Thursday, August 28, 2008

Old Favorites

Last weekend I drove over to Milford to attend the weekly meeting of the "Sunday Night Gamers," a group which has been around for six or seven years. The host has a collection of about one hundred and eighty board and card games, and attendance will range anywhere from five to twelve people, with eight being the average.

In order to avoid a lot of discussion and waffling, the host has a "pick list" which rotates through the various members of the group. If your name is next up on the list on game night, you get to pick the next game to be played (or one of the games, as there are almost always two tables in use). If your name comes up and you're absent, you miss your pick and you have to wait until the next time your name rolls around. This system might sound a little harsh and arbitrary to some, but it suits the group and it keeps things moving quickly.

The first two choices were Imperial and El Grande, and I chose to sit in on the latter. I have a soft spot in my heart for El Grande because it was one of the first games that I bought when I started to get re-interested in gaming in the late '90s. My opponents were Keith C., Megan, Al Shapiro and Mark Casiglio. It was Megan's first time playing, and Mark informed us that "the next time I don't come in last in El Grande will be the first time I don't come in last in El Grande." Kind people that we are, we arranged for him to extend his coming-in-last streak one more game.

The central mechanism of the game is what is called "area influence" or "area majority," which means that players are placing tokens down onto the various regions of a map and scoring points in the areas in which they have the majority of tokens. How they go about doing this is actually somewhat complicated, though, and in addition to putting down tokens on each turn they also get to interfere with the state of the board in some small or large way: potentially they can move other people's tokens around, or change the amount that a region scores, or score a region an extra time, et cetera. It's a fun and engaging game which keeps the players' brains spinning and their teeth grinding. The only catch is that you can unexpectedly find yourself hoisted by the drawers and left hanging on a flag pole, metaphorically speaking, so it helps to have somewhat thick skin.

I was in the lead after the first scoring, but this was not to last. Al advanced ahead of me, and then Keith, and ultimately even Megan sashayed past me on the scoring track. After the second scoring Keith had a strong lead, which was particularly notable because he had gotten beaten up pretty badly in the early game, but Megan and Al both had good board position. As we moved into round eight I began to see that I was hopelessly out of the running.

In the end, Megan, who had never played before, won it by a point. I forget whether it was Al or Keith who came in second, but the other person was only a few points behind those two. Their scores were somewhere in the neighborhood of 110. Mine was more like 95. Megan said that this was the first game she had ever won at the Sunday Night Gamers, but none of the rest of us believed it.

Had I played a poor game? I don't know...I think it was more of a case of the three leaders playing a very good one. More than once I felt moved to compliment Al on a crafty move. Even so, I know that I didn't put enough tokens on the board and didn't spread out enough; in one case I had six tokens in a region that was only earning me a point. Regardless, I felt extremely disappointed by my fourth-place finish. I had expected to fare a lot better, especially considering that I had probably played the game more times than anyone else at the table except Al.

Mark and Al left at this point, and the next two games were Entdecker and Amun-Re. I had always wanted to try Entdecker, but I was feeling a little tired and I thought I would stick to a game which I was already familiar with. My opponents were Keith C., Megan, Josh Young, and Chris B. Everyone had played before, though Megan needed a rules refresher.

Amun-Re is another favorite of mine, particularly because it is one of the few games that I am actually good at; I don't know if my win-loss average is that astonishing, but I am usually at least a strong contender.

The game is set in ancient Egypt, and the map is divided into fifteen regions. Every region is different, and each one can be useful in particular situations. A region near the Nile might have a lot of farmland, whereas another region might contain extra resources or VP-scoring temples. The game is divided into two kingdoms, the old and the new, and each kingdom has three rounds. Each round a number of regions is auctioned off to the players, so that at the end of the bidding every player will have one new region. Players then buy farmers to till the land and pyramids to celebrate their own personal gloriousness. At the end of the round players will sacrifice money to the great god Amon-Ra. If the total sacrifice is large, then the Nile will rise and players will earn lots of money per farmer. If players are stingy (and they can even steal from the sacrifice, the infidels), then the harvest will be poor. In this case, however, the players who invested in provinces with trade connections will earn extra money.

After three rounds the Old Kingdom ends and civilization abruptly collapses. The players lose their territories, all the farmers come off the board, and the cycle repeats. The interesting wrinkle of the New Kingdom is that now there are also pyramids on the board, and this changes what the various provinces might be worth.

Anyway, I will cut a long post short and just say that I won the game by a nice, healthy margin—my finishing score was thirty-nine, and the next highest score (Josh's) was perhaps ten points behind me. I scored no power cards in the New Kingdom, but I was able to snag all four temples, and some generous sacrificing in the final round made these worth a total of twelve points.

I had to leave at this point, and I still got home rather a bit on the late side. I keep telling myself that next time I'm only going to stay for the first game, but I never stick to that promise....

In the spirit of completeness I should mention that I also played a short game of catch with Rand the dog. Does anyone know how to log that on BGG?

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