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).


  1. Even though I did pretty badly, I really enjoyed RtE. As you indicated, there are essentially four ways to score points - being first or second in art, being first or second in science, being on the "winning" side of the religion power struggle (Catholic or anti-Catholic), and expanding militarily. All depend on card play that in turn depends on deck-building. The deck management is really where the gameplay is.

    I understand your frustration with the deck-building mechanic. For my part, I'm still exploring it. Kathy and I played Dominion just this evening, in fact. I think I've got Dominion figured out, but RtE is quite a bit more complex. You might have been less than impressed, but I'd like to try it again.

    The first deck-building game I played was Jesse Catron's Salmon Run, which is really a racing game that uses deck-building as an engine. I think Jesse did a good job of letting the deck-building mechanic serve the game without dominating it.

    So I guess what I'm saying is that for me, I'm still exploring deck-building, and I liked our first run-through of RtE.

  2. Well, I have to admit I've been thinking about this a little more. Part of my issue with deck builders is that maybe I just haven't played one of them enough. Dominion, I think I've played a grand total of 3 times. And the other "deck builders" - I've played once each. I've played San Juan a number of times, and I do enjoy that game...but I'm not really sure where that falls in the "deck building" genre.

    I think part of my problem this past Tuesday was that I was also concerned that Stacy was having a good time. She's still new to this whole boardgaming thing, and I don't want to scare her off. She had expressed some concern about this game before starting, and I think she was really at a loss at the beginning of the game (or course, so was I). Of course, she finished 2nd, so I think she caught on pretty quick...I don't think I should have been worried...

    So...I think another day or two of reflection has increased my desire to play this game again. I still don't know if deck builders are me - I still get frustrated if I haven't drawn back the card I need from my discard pile...but I don't know why that's different for me than the frustrations that come in other euro games from not being able to do exactly what you want when you want.

  3. Huh. That's funny. The mod to AoR I was working on back in spring/ summer 2008 was called "The Path to Enlightenment". But the real world intervened, and I never got back to it. No deck building -- just a more economically realistic AoR, where the victory conditions are to achieve enlightenment.

    I suppose I've never played a "deck builder". How do they compare mechanically to CCG?

  4. I continue to be amused you guys still call it a "special", when it has now been regularly scheduled, for months or years? [indeed, in other posts, you describe Tuesday night as "regular", "standard", and "usual".]

    Again, this demonstrates my complete inability to communicate from the gitgo. A "special" train/ bus/ menu item/ tv program is one that is not regularly scheduled, but unusual, and likely ad hoc. If you have "regular" attendees, on a "regular" schedule, it's not a "special", is it? [if you look it up, note in After School Special, "special" is used as a noun]

  5. Paul - er - "Kriegspieler" -

    A deck building game is a self contained game that comes with all the cards needed to play. Each player usually starts with a hand of specific cards, and then plays those in order to "draft" more cards from a common pool. Thus all the players have access to all the different cards. Of course, some cards work better with others, so people may pursue different strategies during the game. A CCG on the other hand, is where you often have to make blind purchases and hope to "get lucky" by getting good or rare cards in any pack you buy. Or you can buy them for crazy prices on ebay, I guess. So, in a CCG, one player can have a better deck than another just by luck (or a deep wallet). In that sense, a deck builder is superior (in my opinion), as all players have access to the same cards. I personally just don't enjoy either one.