Boardgames To Go

Mark Johnson's occasional and opinionated podcast, Boardgames To Go, now has its own blog on Boardgamegeek.
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Recent Gaming (part 2)

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
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That's a Palm Pilot on the left, and a pink iPod mini on the right. Yes, I've been doing BGTG that long!
I'm really happy to have a lunch group for boardgames again. We only get together once or twice a month, but it's a great way for me to keep in touch with some friends in my old department. It started when one guy was really stressed-out and needed to just unwind a little. He knew I was a gamer and had read that Settlers article in Wired. We played that a few times back then, but in the year since I've learned to go with filler games. It just fits the time better, and they tend to be more resilient to varying numbers of players and time available. One month we might have three relatively heavy gamer-minds around the table for 75 minutes, and I used that opportunity to introduce Tigris & Euphrates. More often, though, we've got 4-5 people and thirty minutes left for games (after the important rituals of pizza & office talk!). In that setting, For Sale was a big hit. So was Exxtra. Both are quick enough to play more than once in that short time, which they appreciate after learning new rules. Everyone likes a second chance after they've just learned something, right? A couple times I brought out Roll Through The Ages. I'd list others, but apparently I've forgotten to record my lunchtime plays here on BGG. I need to bring in No Thanks! and 23. Truthfully, though, we sometimes just play good ol' Hearts and have a great time with it.

Meanwhile, the regular game group is on a roll. We've had a good group for a decade, but in 2011 our numbers had dwindled as friends moved out of the area, leaving the group struggling to stay afloat. I'm so pleased to say that's really turned around. We're still a small group, usually just one table, but that's ok. At least we've got enough gamers now to keep things going strong.

After we finished K2 as June's Game of the Month, we've gone back to just playing whatever we feel like every week. Sometimes we play a game two weeks in a row, but usually we're learning new things. I'd love to start a Risk Legacy campaign, but am not sure we've got consistent enough attendance in the summer to do it justice. Maybe this is something for the fall.

Last night we played Magnum Sal, then a couple tries at Flash Point: Fire Rescue. One of our members is a first generation Polish-American, and he's excited by the new titles coming from Poland. Magnum Sal is not only designed & published in Poland, but its subject is a famous historical landmark of that country, the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow that was THE moneymaker for Polish kings throughout the middle ages. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You know what all of this means to me, don't you? Theme! History! Research! Wikipedia! I really love it when our hobby offers this kind of insight.

Well, it was good. The theme definitely comes through, but it doesn't overburden the game. You're left with a light, worker-placement game that has some unique features. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to playing again. You take turns placing meeples, sure, visiting buildings in the city DOESN'T require a worker. You just go there as one of your two actions, and take (and pay for) the benefit. On the other hand, mining is central to this game, and it's labor-intensive. In other words, you need to dedicate a lot of workers over several rounds in order to mine the salt that generates money (=victory points). This introduces a map to the game, and gives you something to think about as you send workers into the main shaft, or out into the corridors to battle water (remember Tinners' Trail?) and extract the of differing qualities/value. One more thing--you get to re-deploy workers, either because they're no longer needed at their current location, or you burn a turn resting them to reset the ones used up during a strenuous mining action.

I figured more workers are always a good bet in a worker placement game, and tried to get the jump on everyone else by using up the ability to hire more. That might have been good, but the money I used to hire those workers is exactly equal to victory points. With the winning score around 100, mostly fueled by royal salt contracts work 15-20 apiece, was it worth it for me to drop 25-40 points on extra workers? It gave me more ability to do stuff, true, but did they more than make up for their expense? I'm not sure.

Also, it proved not to be automatically the best move to mine the deepest, most valuable salt. That's because you need to pay your opponents when you bring it to the surface by a "chain" of everyone's workers in the shaft. Sort of like a bucket brigade, with a token amount paid to your opponents who help. Well, those tokens add up, and sometimes you run out of time in a round to complete a royal contract. All of that valuable salt can be sold for money at the marketplace, but at a reduced payout. Hard to figure out, which makes us eager to try again. Looks like a winner, so far.

I missed the first wave of excitement over Flash Point when it first arrived, and only recently thought maybe I'd missed something when I heard so much about it on The Dice Tower's awards. (I was like this with Pandemic, too, which has proved to be one of my favorites.) We played the Experienced game at the lowest setting twice, and managed to lose both times. This was with three players. The first game I'm sure we messed up by working too hard on the victims before we knocked down the fire. I really enjoyed the interview the guys at The Spiel podcast did with a real gamer+fire chief, who stressed the primary importance of taking care of the fire, the threat, FIRST. For a second game we tried to do just that. Though we also lost that game, we got a lot closer to victory, and I know we'll do better.

One thing that I'm still unsure about is the theme. There's no question that it's a good theme, and one that's executed exceptionally well. No, my problem with it is the amount of death that's part of it. Am I thinking about too much? It's a victory to "only" lose three victims? Just when I got over that (and have to admit we laughed when the kitty cat hiding in the closet went up in flames), I described the game to my wife this morning and she had my same, initial reaction. Next you're going to read about my plays of a wargame set in the Pacific of WW2. There's obviously a whole more death & suffering going on there, but there's a remove that comes from scale, time, and subject. A game about a deadly house fire just gives me pause (meanwhile, I enjoy The Downfall of Pompeii).

Last, I should say something about We Must Tell the Emperor. My Spring trip to some military history sites in Europe re-sparked my interest in wargaming, though it remains limited to the smallest/quickest/lightest games. I'm not opposed to cardboard counters, hexmaps, or case-format rulesets, but 6-hour (or 36-hour) play times are a dealbreaker for me. So I limit myself to the 1-2 hour wargames, happy with the sacrifices and abstractions they need to make. I picked up three different titles that fit that description from boutique publisher Victory Point Games before my vacation, and afterward decided to get a couple more. One of those is this solo game in VPG's States of Siege series, a critically acclaimed coverage of the entire Japanese war. That means more than just the American campaign that I was more familiar with (Pearl Harbor, Midway, Luzon, etc.). The campaigns in China and Southeast Asia play as large a role. Of course, the entire thing is covered at a high level of abstraction--how else could you cover this much material in a 1-hour solo game?--but the real subject comes through strongly, and I learned quite a bit. VPG is beginning to bring out some games on the iOS platform, and I expect the entire States of Siege series is well-suited for that. I'm very happy with this purchase, and I would LOVE to have this on an iPad. Perhaps later I'll try the iOS version of Levée en Masse. (I realize it's gotten off to a bumpy start, but it might still be worth a try.)



Mark Johnson's occasional & opinionated podcast about family strategy boardgames
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