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Empty Nest Gamers

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

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New to Me -- Best of 2016

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What an amazing year for excellent new games!

For me, the best new game of the year was A Feast for Odin.


Hail!

A Feast for Odin is the culmination of everything I like about Uwe Rosenberg's big box games: strong and well-integrated theming, a development arc that leaves you with a feeling of having built something, and tons of variety. I also really like how he integrated the Patchwork tile placement mechanism into the engine-building and end-game VP scoring. It's clever, fun, and interesting. I especially enjoy exploring remote islands and then building them up into productive sources of goods, money, and VP.

This is the ultimate rainy afternoon game for my wife and me. And the physical production is top notch, with tons of solid bits and great graphic design. A huge chunk of winning, taking up a remarkable amount of shelf space.

And here are the honorable mentions:

Best Amerithrash epic: Star Wars: Rebellion.

This is the original Star Wars saga in a box. Game play is strongly asymmetrical, with the rebels hiding and trying to build up opposition to the Empire through clandestine operations, and the Empire spreading its greatly superior military and industrial power across the galaxy. Time is on the rebels' side. If they can hold out long enough, the Empire will eventually fall ("The more you tighten your grip Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.") But if the Empire finds the rebel base and destroys it, the last hope for freedom will be extinguished.

Game play is driven by mission cards, which are performed by leaders (which are characters from the films). This creates a strong narrative hook, which really evokes the theme of the game. Great stuff!

And the physical production is over the top. Permanent keeper, on the shelf next to War of the Ring.



Best Medium-Heavy Euros: Great Western Trail, Terraforming Mars, and Lorenzo il Magnifico.

Great Western Trail is a really fun mix of deck-building, worker placement (on a branching path, which players can customize each game to offer different opportunities and obstacles), and engine building (each cattle delivery and train station built lets you place a disk on the main board, which unlocks a power on your player board; you can also buy workers who boost the strength of your main actions). The variability between plays is high, with a different configuration of buildings on the board and a semi-random seeding of hazards, workers, and train stations. Despite the moderate complexity (expect a 30 minute rule teach), game turns are fast and the time flies. Just an all-around great game.

It doesn't hurt that I've won every one of my six plays to date. ninja

Terraforming Mars is a relatively straightforward card-based tableau builder. Each turn players draw cards and can buy any of them into their hands (my wife and I have house-ruled this to minimize luck of the draw; rather than draw four and buy up to four, we draw six and buy up to four). Then players take turns performing actions. These can be the "basic" actions that are available to all players or special actions unlocked by playing cards to your tableau. The game has moderate complexity, with several currencies and global parameters (heat, oxygen, and surface water; which collectively serve as the game's clock). But game play is really pretty simple once you get the hang of things. The fun comes from working your way through the huge deck of unique cards, each of which allows you to do something cool and significant, tailoring your position so that it diverges from those of the other players (e.g., you can plant moss or crash an asteroid into the surface). The variety of cards available creates a massively thematic experience, which is exactly what I wanted from this game. Great stuff!

Lorenzo il Magnifico makes a great use of dice. Each turn they're rolled to set the numbers that will be available for all players to use. This creates randomness between turns, but it falls equally on all players. Players then take turns using the numbers to perform actions, with higher numbers generally producing better results. Actions can be used to acquire cards of various types, which are used to build the player's two different production engines or increase end-game VP scoring of different types. Actions can also be used to trigger production engines, which then crank out the various goodies that you need to pay all of the various costs you'll face. Those include an every-other-turn maintenance fee (paid to the Church). If you can't pay it (or choose not to), you'll acquire an "excommunication" penalty that will dog you for the rest of the game -- and they're quite nasty.

Lorenzo is a beautifully conceived and executed mid-weight euro, bristling with interesting trade-offs and hard choices. The theme is somewhat uninspired, but I don't care. I like Ren-Europe themed games and royal grouchy dudes on game boxes. Love it!

Best Heavy Euro(s): The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition.

This year I played my first two Lacerda games (which I kickstarted with all the trimmings): The Gallerist and Vinhos Deluxe Edition. Both are intricate efficiency games, with lots of interlocking parts. And they both have remarkably attractive and clear graphic design, which makes them relatively easy to learn and a pleasure to play. If you like this kind of thing, you'll love these games. They're pretty much flawless.

