Monday, April 29, 2013

Getting stylish in the Stone Age.

It needs wooly mammoth meeples.  Mammeeples?
One of my favorite 4 player euro games is Stone Age from Z-Man games.  I really like the worker placement mechanic in this game, although there's some controversy with the "starvation strategy" that some people employ.  In any case, a year or so ago an expansion was published - and in what gets my vote for "worst expansion title ever", it was not-so-aptly named Style is the Goal

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to try out the expansion for the first time.  One of the immediate benefits of the expansion is that it adds a 5th player to the game.  Beyond that, it adds a new resource (kind of) - "decorations".  There is also a 4th hut added to the village, and a "trading track".  By sending two villagers to the trading hut, you can increase your trading prowess (on the trading track) by 2 steps, up to a total of 10 (there are other ways that your trading track only increases by 1).  When you first start out on the trading track, you can only trade at 2:1 - i.e., you have to trade 2 items for 1.  When you reach "4" on the track, you can trade at 1:1, and if you get to 9 or 10, you can trade at 1:2.  The expansion also adds some cards and huts you can buy that are related to the decorations and trading aspect that's now present in the game.  You collect decorations each time you increase on the trading track, and you can also get them in the same space as hunting/gathering. 
What a fetching cavewoman

Now, a key rule is that you can only trade once per turn.  We botched that pretty badly.  In our game, I immediately went for the trading track, just to try the new mechanic.  No one else really went there at first, so I was able to claim that hut for the first 3 rounds in a row, shooting up tot 6 on the track.  Others started to catch on, but ultimately I was able to drive myself to 10 on the trading track.  I used this to great advantage, trading all kinds of decorations for gold, and buying the (1-7) hut for 7 gold.  I did that twice as a matter of fact!  When I got to 1:1, there was absolutely no reason for me to gather any resource other than they were easy to gather, and easily tradeable for anything I wanted!  I won by such a runaway margin, that I was convinced that the expansion was broken.  And then, rereading the rules...we discovered you can only trade once per round. turning in 3 decorations for 6 gold - illegal!  I'm glad to know that the game isn't broken that bad...and I would really like to try it again playing correctly.  I think the trading adds a new dimension to the game for those that have grown tired of basic Stone Age.
New board overlay in foreground.  Picture by Henk Rolleman on

Monday, April 22, 2013

Conquering Medieval Japan...and tilting at windmills!

I'm a bit behind, as tomorrow is our standard Tuesday gameday, and I haven't even blogged about last Tuesday yet...not to mention the weekend.  I will make this quick, and likely add links and pics later.

Last Tuesday, we had a crew of 5 - Grant, Mike, Brian G., Brian D. and myself.  After some hemming and hawing, we decided to throw down on one of our favorite, well of our favorite games of the recent past - Shogun from Queen Games.  Now this is not to be confused with the old Milton Bradley Shogun which was part of their "Gamemaster series", which include Axis & Allies and Fortress America.  That game has undergone an identity crisis, changing first to Samurai Swords, and now known as Ikusa.  In any case, we were playing Queen Games Shogun, which is based off an earlier game called Wallenstein, and an even earlier game called Im Zeichen des Kreuzes, which is about the Crusades. 

Now there is some debate in our group as to whether Shogun is a eurogame trying to be a wargame, or a wargame trying to be a eurogame.   The board is a map of Japan, which is divided into 50 or so territories, which are grouped into 6 larger regions.  During game setup, you "draft" a certain number of territories, and place your starting armies (euro style wooden cubes) in those territories.  The game lasts 2 "years", which have 4 seasons each - although you can only perform actions in spring, summer and fall - winter is for feeding your people - if you can, that is - you may start to feel a bit like Ned Stark - "Winter is Coming".

Now during the 3 "action seasons", you can take up to 10 actions, by placing your territory cards on the different action spaces on your player board.  Those actions consist of rice collection, tax collection, building castles, temples and theaters, two battle actions, and 3 different reinforcing type actions.  You also bid gold for turn order, as well as a special ability that turn (collect more rice, more gold, attack or defend better, etc...).  On each turn, the order in which the 10 different actions will occur is random.  You will know the first five, but only know the order of the 2nd five after you've completed the 5th action. 

