs.


Eminent Domain
I’ve written about my current thoughts on Eminent Domain before here, and they have not really changed all that much since then, so I won’t go into great detail on my thoughts about Eminent Domain. Essentially, while I appreciate the uniqueness of its particular deck-building mechanic, the lack of crazy and amazing things hold this one back from being a game I really truly enjoy. The decisions about how to shape your deck are interesting and worth exploring, but were simply not interesting and worth exploring enough for it to really compare in my mind to games like Race For the Galaxy, Innovation, Yomi, or Glory to Rome. I think the lack of variable start-up feeds into this. While you can try slightly different things from game to game, and your card draw does matter, the game eventually starts to feel a bit samey after a while. I have played Eminent Domain 11 times this year, but I suspect that it will get at most one or two plays next year. Everyone in my store seems to have moved on, and those that were previously pushing it have discovered the joys of Race For the Galaxy and Innovation both of which I am much more pleased to play.

Kingdom Builder
As far as fillers go, Kingdom Builder is not bad. The placement rules and variable victory conditions do provide some measure of interplay variability and tension, and it is interesting determining what the risk/rewards are for making certain placement choices. That being said, I like to have the opportunity for a very large number of plays in my filler games, and after about 20 plays you will see most everything that this game has to offer. Granted, there are a large number of possible combinations between cards and player boards, but these are not going to add new decisions to consider, and thus is not enough for me to want to play this further.

Urban Sprawl
I’ve written a review and several different blog posts on Urban Sprawl and I have even less new to say about it then I do Eminent Domain. What it comes down to is simply that Urban Sprawl, while structurally very exciting simply has way too much systematic chaos for me to properly enjoy it. It seems that the chaos level is quite acceptable for other people, and I respect that, but it does not quite work for me.

7: Good game. Usually willing to play. I might even request or recommend it.

Ascending Empires
I bought Ascending Empires on a whim, and much like peanut butter and chocolate it turns out that 4X games and flicking games actually go pretty damn well together. Structurally Ascending Empires is a pretty straightforward game. Each time you take a turn you get one of a menu of actions, ensuring fairly brisk and smooth play. Each of these corresponds with the sort of things you would expect to do in a 4X game; exploring planets, establishing infrastructure, and researching technologies. The movement system is where this game gets really innovative. Rather than simply moving your ships around the board the game borrows from games like Crokinole in that you use flicking for determining where, exactly, your ships end up. Regardless of your skill level, this typically ends up being intense, with lots of opportunities for both drama and hijinks. If I have one complaint about it, it’s that the game can sometimes get bogged down if most of the players end up in mutually destructive antics that push the play time way past the point where I can maintain my interest in it. It is great if it last 90 minutes or less. More than that and I start wondering why I am not playing a game that has the heft that is worth that level of play time. For a while this was a staple on my table, but I have to admit its frequency of play has gone down a bit as the Essen crop has arrived, but I suspect that is just a temporary lull. Ascending Empires will be back.

Dungeon Petz
I am fairly hesitant to include Dungeon Petz here because I am uncertain as to what my final opinion of it will be. I played it once at BGG.Con and quite enjoyed it, but it failed to really excite me like some of the other designs at the show did. Functionally it is another in the “Lets Put On A Show!” genre, where players prepare a presentation just in time for the big show to score victory points (other noteworthy games in the genre include Drum Roll, Pret-a-Porter, and Vinhos). As far the genre goes it is pretty good, on the same general level as Vinhos and a bit better than either Drum Roll or Pret-a-Porter. The theme is cute and the mechanics are pretty interesting. The worker placement/blind bidding hybrid is rather unique and appeals to me despite my normal aversion for blind bidding and the hand management/set collection involved in the generation and meeting of needs also results in plenty of tensely interesting decisions. I don’t see any flaws per se in the design and I expect that even though it lacks the ability to hold my attention like Agricola, Caylus, or Ora et Labora it will still sit as a solid second-tier worker placement game that warrants occasional play if not obsessive attention.

Singapore
I am even more hesitant to rate Singapore than I am Dungeon Petz, simply because at this point I have difficult separating the game from the wonderful experience I had playing it late night at BGG.Con 2011. In many ways this game seems to be yet another cube pushing efficiency exercise, but there is enough interesting things going on, with the area movement part of the game, the forced tile placement, and the overall element of strategic planning involved in trying to account for logistical chains for multiple turns. Of course, there may be enough chaotic elements due reduce this capability but I am not yet sure how significant it is.