I fully expect Lisboa to be on this list next year.

Best Light Dice Chucker: Hit Z Road.


This one surprised me. Martin Wallace's lighter games are hit and miss with me (I really like Discworld but The Witches and Via Nebula thoroughly bored me).

But Hit Z Road is hands-down brilliant. The game play is unexpectedly tense (with a brutally fun sunk-cost auction and card-based hazards that ratchet up in difficulty across the arc of the game). The dice chucking combat system is fun -- even when the luck completely burns you, as happens with some frequency. And the physical production is the most inventive and well-realized package I've seen in a long time. It really enhances the feel of playing the game and looks great. Space Cowboys know their craft!

If you can tolerate light games, zombies, and some luck (which can often be mitigated, if you're smart and careful), give this one a try. It's a lot of fun in a small package.
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Sun Jan 1, 2017 4:50 am
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New to Me December 2016

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Great Western Trail

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Great blend of euro mechanisms with a fun theme.

Great Western Trail is a really fun mix of deck-building, worker placement, and engine building.

Each turn, you move your cowboy-meeple some distance up the trail to Kansas City, driving your herd of cattle (your hand of cards), which you'll sell for money and VP when you arrive.

The trail branches at various points, giving you some choice of which way to go. It's made up of hazard spaces (which can be filled up with obstacles, which cost time and money to traverse) and building spaces. Some of those spaces are filled at the beginning of the game, with a randomized seeding of basic buildings (which are open to all players). Later, players can build their own buildings, which they alone can use for their main actions.

All of that means that the geography of the game board will change over the course of the game, as determined by player actions. I love that kind of thing, and it's done really well here. You can really put a stick in the other players' spokes, or build up an area of the board that strongly favors you. It's great fun.

When you eventually get to Kansas City, you sell your cows (cards in hand). There are a number of varieties of cattle, each worth a different value (from 1 to 5). You only get paid once for each variety in your hand, so duplicates are a dead waste. The value of your herd also determines how far along the railroad to San Francisco (yay!) you can move your cattle. The further west you push them, the more VP you'll get at game end. But rail transport eats into the money you earn from your sale (unless you've invested in the rail system to reduce those costs).

Each time you sell cattle in Kansas City, you get to place a disk on the main board, which unlocks a power on your player board (again, a mechanism I really enjoy and it's done well here).

To really get the most out of your sales, you'll need to buy more and better varieties of cattle (using the cattle market building on the trail). You can also purge cattle from your hand (using a power you need to unlock from your player board). Purging increases the likelihood that you'll get higher value cattle and more variety in your draw. There's also a draw/discard power you can use to tune your herd before you reach KC.

There are also subsystems (which I won't describe) that you can use to buy workers and invest in the railroad (including building stations); all of that increases your abilities in important ways.

The semi-random distribution of available workers can hamstring you a bit (you really need a strong hand of cattle, which is hard to achieve if you don't get any extra cowboys). But if you're shorted in one area, you just need to figure out another way to win (again, I think any winning strategy requires you to get more and better cattle; but you should be able to build different victory paths onto that core).

While the game is moderately complicated, the rules mostly make thematic sense (which always helps in teaching, learning, and remembering).

GWT is just a lot of fun to play. It looks great; there's a lot of interesting indirect interaction; and the theme is present enough to create some sense of narrative. I really like this one.


Terraforming Mars

(Image credit: milenaguberinic)

Exactly the huge, geeky, sprawling world-builder I was hoping for.

Terraforming Mars is a relatively straightforward card-based tableau builder.

Each turn players draw cards and can buy any of them into their hands (my wife and I have house-ruled this to minimize luck of the draw; rather than draw four and buy up to four, we draw six and buy up to four).

Then players take turns performing actions. These can be the "basic" actions that are available to all players or special actions unlocked by playing cards to your tableau.

The game has moderate complexity, with several currencies and global parameters (heat, oxygen, and surface water; which collectively serve as the game's clock). But game play is really pretty simple once you get the hang of things.

The fun comes from working your way through the huge deck of unique cards, each of which allows you to do something cool and significant, tailoring your position so that it diverges from those of the other players (e.g., you can plant moss or crash an asteroid into the surface) and better suits your strategy. The cards use some icons, but also include a text that exactly describes what the card does. This makes the game much easier to learn and play.