Let's get right to the most unique part of this game - the battle tower.  Whenever an attack happens, the attacker and defenders cubes are scooped up, and thrown in the battle tower...which is a little like a dice tower, except it's designed to capture some of the cubes thrown in.  The winner is the player with the most cubes to emerge from the tower.  Note that in some cases, an army may emerge with more cubes than he had going into the battle...cubes stuck in the tower from previous events came come free at the most opportune - or inopportune times!  Green cubes represent peasants, which may or may not help you depending on whether you've taxed them for gold or rice lately. 

Quite simply, this is a great, engaging game, combining eurogame mechanics with the most unique and entertaining combat mechanic I've seen.  Our game was particularly close, and in the end I beat Grant by 1 point.  The only reason I was able to do that is that Grant fell short on feeding his people in the 2nd winter, and had a rebellion in 1 province.  By sheer luck, the territory that contained his least manned province was drawn, and he lost it to the peasants.  Great game, can't wait to get it to the table again...although we've all agreed that we need to bring in the expanions, Tenno's Court

Grant left, and the remaining 4 of us played a game of Gingkopolis to end the evening.  Not a whole lot more to say...I had a more challenging game than my victory a few weeks ago...coming in dead last this time.  I was never able to get a good engine going that kept feeding me tiles and workers...I was always short on something, it seemed.

Fast forward to the weekend, where our family made our annual pilgrimage down to Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech spring football game.  I won't say much about the football game itself - defense looked great, offense looked very shaky, which is par for the course lately for the Hokies.  But the trip is also a time to get in some gaming. 

We didn't get into town until late on Friday evening, so we decided on something easy and entertaining - Resistance.  It wasn't quite as whacky as our escapades at Prezcon, but we still had a good time.  We played 4 or 5 games, and after 2 "standard" games, we introduced the concept of "Morpheus" and the assassin to our group.  It was a tough night for the resistance...the spies seemed to have the upper hand...poor Morpheus even got assassinated in the last game.

Saturday night Tom and I took the opportunity to teach Walnut Grove to Becky and Susan.  Becky had played a 2 player game with me a few weeks earlier, but now we had a full 4 players.  Tom stayed just a step ahead of me, claiming the bonus tile for largest field before I could (I had a 7 tile wheat field that would have reaped big points...)  In the end Tom won with 27 points.

The women were OK with Walnut Grove, but weren't super crazy about it, so we ended the night with one of everyone's favorites, Lords of Waterdeep.  We had a very close game.  I claimed the "Magisters Orb" quest early on which gave me the ability to play on occupied spaces, and that was a big help.  Once again, though, Tom was just a step ahead of me, swiping a few quests before I had a chance to get them.  And I was one cleric short of being able to complete another high value quest on the last turn.  Tom won with 130 or so points, Becky and Susan were just behind him, and I finished in dead last with 115 or so.

I figured that would be it for gaming, but on a lazy Sunday morning, Susan taught me Finca.  The theme of the game is that you're harvesting and selling various fruits in a Mediterranean setting.  The interesting mechanic here is the movement of your workers around a track designed to resemble a traditional windmill.  Your workers move the number of spaces forwarded equal to the number of people on their current space...and the space they land on, they collect the number of fruit equal to the number of figures on that space.  It's an interesting mechanism, and reminded me slightly of the circular track in NavegadorWhen you collect certain combinations of fruits, you can turn them in via donkey cart to collect tiles in different regions on the board.  There are ways to get certain bonus point tiles, and when a certain number of provinces are empty, the game is over.  I enjoyed this little game, and would like to play it with 3 or 4 players...I imagine that with more players, planning ahead is virtually impossible. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Road to Enlightenment

Are you Catholic or anti-Catholic?
In this Tuesday's edition of our "After School Special", we broke out the 2012 release, Road to Enlightenment.  My buddy Glenn Weeks had picked this up at Prezcon this past year, and wanted tot get it to the table for a try.  We were joined by Paul O., Brian G., Brian D. and Stacy.  In RTE, which can handle up to 7 players, you take on the role of the monarch of one of the great European powers of the 17th century - England, France, Spain, Russia, Sweden, Poland or Austria.  Your goal is to be "recognized as the most prestigious monarch by producing the most admired art and culture, lead the continent in scientific innovations, spread or resist the spread of Catholicism, and attempt military expansion beyond your historical borders."  The way you do this is to collect the cards of important historical figures - "luminaries" - and play them for either the effect printed on their text, or for their values in various categories such as art, science, warfare, etc.