Upon a Salty Ocean
Upon A Salty Ocean is a tense and tight game of market manipulation, which while similar to other games in this genre is distinct, and approachable, enough that I think it is worth owning if you either particularly enjoy the genre are looking for a good entry point. Because the cost of individual actions is based on how frequently other players have taken the same action, the game greatly rewards performing actions that others are not, and setting yourself up to be in a position where you can beneficially do so is helpful to winning the game. I’ve greatly enjoyed both of my plays of this and look forward to exploring it more in 2012, once I feel like branching out from games that are my favorites from the 2011

So that is it for the games I rate a 7 or lower that were originally released this year. Next time we will touch on my favorite games this year and my current choice for “Best Game of 2011.”
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Tue Dec 27, 2011 6:02 pm
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The First Great Galactic War (Eclipse Session Report)

Jesse Dean
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The inevitability of the First Great Galactic War seems obvious in hindsight but was anything but in the years leading up to the spark of the conflict. Each of the species involved in the war had legitimate gripes against the others, but in the end the real source of the conflict was simple; each of the aggressor civilizations had determined independently that the current galactic order was no longer acceptable and felt that a rearrangement in it would result in gain for their particular species. The Eridani Empire had exited a period of torpor and wished to reclaim the glories of their past, the Hydran Progress was driven ever-forward by their unquenchable appetite for scientific progress, the Orion Hegemony’s government had been seized by a death cult that sought to bring death and destruction to as much of the galaxy as possible no matter what the cost, the Planta had reached the natural confines of their living space and sought to claim ever more territory for their sporelings, and the Terran Conglomerate sought to establish new sources of resources in order to extend the financial power of their markets.

The early years of the conflict were characterized by tentative steps by the main players out of their home systems and into neighboring, largely inhabited, locations. Each civilization added these territories to their own with little regard to the wishes of the natives, though their ultimate fate varied greatly depending on which civilization integrated them. During this early period of the conflict, first contact was also made with the previously rumored ancient vessels. Each of these was efficiently and effectively destroyed using the particular technological innovations that the civilization had discovered.

The Terran Conglomerate and Hydran Progress were the first civilizations to gain access to wormholes that allowed extensive interaction. Early interactions were tense but it was quickly that both civilizations had more to lose than to gain from a conflict at this stage in the build-up. Both were still dealing with the threat of ancients and had a great deal gain from trade. While the Progress had more powerful ships, and probably would have won any conflict they saw the Terran Conglomerate as the least of their concerns. Tales of the massive expansion of the Planta deep into the farthest reaches of the galaxy and had left them very concerned. Any conflict with the Terrans would weaken them in the face of an eventual conflict with the Planta.

The Planta had indeed expanded fast and efficiently building a vast civilization while also finding stores of ancient knowledge that they used to improve their quality of life, but at a great cost, their scientific advancement ground to a stop and their production capabilities slowed to but a trickle. They became so completely focused on integrating and worshipping the knowledge of the ancients into their civilization that they neglected the need to progress further. This helped them in the short term, as they used ancient technology to great effect in establishing their galactic preeminence, but in the end it proved to endanger the Planta in the face of other civilizations that were worried about the threat the Planta’s expansion represented.

This threat was even further highlighted when the Planta invaded the Galactic Center. Only the Hydran fleets were near enough to attempt to aid the Galactic Center Defense System, but even with the aid of some advanced ancient computers, the Hydrans found themselves to be no match for the Planta’s advanced cannons and ancient shields. They were forced to retreat after losing a dreadnought fleet and the Planta made short work of the Galactic Center Defense System. The Hydrans were able to slow the Planta down enough, however, to cause a permanent shift in the character of the conflict.

Immediately after the seizure of the Galactic Center, the Planta forged diplomatic pacts with two of its three neighbors: the Orion Hegemony and the Eridani Empire. This only increased tension with the Hydran Progress as the Hydrans were the only neighbors to the vast Planta Space that lacked diplomatic relations with them. This tension led to a broad build-up of military forces in the Galactic Center on the part of the Planta and led to great leaps of technological innovation on the part of the Hydrans, leading to the development of advances in financial and mining technologies as well as the first orbital stations to appear in Terran and Hydran sectors.