The variety of cards that are available creates a massively thematic experience, which is exactly what I wanted from this game. Great stuff!

The one downside is the fiddly cubes-on-a-mat used to track resources and income in the six (!) main currencies. If you bump those cubes out of position, you may have a very hard time remembering where they go (which sucks).

I like the game play enough that I took the rare step (for me) of buying an accessory -- the front and back acrylic mat overlays sold by boardgameboost. They're kind of expensive ($10 each), but really lock your cubes down, eliminating the possibility of a disastrous Mars-quake. I only bought two, as I expect TM to mostly be a two-player game for me.


Inis [not yet rated]

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Card-driven dudes-on-a-map with lots of scope for tricksy misdirection.

I've only played Inis with two (twice), so I don't feel like I have a good basis for rating it yet. It plays okay with two, but really feels like it needs a higher count to fully be itself. With two, things were a bit brittle and zero-sum, and there was less scope for surprise.

But from what I've seen, I'm looking forward to trying it at the higher count. Some of the interesting features of the game include:

• A fun card-drafting mechanism that determines what actions each player will be able to take in a turn (as supplemented by action cards that players can acquire by controlling the different territory tiles or telling "epic tales").

• Three different victory conditions, some of which merely require that you be present in certain places, without needing to control them through majorities.

• A requirement that you declare in advance, that it will be possible to win in the next turn (think of saying "check" in Chess). This lets everyone know they need to figure out how to block your victory. If multiple players announce a possible win, the winner will be the player who achieves more of the three victory conditions (with ties going to the "Brenn," i.e., the player who controls the capital territory).

• Once you learn the basic deck of action cards (one of which will always be blindly discarded before drafting), you'll have a good sense of how to navigate through the possible player actions each turn. But the epic tale cards are not known, and can throw a wrench into your expectations.

All of that is wrapped up in a really nice physical package, with nicely sculpted dudes and forts, and attractive card and tile art. The card art is likely to be polarizing, as it's very distinctive. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

I'll probably include this in a future list, once I've tried it with a full player count.
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Sun Jan 1, 2017 4:44 am
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2016 is Great!

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[Important caveat: I'm only talking about gaming. Aside from gaming, 2016 was shit in many ways (see, e.g., Fascist Hamburglar elected US President).]

But in terms of gaming, 2016 looks to be astonishingly good. Consider the following:

Feast for Odin

For me, this is likely to be a two-player only (or mostly) game, which makes it a really nice upgrade to Fields of Arle (which I like quite a bit). It takes the same general chassis — relatively forgiving worker-placement and engine-building, with serious thematic integration — and adds more: more action options, more kinds of resources and opportunities for resource conversion, and a thoroughly charming Patchwork-based spatial puzzle (which also has some fun thematic and engine-building integration).

Like Arle, it's relaxing to play, with a satisfying narrative arc, and fantastic production values. This is likely the pinnacle of this style of game.

Star Wars: Rebellion

Two-player, asymmetric, counter-insurgency game that brings the original Star Wars trilogy to the table. Action is character-driven, with familiar characters carrying out "missions" that evoke scenes from the films. Rebels are playing cat-and-mouse with the Empire, trying to score propaganda victories and hold out long enough for the galaxy to join the rebellion. The Empire is fanning out, searching for the hidden rebel base, blowing up planets with the death star, capturing and interrogating characters. Etc.

It's a thoroughly evocative experience, with an above-average game system in support. And, again, the production values are amazing. Great art, tons of functional and attractive miniatures, huge attractive board, very functional iconography. This is similar to War of the Ring, in the way that it brings a deeply loved bit of geek culture to the table, in a brilliantly-realized and fun gaming experience.

Lorenzo il Magnifico

This is a really handsome, tight, and fiercely fun medium-heavy euro, built on a clever dice-based action system, with painfully difficult timing decisions. It falls into a similar niche (in terms of weight, feel, and dice-driven actions) as The Voyages of Marco Polo and Grand Austria Hotel, and that's not too surprising, given that all three share a common designer: Simone Luciani (someone to watch!). Lorenzo is also a really great looking game, with solid euro chops.