If you look carefully...Poland has invaded Russia
Despite the map of Europe, this game at it's heart, is a deck building game.  And that's where I started to have a bit of a problem with it.  Now, let me explain a little the beginning of the game, you picked 3 "favorites" who would occupy special positions in your deck, essentially being available every turn.  After that, we all drafted 10 figures form the "normal" luminary decks.  These "normal" luminaries when played could either be returned to the draw decks, or "exhausted" to your personal discard pile...which means they would eventually make it back into your active hand.  The game played out in fairly typical deck-building fashion, playing cards to your strengths, and attempting to make your deck more efficient by weeding out the cards in your deck that were of little to no use to you.

Peter the Great...he's a bit awkward
Now, each leader has a benefit, a negative, and a once-per-game ability.  I was playing as Russia, and my benefit was +1 prestige (VP) per turn that I led in either science or art, my weakness was "awkward", which gave me negatives when negotiating with other countries, and my once-per-game action was to be able to advance 2 spots in either the science or art track.  Bearing this in mind, I went heavy on science and art luminaries.  This worked well for me, as I was able to quickly take the lead in science, and gain 1 VP per turn for something like 7 turns in a row.  Just when they caught me in science, I went ahead in art.  No one else scored points during the game, it was all end-game scoring.  I was somewhat worried when Brian, playing Poland, conquered  two of my cities (-2 per city for me), and Stacy cut a swath through central Europe, conquering 5 cities (worth 1 point each).  In the end, I had a bit of a runaway victory, based mostly on my mastery of art and science (in addition to scoring in-game, I was first in art at game end, and 2nd in science, which gave me points).

Beware the "Halifax Hammer"
Now, I really have not explained much of the nuances of the game, or even many of the actual rules.  I don't really want to get into the meat of the rules here, I'd rather talk about, despite my victory, why I'm really ambivalent about this game in general.  And I have two words for that - Deck Building.  I am not a fan of deck building games.  The few times I have tried that most popular of deck builders - Dominion - I have come away unimpressed.  I have felt though, that due to the popularity of deck builders, I must be missing something.  At Prezcon 2012, I gave A Few Acres of Snow a shot - I was particularly eager to try that, as I had heard it referred to several times as "the deck building game for people who don't like deck building games".  Again...meh.  Of course, it did not help, that right before the tournament, the GM announced "Everyone that wants to play needs to realize this is a broken game" - basically, with competent play, the British player is unstoppable - the "Halifax Hammer".  I'm also not a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, although I'm not sure that really qualifies as a "deck builder".  Interestingly, I do enjoy San Juan, the card game variant of Puerto Rico.  And, as mentioned before, I really enjoy a good game of Citadels.  But I think I'm safe in saying that Citadels is not a "deck builder". 

The Granddaddy of deck builders
So, what's my beef with deck builders?  Honestly...I'm not sure.  I think part of is the fact that veterans of the game have such an advantage over newcomers.  That's true to varying degrees in most games, but in deck builders, the way you build your "engine" with how various cards interact seems key.  A newbie, with no experience stands virtually no chance against an experienced player.  Also, I feel that in a lot of deck builders, there is very little interaction among the players.  Now, A Few Acres of Snow and RTE try to overcome this by having a map, and adding ways to "attack" fellow players...but still, it's not quite there.  Some of it may come from the frustration of not having the specific cards available when you need them, or being limited in your actions - "oh, I could use this card for it's text...but I need to use it for it's gold value in order to pay upkeep this turn.  Grrr."  I also don't like, the "surprise" element that sometimes happens.  You spend several turns gathering the correct cards together in your hand, only to play them and have them negated by some card an opponent plays that you had no idea existed.  Perhaps that goes away with experience in a game.

So, those are a few thoughts.  It could be as simple as "deck builders are just not for me"...with no particularly logical reason other than that.  As for RTE...I would certainly play it again, if our group really wanted to, but it's not at the top of my list (did I mention it took us 3.5 hours to play just 2/3 of the game - although with experience that should speed up).  Fans of deck builders may enjoy it...I would rate it higher than A Few Acres of Snow, simply for the fact that it can hold up to 7 (and likely 8 with the future expansion).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sea Monsters, 17th Century Farming and Citadels

Well, once again we had our weekly Tuesday night gaming.  This week there was 5 of us - Brian G., Mike R., Tracy, Tom and myself.