During this same period that the Hydrans and Planta were building for an eventual conflict the Orion Hegemony was watching and plotting. While the Hydrans focused on building up their general technological edge to overwhelm the Planta’s ancient-enhanced military engine, the Orion Hegemony focused its efforts on the most efficient way to bring its monumental military forces to bear on its neighbor. The first advancements to this effect were in using grid technologies to allow for financial refinements and advancements, allowing them to support their burgeoning empire. The second advancement of this kind allowed them to generate wormholes, forever changing the topography of conflict in the galaxy.

What wasn’t obvious to observers at the time was that despite their diplomatic agreements with the Planta, the Orions viewed the Planta as ripe of a target as the Eridani Empire. To this effect they maintained secret negotiations with the Hydrans through the vagaries of small, secret wormhole conduits that went through remote parts of Planta space. This is how knowledge of wormhole generators spread to first the Hydrans and then the Terrans and how this triple alliance eventually brought the collapse of the Planta civilization.

The second stage of the war started when the Orion Hegemony demonstrated the power of this new technology to invade Eridani space. Eridani defenses proved to be insufficient to fight off the aggression and though the Eridani sent out desperate pleas to the Planta for aid, the Planta refused to do so. A war against the Orion Hegemony would weaken their defenses in the face of the Hydrans and they did not want to have to bear the onus of being regarded as traitors for abandoning diplomatic agreements; the Terran Conglomerate, smelling blood, responded by also invading the flailing Eridani Empire, forcing the Eridani to split their forces in the face of the twinned assaults.

The Hydrans launched attacks at the unprotected core of Planta space, easily defeating both the fleets that were raised in response and the forces sent by the Planta in retaliation. The second part of the Hydran-Orion plan was then implemented as the Orions struck into the deepest stretches of Planta space and decimated these distant systems. All attempts by the Planta to fight back simply showed how much the lack of focus on technological innovation had hurt them; they lost every battle while the Hydrans were able to advance with minimal losses. The Planta were more successful at fighting off the Orions, but in the end it looked like it was the beginning of the end for Planta space and perhaps, even the Planta race in general. The Hydran Progress were triumphant, and it was considered to be only a matter of time before they established themselves as the preeminent force in the galaxy, with the Terran Conglomerate as a friendly client state.

This all changed when a small Orion fleet, intent on seizing a valuable core system was destroyed by two fleets of Hydran Dreadnoughts. To this day it is unknown if this conflict was the result of a miscommunication or a deliberate plan by the Hydran government to ensure that the Orions knew there place but it brought a quick end to the First Great Galactic War. The Planta were allowed to exist on in diminished form, the Eridani reclaimed the systems they lost to the Orions and the Terran Conglomerate settled into its position as a client state of the Hydran Progress. The Hydrans and Orions began to eye each other warily from across the galaxy and began the process of building up for what was eventually known as the Second Great Galactic War. However, that is a different story for another time.
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Thu Dec 22, 2011 5:22 pm
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Eclipse, Mage Knight and Other News

Jesse Dean
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Eclipse
With the arrival of Eclipse on Wednesday, I have switched my primary focus from playing Mage Knight to playing Eclipse, though that did not stop me from playing Mage Knight 6 more times in the last week (mostly thanks to a houseguest whom likes adventure games). As expected my opinion of the game has improved with further plays, though my concerns have not really been alleviated much.

I think the biggest reason for my overall increase in opinion of the game is just a general increased understanding of the nuances of the game’s mechanical infrastructure and how to push and prod the system to my advantage. I still feel I have a lot to learn about the game, which is a good thing, but as it stands now does not seem to be only superficially deep, unlike 2010’s big 4X game “Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game.” There is a lot going on here, and I suspect it is going to take quite a few games for me to really understand the implications of all the options that the game provides. I also really like the different races. Each one seems to provide a different overall play experience, with options that provide only a slight difference from the human baseline and those that are significantly different enough to open up entirely new strategic horizons.

The elegance of the system is also pretty exceptional. After my disappointment over Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game and my fading appreciation of Through the Ages I was beginning to despair over ever finding a empire building board game that would ever come close to providing as good an experience as empire building video games. I think that Eclipse, and Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas for that matter, succeeds in that goal. So even if it does not provide my perfect empire game experience, it does provide proof that someone might be able to produce it someday.

