I returned to Matt L.'s gaming group this past Tuesday night. Also present was Matt's wife Andrea, Mark Delano, Donna, Ilan, and Josh & Amanda. Mark and Donna I had met at previous Wilton gatherings, whereas Ilan, Josh and Amanda I was meeting for the first time.
It's becoming a tradition at Matt's that on arrival we get a rundown of what stories Matt read to his children while putting them to bed. Last time it was Shel Silverstein, who Matt is vehemently opposed to for a number of reasons. I am in agreement that The Giving Tree is a very depressing book. This time it was some kind of alphabet book. "How did it end?" asked Ilan. "The zebra did it," I said. I was pretty proud of myself until I remembered that Steven Wright told that joke first. Probably Ilan was setting himself up for that same punch line.
Josh & Amanda had yet to show up, and while we were waiting Donna requested the card game Guillotine, which she had heard about but had never tried. The game is amusing insomuch as it is about beheading nobles during the French revolution and because some of the cards are quite funny, but in terms of game play it's a pretty random affair. We only got through one round before J & A showed up. Hopefully Donna got the gist.
On a side note regarding the general weirdness of gamers (present company excepted), the last time I had played Guillotine was a two-player game with a guy at "Alternate Boardgames" in Milford. He was very into the game and clearly knew it backwards and forwards, but, as I mentioned, it's entirely random so I ended up winning. He was actually rather despondent about it all and couldn't believe that he had lost "his own game." I was thinking that if he wanted to go to the trouble of learning a game backwards and forwards he'd be better off choosing one that had some little smattering of strategy involved.
Anyway, Josh & Amanda arrived and someone suggested playing a quick game of Tsuro before splitting up into two groups. Tsuro is a simple board game consisting mostly of square cards on a grid. Each card has paths crisscrossing it and each player has a pawn that travels the paths. If your pawn is forced off the board or crashes into another pawn, you're out of the game. Sound simple? It is. The game is also notable because it can handle up to eight players quite well, which is something of a rarity. Anyway, at one point we had five pawns all heading into the same square, and there was indeed a massive kerplosion as two pawns collided. Did I mention the pawns are filled with dynamite? They certainly are. The deluxe edition comes with safety goggles. My pawn skirted the other little dudes but was sent off the board in shame. Unclean! In the end it was down to Ilan and Amanda, and I think Amanda had no choice but to play a card which sent her off the board.
At that point we split into two groups. I had brought Palazzo, and Matt suggested that we give it a go. Andrea and Donna joined. The other four went off to play the popular Pandemic, a cooperative game in which the players try to save the world from horrible diseases rampaging across the globe. They lost. Twice.
Palazzo, on the other hand, is a game which is almost completely disease-free. The game centers around little rectangular tiles which each represent a floor of a Florentine palazzo. Players have money cards and they try to buy tiles and construct tiny flat houses for their imaginary two-dimensional Florentine friends. Players get points based on how esthetically pleasing their buildings are, which is to say that they get points for the number of windows and doors and bonuses for tall buildings and for having buildings made all of one material. However, buildings of only two floors are considered to be unworthy of the name 'palazzo' and are worth no points, whereas buildings of only one floor are such abject failures that you actually lose a few points for having one in front of you.
The catch is that the floors are all numbered, and you're not allowed to put the second floor on top of the third, and so on. You are allowed to skip floors, however, even if this means that there's no first floor and the miniature Italians have no way to get into their homes except by climbing through the window like a common burglar.
Sound simple? Well, it's not. Despite the fact that the game only lasts about an hour, it's actually fairly complicated, with lots of rules devoted to how the tiles come up and how you go about acquiring them. If you can make it through them, the game is a lot of fun, but I can see them being a turn-off to non-gamers.
The other tricky thing about the game is that it's a little unusual in that money is not hard to come by but there is instead time pressure. Players can always choose to spend their turn taking more cash (and everyone else gets a little extra too whenever anyone does this), but there are only so many tiles to be had and you're generally not able to make up for buying nothing in the first half by buying twice as much in the second. This is particularly the case because the lower floors are loaded into the first half of the tile stacks, whereas later in the game the higher floors are predominant. I think this is a neat feature, but it can trip up the unwary.
The unwary this game turned out to be Matt and Donna, even though both had played before. They both had a lot of cards in their hands but few tiles on the table; perhaps they were waiting for just the right tiles to come up, but this is a little risky in a four-player game. Andrea, however, was an enthusiastic shopper, and while she tended not to have a lot of money, she was able to put together some nice buildings. She probably would have won except that the game ended a little sooner than she expected. I was the winner with thirty-two points from one five-story building, one four-story building and one four-story building of all one color (if I remember correctly). Donna and Andrea both ended with twenty-four points and Matt told me to go to hell when I asked him about his score.
I was a little tired at that point, but Amun-Re was mentioned, and I could not resist the siren call. I probably should have went to bed instead. My opponents were Mark, Ilan and Matt.
Amun-Re is a fairly involved game that takes place in ancient Egypt. Players farm the land, sacrifice to the Gods, and build pyramids as monuments to their own greater glory. The game is not difficult in the sense that you need to do a lot of computation or figure out all the possible moves and counter-moves, but there is a good deal of strategic thinking required. In fact, I think the game is remarkable in that it requires a lot of long-term strategy and yet it moves along quite breezily.
The game is played out in two halves, and at the halfway mark I was in third place with twelve points (three pyramids, most pyramids in the West, two temples at 2 VP each). Trailing at this point is usually not a big deal, since the players who take the lead in points are often cash-poor for the second half, but I did not perceive myself as having a lot more money than the rest of the table. Instead I was kicking myself because I had been too stingy and could have had fifteen points instead of twelve if I had spent just a little more (don't ask how, it's too complicated).
The second half was a bit of a struggle for me. I was aggressive in the first round and bought the most desirable province for fifteen gold, but afterwards I had to be a little more miserly and take whatever came my way. This was an okay strategy for me because I didn't have any VP-getting power cards anyway (these score you points depending on which combinations of provinces you end up possessing). In fact I never drew a single one throughout the game, which is pretty unusual.
In the end I scored for having seven pyramids (7 VP), two triplets (3 VP each for 6 total), most pyramids in the West (5 VP) and most money (6 VP) for 24 points for the half and 36 total. Ilan came in first with 41 points and Mark was just ahead of me with 37. When I tried to see Matt's score he flicked his piece off the board and told me to go to hell.
Ilan was careful to point out that I was the one who granted him the win, because I chose not to block him from tying me for most pyramids in the West, but the reality was that had I done so Mark would have instead come in first and I would still have finished in third. Also, at the time I felt that there was a chance that Ilan would not be able to tie me even if he had wanted to, as I thought he had less money than he really did.
Regardless, I felt that I had at least passably acquitted myself considering that I was tired, I was rushing a little, and I never got any VP-scoring power cards.
I would also like to point out that Ilan made a lot of terrible puns based on the names of the Egyptian provinces. If there were any justice in this world he would have taken penalty points for each one and I would have at least come in second.