That sea monster in the lower right just ate my ship  :(
Tom was running late, so we started - like last week - with a game of Tsuro of the Seas.  Tracy had seen us finish up our game last week, but had not played.  Once again, we opted to not play with the Sea Monsters, so it was just "regular" Tsuro.  With only 4 players, and a 7x7 grid...I'm not sure that the game is terribly exciting.  We all spent the first 75% of the game away from each other until of course the tiles forced us together.  I was the first one out, followed by Tracy, and Brian finally won...and once again we nearly filled the board with tiles.  Tom arrived near the end, and we decided to play another game, and this time we added the monsters.  It's certainly a more tense game, with the random luck factor added in.  We played it correctly this time around (I think), so there was less fiddleness, but I have to say that I'm still not sold on the monsters.  It just seems like too much luck.  Maybe if we took out one or two...we started with 5 in our 5 player game.  On the other hand, as I mentioned, it does create some tense moments.  Brian was surrounded by two monsters at one point, and had to survive everyone's dice rolling until it came to his turn again.  Not only did he survive...he went on to win the game...again.

Little sheep...where are your boar and cattle buddies?
I had brought a few games that hadn't made it to the table in a while...and when Tom got there, he immediately zeroed in on my copy of Agricola.  This, of course, is one of the classics of the eurogame genre, but it's not necessarily for beginners.  Tom had heard about the game, but had yet to play it.  Tracy also had never played it.  Bearing that in mind, we opted for the "family game" where we played without occupations and minor improvements.  I immediately went down the path of expanding my home, in preparation for later family growth.  At one point, I noticed that the fireplaces and ovens were going fast, so I grabbed one before there were none left to be had.  I had also gathered enough clay to upgrade my house.  I was gathering a lot of resources, but I wasn't actually putting anything on my farm.  No animals, wheat or veggies.  I managed to fence in a nice 3X2 pasture at one point and got some sheep going, and also managed to purchase the well.  I never got my food engine going so that I was comfortable adding another family member.  I made a terrible mistake at one point with wood, passing on building more fences because I wanted to gather more wood to build an even larger pasture.  I completely missed the fact that I didn't have enough fence pieces left to build that larger pasture...and had to resort to filling squares with stables.  Brian was the only person to perform family growth fairly early in the game, but he also missed the opportunity to get anything that could cook he had feeding problems, and had to take a begging card.  I thought this would hurt him...but in the end he won by 9 points.  He had 28, Mike had 19, I was at 18 and Tom and Tracy were in the 11-12 area.  That extra worker really made the difference for Brian, even though he had to feed him.

I've been torn in the past about occupations and minor improvements.  In some respects I feel like it's too much.  But I have also been in the position many times of teaching the game to new players, so we default to the family game.  I now wonder if that's the smart thing to do.  I am wondering if the family game is harder than the regular game, in the sense that you don't have those extra cards to help get your production engine going.  In the family game, it's hard to keep your family fed each turn, and actually do things on your farm.  So, in the future, I think I may lean towards playing with the cards, even with new players.

I'm the Warlord.  Or I would be, if I hadn't been assassinated.
Last but not least was a game of Citadels.  This game has become our go-to for the last year or two as a end-of-the-night game.  Especially at conventions, where it's not unknown to be playing Citadels at 1 or 2 AM.  Somehow we didn't break it out at Prezcon, though, and it's been a while since we've played it after work.  I had been sitting between Tom and Tracy, and I had the uncomfortable moment where Tom insisted that they had played this game before, and Tracy absolutely denied it.  However, it got a lot more uncomfortable when we started playing, as I kept getting assassinated.  Four times, I believe, three of them in a row.  There's a number of people that don't like this game because of the fact that you can get assassinated or robbed quite a bit.  On Tuesday, it was my turn in the barrel.  I really like this game as a 3-player, because you get two roles to play each turn, but I like it even with only one role each.  The people that tend not to like it seem to think that it's very random, but I disagree.  This game is all about getting in your opponents heads...and figuring out which role they've picked, and making them think you've picked a different role than you really have.  Unfortunately, we did miss one rule in the game, as Tom declared victory, we noticed that he had 3 of the same buildings in his "citadel"...but hey...we should have caught that when he played the first duplicate.