Vinhos Deluxe Edition

I was always intimidated by the original edition of Vinhos; it seemed overly complex. When I heard that the new edition would include both the original rules and a streamlined version, I backed instantly. And I wasn't disappointed. The 2016 rules offer a very playable medium-heavy euro experience with lots to think about. And I am really digging Ian O'Toole's clean, playable, and good-looking graphic design (same goes for last year's Gallerist). It doesn't hurt that the KS release included a bunch of interesting looking stretch goals. A top-notch efficiency euro with an amazing physical production.

Hit Z Road

This is much lighter than everything else on the list, but in its niche it's brilliant! The core of the game is a hilariously brutal auction mechanism, that creates incentives for players to do self-destructive things (look up "sunk cost fallacy"). That auction feeds into a thematically-grounded (zombie armaggedon) card-driven dice-chucker. The art design is inspired and wonderfully executed (something I've come to expect from Space Cowboys). And the game is FUN.

Great Western Trail

I'll say more about this in my "New to You" entry for December, but I can summarize it very simply: this is an excellent medium-heavy euro, with solid gameplay and a lot of interesting decisions to make. Brilliant fun.



By themselves, those six games (all of which I would rate as an 8 or 9) would make 2016 a stand-out year.

And here are the 2016 games I haven't played yet...

• Terraforming Mars
• The Colonists
• Yokohama
• Inis
• Ponzi Scheme
• Tramways
• Arkham Horror Card Game
• 13 Days
• Oracle of Delphi
• First Class
• Railroad Revolution
• TTR: Rails and Sails
• Star Wars Armada: Corellian Campaign
• Forged in Steel
• Coal Baron Card Game

I mean, come on! If half of those games turn out to be as great as I hope they will, 2016 is going to be one for the record books.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Aside from the ferret-headed, cheeto-faced, shitgibbon.


And just because it's fun:

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Sun Dec 11, 2016 10:01 pm
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New to Me: November 2016

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A Feast for Odin

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lorenzo il Magnifico

(Image credit: William Hunt)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hit Z Road

(Image credit: W Eric Martin)

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

Here is the excellent heart of the game:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Codenames: Pictures

(Image credit: Elizabeth1000)

It's Codenames, with pictures!

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

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

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


A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King

(Image credit: wspier)

Light spatial set collection game with nice cartoony GoT artwork.

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

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

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

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

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


Vinhos Deluxe Edition

(Image credit: Ianotoole)

Another heavy euro masterpiece.

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

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

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

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


Mare Nostrum: Empires

(Image credit: igknight)

Smooth, clever war/euro hybrid.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Image credit: saksi)

Partnership TTR (and it works)!

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

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

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

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

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


Reef Encounter

(Image credit: turtleback)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pax Pamir

(Image credit: moraedin)

Leader bashing in a phone booth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Joking Hazard

(Image credit: Asmor)

Cards Against Humanity with cartoon panels.

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


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

(Image credit: eleskanyar)

Admirably designed scenario-based coop.

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

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

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


Captain Sonar

(Image credit: flope)

Real-time hidden-movement team game.

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

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

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

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


Royals

(Image credit: W.Buchanan)

Old school card-driven area majorities game.

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


Thief's Market

(Image credit: TheBoardGameRenegade)

Dice drafting to buy cards. Meh.

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

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



Humanity Hates Trump

(Image credit: lunchboxLAD)

It sucks!

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

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The Gallerist

(Image credit: newrev)

Heavy game masterpiece.

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

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

The action spaces and the actions that they allow are:

Artist's Colony

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

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

Sales Office

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

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

Media Center

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

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

International Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A top 10 game for me.


Concordia Britannia

(Image credit: Oblivion)

An excellent two-player experience for a great game.

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

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

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

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


Barony

(Image credit: henk.rolleman)

Lightly-themed spatial knife fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended, if you like that kind of thing.


Guilds of London

(Image credit: Oblivion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inter-Play Variability

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

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

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

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

Worker Placement

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

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

Alliance of Convenience

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

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

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

Engine Building

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

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

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

Geography

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

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

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

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

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

So, here they are. Blech.

Simultaneous action selection

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

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

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

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

Negotiation

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

That's why I really dislike Settlers.

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

Mancala

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

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

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

Luck-Based Results

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

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

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




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

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Scythe

(Image credit: jameystegmaier)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.


City of Iron: Second Edition

(Image credit: WarcraftZIVI)

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

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

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

So how do you get the resources? Two ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Via Nebula

(Image credit: hexanauta)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Imhotep

(Image credit: bkunes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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