Thursday, June 5, 2008

Forty-Four No More (Wilton Gaming #5)

I had another enjoyable night's gaming at Matt L's Tuesday night group. Present were Matt and his wife Andrea, Mark Delano, Alan Stern and Josh.

We started off with a six-player game of Liar's Dice. Each player has a cup of five dice which they roll in secret. The dice are special in that instead of ones they have a star, and the stars are wild. Players then take turns guessing at what is under all the cups, for example "five fours" or "six sixes." Each guess must be higher than the last, either in terms of the pips ("five fives" is higher than "five fours") or the dice ("six twos" is higher than "five sixes"). Players can also make a guess as to the number of stars, though these guesses follow slightly different rules which aren't worth going into here. Instead of making a guess, however, a player can call the last guess, and all players reveal their dice. If the guess was correct, the caller loses one or more of his own dice; if the guess was incorrect, the player who made that guess loses dice. The last person left with dice is the winner.

There were a lot of laughs involved as the predictions would get more and more outlandish until finally someone would call and everyone would get to see how far off they were. Josh and Alan were the first two to get knocked out, followed by Matt and then Andrea (the latter bamboozled by my uncanny ability to roll twos), leaving just Mark Delano and I. We rolled. I had a six. Mark's prediction was "one three." I knew I had him beat. "One six," I said. He countered with "one star." Bullshit! I called. He showed a star. He had faked me out. Crap!

At that point we split into two groups. Josh, Matt and Mark played Glory to Rome and Alan, Andrea and I played Palazzo.

Andrea proved to be a Palazzo whiz once again. She ended the game with three palazzos of four stories, two of which were all made of one building material; I think she had an additional three-story building as well. I also had three palazzos of four stories, but only one of mine was so aesthetically pleasing, and so I had three bonus points less than Andrea. She had also snagged more valuable tiles in general (more doors and windows). Alan had put together an impressive five-story palazzo all made of sandstone for twelve bonus points, but I think his other two buildings may have only been three stories each. Andrea finished with forty-four points; I think my score was somewhere around thirty-six. I can't recall Alan's score or whether he finished second or last.

Palazzo is an interesting game that gives the players lots to think about, but one thing I've noticed is that it's rather a chore to teach. Everything is quite involved; there are three currencies plus wild combos, the tiles come out onto the table in a relatively complex way, every auction starts at three, there's a variable game end, there's a special case rule for when there are four or more tiles in a quarry, et cetera. Certainly it's no Squad Leader, but even so it's a bit too complicated considering it's just a forty-five minute game with a fair amount of luck involved.

I don't know the full story behind the game, but I suspect that the publisher/developer, "Alea," may have had a hand in the over-involved rules, as the creator of the game—the great Reiner Knizia—usually designs very elegant and streamlined games. The publisher,* on the other hand, definitely tends towards convoluted rule sets; for example, they have one particular game which I really enjoy but which I have all but given up on because I cringe at the thought of having to go through the rules again. However, when they do manage to keep things from getting too byzantine, they put out some fantastic stuff; I own twelve of their twenty games and three of those are among my absolute favorites.

The longer I've been in the hobby, the more I've come to appreciate games that get a lot of interesting play out of simple rule sets. This is partly because of the fact that I play a huge variety of games with a huge variety of people, and so almost every game is a learning game for someone. Being able to just sit down and play without a rules explanation is very rare.

The other table had not yet finished their game of Glory to Rome, so I enticed Alan and Andrea into a game of Great Wall of China, also designed by Reiner Knizia. By contrast, Great Wall of China is an example of a game in which the weight of the rulebook is in sync with how long and luck-heavy the game is; if anything, I'd say the game is ahead of the curve in that it packs rather a lot of gameplay into a relatively few rules.

Even so, the game play is a little tricky to explain succinctly, but I'll give it a shot. Before the players on the table are pairs of randomly-drawn victory tokens ranging in value between 1 and 8. Meanwhile, players each have decks of influence cards, some of which are merely numbered and others of which also have special powers. On their turn players have two actions, and for each action their choice is to either draw a card from their deck into their hand or to play a card or multiple matching cards next to one of the pairs of victory tokens. When a player begins his turn with a sole majority of influence against any pair, he claims one of the tokens and puts it on his cards; this acts negatively towards his total; the remaining token is up for grabs in the same way, and when the second token is claimed the tokens are taken by those who have claimed them, the cards are cleared, and two new tokens are put in their place.

There are two interesting things going on here. The first is that players must continually make the choice between drawing and playing cards; unlike other card games, you don't get to draw cards on your turn for free! The other is that you can play multiples of a particular type of card in one action; this means that the bigger your hand is, the more power you have. The catch is that if you spend too much time drawing cards your opponents may be able to win tokens cheaply.

In our game Alan and I ended up tussling with each other like two dogs over a bone and Andrea was able to scoop up lots of points with little hassle from the boys. She won the game, once again with forty-four points. What the hell? I finished with a respectable forty-one, and Alan ended the game with twenty-five.

Everyone enjoyed the game, I think. We were all constantly butting heads with each other and there were plenty of big plays and "gotcha" moments, all of which translate to fun gameplay. I'm keen to try it again soon to see how much depth there is to it. I imagine that a player could do well by paying attention to how many cards his opponents have and which ones they had played, and also by keeping note of how many fronts his opponents are fighting on and how overextended they are, but on the other hand a vindictive opponent and the usual unpredictability of card draws could conceivably undercut any amount of brainwork.

We'll see.


* Co-publisher, I should probably say, since the publisher in the U.S. is Rio Grande Games. In this case, however, I think that most of the actual work on the game is done by Alea, whereas Rio Grande merely translates the rules and prints the English edition.

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