My previous concerns about Eclipse have both faded and been replaced by entirely new and different concerns. I still think there is a potential to get put into a bad position based on the exploration tile draws as it really does seem better to find resource tiles, particularly those that provide money, early on then it does to find ancients. You do want to find ancients eventually in order to get their discovery tiles and reputation tiles, but getting effective resource tiles will allow you to ramp up until you get into a good position to deal with them faster. This issue may be avoidable if you are able to get a lucky ship-boosting or material production discovery early on, but I could easily see someone put in an unrecoverable position based just on exploration draws. I am not willing to dismiss the game just based on exploration yet, but I think I would be happier with the overall design if there were more system tiles total, and everyone had the ability to look at two and keep one.

I am much less concerned about the luck of discovery tiles. Most anything you find can be turned into an effective advantage, and even if you decide to simply keep the tile for victory points, 2 VP is a significant advantage, perhaps not as significant as getting a ship part or resource boost early on, but still a bonus that I am happy to get.

The variance of the reputation tiles is a concern, and a somewhat major one. In the worst case scenario there can be a 12 point difference between someone who draws straight 1s for their four tiles vs. someone who draws straight 4s, but even a close game can be decided by the draws if one player drew slightly better than the person in second place. You could continue to attempt space battles after you get your full reputation tiles just for the opportunity to get better draws, but you are also potentially thinning out your opponent’s bad tiles in the process too, and the likelihood of getting good draws from the bag goes down over time as other players grab the better reputation tiles. With victory points from most other areas in the game pre-determined this is slightly jarring. None of our games have been close enough for the difference in reputation tile victory points to matter, but as skill levels get closer, it could become problematic over time.


I plan to continue to encourage play of Eclipse in the near future to see if I can work through my issues with the game or at least find how much they negatively impact my perception of Eclipse’s quality. At the very least they are not as detrimental to the play experience as the chaotic parts of Urban Sprawl, which means that it will at least be fun stretching out the limits of the design. I hope to write my Eclipse review by the end of the month but we will see what happens.

Mage Knight
Mage Knight continues to go well. I am up to 21 plays, and am really appreciating the variability between individual games even with identical scenarios. Tonight’s game (Full Conquest) was particularly interesting because we ended up with 3 castles in the same general vicinity. Two were captured by the same player, and he proceeded to claim the third from another player after he had moved on. That castle was next to a city. Hilarity ensued, he conquered two cities and that was the end of that. Honestly, I am fairly surprised I was only 18 points behind after that, thanks to my steady acquisition of artifacts and abused of the Learning advanced action. I think Full Conquest is still my favorite scenario, but I enjoy the others too. It is interesting how each one changed the value of particular enhancements in relationship to each other.

Other News
Alex Wilson wrote an excellent blog post ([blogpost=6725][/blogpost]) analyzing the most influential reviewers on BGG and I came up 6th as well as the 2nd most influential written reviewer (vs. video reviewer) based on people who thumb and tip my posts. Thanks for the support ladies and gentlemen, I really do appreciate it!

I also see that Coolstuff got in copies of German Railways, which is a game I pre-ordered in preparation for Essen 2010, and Warriors and Traders which is a game that I have been interested in since I first read about it. Is there any desire for me to take a look at it after I finish up with writing about Eclipse?
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Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:37 am
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2011 in Review: Part 2 (BGG's Top Games of 2011)

Jesse Dean
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As 2011 comes to a close I find myself fairly interested in how the most-well regarded games of 2011 reflect on the year as a whole. Since 2011’s Essen games are only just now making an impact on the board game world, I’ve gone ahead and included two charts reflecting BGG’s consensus on 2011 games, the Top 10 of 2011 by Ranking and the Top 11 of 2011 by Average Rating.

From gallery of doubtofbuddha


From gallery of doubtofbuddha


There are several interesting bits of information in here, particularly for those who are looking for overall board game trends.

The first thing is that, for 2011 at least, Thematic games have won. Looking at these two lists, I see a wave of highly thematic games with a scattering of games (The Castles of Burgundy, Letters from Whitechapel, Ora et Labora, Trajan, and Dungeon Petz) that could be considered Euros. Those Euros that have done well are also generally from well-established designers; Chavatil, Feld, and Rosenberg dominate this list, with the only other one being by Mari and Santopietro, which is unlikely to make it into the Top 100. Looking simply at the Top 10 highest average, which is likely to be a bigger determinant of the eventual Top 10 of 2011 then current rankings, we have a higher relative number of thematic games compared to the Top 10 highest ranked of previous years. Thematic games have generally been on the rise for the last five years, taking an increasing number of slots in the Top 200 every year, and while I suspect that we will still a few highly regarded “pure Euro” releases per year, it would not surprise me for thematic games to continue their current dominance. The population of BGG has changed, and the types of games that are well-received have changed with it.

The overall play time of games is well within the average compared to previous years. 2010 was a particularly long year for new games (110 minutes average) and 2008 was particularly short (80 minutes average), and while 2011 is a little bit longer than 2009 and 2007 the difference is not particularly large, with around 90 minutes being the average game length for the most regarded games. I can’t say I am too upset with this. While I definitely like longer games, I appreciate that there is an overall mix of game lengths that are doing well critically, and as long as we see at least a few longer games do well we will continue to see publishers produce these kinds of games.

Only half of my own personal Top 10 for 2011 overlaps with these games, though that may simply be due to lack of contact. I have only played 7 of these 16 games, and of the remainder I am interested in trying out Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Trajan, The Castles of Burgundy, and Letters from Whitechapel. I think that there is a reasonable chance that at least one of these will eventually make it on to my Top 10 list, and at the very least I expect I will like at least some of them. Also, none of the top games are ones that I have played and actively dislike, which is better than previous years. The fact that I have gotten better at recognizing and avoiding games that fit that category might be a contributing factor.

These games fit a rather wide number of categories beyond the Euro and Thematic labels. If there is any particularly noteworthy trend for 2011 it is the emergence of deck-building games that feature a board and cards that are related to your interactions with the board. The fact these are the first deck-building games that have been released by well-established designers is probably not a coincidence, with Chavatil and Wallace showing off their designing capabilities quite well. I imagine that this push that these games (plus Eminent Domain) have made will probably result in a continued flowering of the deck building genre over the next few years, and considering my appreciation for Mage Knight and respect for the other two, I am looking forward to it.

2007 through 2010 currently have an average of 9 games in the Top 100. 2011 currently has 4, with 3 more (Eclipse, Mage Knight, Ora et Labora) almost certain to reach it and several others (Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Trajan, Yomi, and Dungeon Petz) having reasonable shots. This will probably end up being an average year for Top 100 impact, though it won’t take much for it to be exceptional. It will be exciting to see how things end up.
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Mon Dec 19, 2011 10:07 pm
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Ten Things To Keep In Mind When Playing Mage Knight

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
So now that I am quite a few games into Made Knight exploration, here are the Top 10 things that I think are useful to keep in mind as you play.

1) While it can also be useful later on, going first during the initial round can be very valuable

Particularly with three players, it can be a bit tough to accomplish anything very meaningful in the first hand or two unless you go earlier in the round. There is a race to get to the village or monastery for recruitment or to kill the first few monsters to get the experience points required to reach level two. This is less the case with two or four players, as there is a bit more room, but even in these cases there are usually prime spots worth fighting for. Keep this in mind when selecting your tactics cards. This importance is, of course, overshadow by actually needing to be able to do something with that initial turn. If you cannot do so, then those cards that manipulate the cards available in your initial hand are, of course, more useful.

2) Try to be level 2 and have a follower by the end of the first day

While particular board configurations can make this difficult, always try to be level 2 with a follower by the end of the first day. Followers are one of the most important keys to victory, essentially providing an additional card that is available (almost) whenever you need it. Getting to level 2 allows you to access and use your first advanced action and skill, both allowing you to maximize your number of uses as well as get an idea of your general capabilities throughout the rest of the game. Failing to do one of these things is unfortunate but something that can be overcome. Failing to do both when your opponents succeed can put you into a hole that will be very difficult to climb out of.

3) While it is important to have a plan on how to get rid of your wounds, getting them in of itself is not the end of the world

In my first few plays I tried my hardest to avoid getting wounds, and generally did not get into fights if I thought I was going to get hurt. The first time I did not do this was a moment when I was able to defeat an opponent but had to take four wounds in the process. Not only was it not awful, I was able to deal with the wounds pretty easily and the artifact I got from conquering the dungeon was helpful enough to win the game. Since then I’ve prioritized winning fights over avoiding wounds, and it has worked out pretty well for me. I even received the “greatest beating” award during our last game and still ended up winning by a large margin. The advantages I achieved from slightly riskier play paid off.

4) Scenario goals are helpful and rewarding, but you need to build your experience and rewards backbone if you want to be able to win

Most of the presented scenarios provide an additional way to get victory points and an additional category of scoring available during play. These are all fun and interesting ways to get some great bonuses, but you need to avoid letting your focus on them override your sense of good play. You need to spend your time killing orcs, exploring dungeons and ancient ruins and conquering keeps and wizard towers otherwise will you never reach the point where you can successfully complete the scenario goals. Sometimes it might be worthwhile to skip the scenario goals entirely and focus on just performing the normal adventuring actions. While your opponents are wasting time trying to defeat a big stack of monsters you can leave a trail of destruction across the world that results in a big pay-off come final scoring. Similarly by ignoring the final goals, you are also making yourself better prepared to accomplish them, as you will be getting the bonus spells, crystals, and artifacts which will make it more likely you will be able to win some of the bigger, rewarding battles.

5) Do not overload your deck with combat abilities. It is almost always better to have just a few good combat cards and more of the secondary cards that support them

While there are tons of great cards that allow you to do some amazing things in combat, it is too easy to focus exclusively on these cards to the exclusion of cards that provide movement, healing, or mana bonuses. If you get too many great combat cards, you will end up having to throw a bunch of them away for a +1 modifier to movement or influence instead of using them for their named ability. All the great combat cards are worthless if you have no way to get to the locations you need to in order to use these fantastic combat abilities and lack the ability to power them to their full potential once you get to these locations. Cards that provide movement or magic are almost always useful though, as it is rare to have too much movement or too many ways to power up your cards. Having extra cards that provide healing have the benefit of allowing you to take risks that you would normally not be willing to, and frequently have secondary effects that are useful even if you are not using the card for healing.

6) Only get spells if you have the mana sources to power them

Similarly, while spells are generally pretty amazing, their mana cost presents a hidden trap. It is pretty easy to get into a situation where you will have a large number of wonderful spells in your hand that you will be unable to use because you don’t have enough crystals and the one mana you get from the Source per turn just is not cutting it. So make sure you have a good mana flow before you go crazy with the spell acquisition.

7) It is frequently worthwhile to spend time camped on a monastery or wizard’s tower

If you have the influence cards and/or the reputation, it is very worthwhile to spend a few rounds hanging out a wizard’s tower or a monastery in order to add additional action cards to your deck. Not only will spending this time improve your deck, it will also give you a pretty sizeable amount of end-game points. Remember rule 5) though, if you are learning spells! This makes influence improving actions doubly important, not only do they give you access to units, but they also allow for additional avenues to improve your deck and the points that go with it.

8) Prioritize dungeons (and artifacts)

While all locations are valuable targets for adventuring and conquest, dungeons are the most valuable, simply because they are the easiest way to get artifacts. Why are artifacts so valuable? First of all, they do not require any mana to activate. This enables them to be generally useful, no matter what sort of hand you have. Additionally, a lot of them provide pretty powerful abilities that either provide new capabilities, enhance existing ones, or both. Getting one of the rings that provides a crystal and a mana gives you the sort of mana income that you need in order to successfully utilize multiple spells; getting a banner expands one of your unit’s capabilities significantly. Finally, they provide massive, game changing special abilities that can be used once in exchange for the discard of the artifact. These aren’t the sort of thing that I will use every game, but after seeing a lady in our gaming group discard an artifact on Sunday to completely avoid all attacks and damage while assaulting a city, it is not something I will ignore again.

9) It is better to follow the person who is controlling the board then to be the one who is controlling the board

I argued in a previous article that you could punish other players who are more focused on conquest then defining the board by pushing it off in a direction where they are not going, thus limiting that player’s options later in the game. While I still think that is pretty strong, I think it is even more powerful to be able to effectively follow that explorer, moving in behind them and taking advantage of what they reveal without spending the movement required to open up these tiles. Granted, you will not have first choice as to what to get to on these tiles, but the erstwhile explorer will be slowed down enough by their movement costs to make this irrelevant. This is particularly helpful if you get one of the spells or advanced actions, such as Underground Travel or Wings of Wind, which allow for you to get across the board quickly. Then your lack of exploration is even less relevant, and you can easily target the locations that you think are most important.

10) Make every turn meaningful

While it is unlikely that you are going to make every single turn result in an experience gain even in the late game, try to make sure that every action you take has a significant effect on your relative position in the game. While this can be difficult for certain hands, proper use of tactics cards, deck knowledge, and hand management should allow you to spend most turns accomplishing things that will move your position forward or at the very least have a very significant turn in the near future. If you do not accomplish this, then you have probably made a mistake somewhere and need to reevaluate how you make decisions in Mage Knight.
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Wed Dec 14, 2011 3:41 pm
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