Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dog Sleds, the French Revolution, Cheeky Monkies and Helping Your Neighbor

On Friday I went down to Milford for some games 'n' barbecue at the usually-accurately-named Sunday Night Gamers, and I ended up playing some great stuff. First on the table was a new title from Asmodée, Snow Tails. The game recreates the thrilling sport of dog sled racing, and the players must charge across the icy wastes as fast as they can without crashing their sled into the sidelines or each other. The racing is accomplished via a hand of cards, and these cards are played onto the two dogs and also the brakes; steering is accomplished by having differing values on the two dogs. The mechanism is quite interesting, though not so involved that the game drags while the players figure out their best possible move. To further ensure that things move along at a snappy pace there is a token of shame, the "big paws" chip, which is bestowed on whichever player is taking too long with his turn. It was an exciting race; I had a huge lead coming around the second hairpin turn, but I failed to block Eric Summerer on the straightaway and he scooched past me. Eric started rehearsing his victory speech but at the last moment Joe Lee snuck by him and took the gold medal or the bejeweled kibble or whatever it is you win in dog sled racing. I really enjoyed myself, and all in all I would say that Snow Tails is probably the best racing game I've played to date (TurfMaster coming in second, the also-rans being Formula Dé, Daytona 500, Rome: Circus Maximus and Formula Motor Racing).

After Snow Tails I got a chance to play a famous classic that I had long wanted to try—Sid Sackson's deduction game Sleuth, first published in 1967. A deck of gem cards is dealt out except for one card which is hidden back in the box; this gem has been "stolen" and it is up to the players to discover which one it is. The players do this by questioning each other about the gems in their hands and gradually they can figure out the missing one by process of elimination. The game was a real brain-burner, but I liked it. I'd love to try it again, though perhaps with fewer players; we had five, and keeping track of four other hands was a real mental workout. I think the game would be perfect with just four.

Third on the table was one of my old favorites, Liberté. I won't try to describe this game in any detail, as it is quite complex, but suffice it to say that the setting is the French Revolution. What is unusual about the game is that there is more than one path to victory; whoever has the most victory points at the end of four rounds will win, but the game can end early if there is either a radical landslide or a counterrevolution. In these cases, the victory points count for nothing and the winner is decided by who has the most radical influence (in the first case) or by who has the most loyalist influence (in the second). I ended up winning the game with a counterrevolution (abetted by Josh Y.), though I must admit that it felt a little too easy and anticlimactic. It might have happened because we had a couple of newbies at the table who didn't play aggressively to the counterrevolutionary provinces, but it might just be that the game is imbalanced and I'm only now realizing it. That's not to say that a counterrevolution is unstoppable, but if players are going to be significantly derailed from their own strategies to thwart it in every game, I consider that to be a problem.

Afterwards I drove back to my neck of the woods and visited my pal Eric P., who had been abandoned by wife and children and so was in need of some moral support in the form of gaming. I introduced him to one of my favorite two-player games, Scarab Lords, about which I wrote a long-winded review here. We played three times, and fortunately or unfortunately I beat him every time. Hopefully he'll be willing to play again.

Eric's family eventually returned, and after his wife Chrissy put the kids to bed she joined us at the game table. First up was Cheeky Monkey, a press-your-luck game by Dr. Reiner Knizia. Players are trying to collect chips for points; on his turn a player will pull chips from a bag one by one; he can quit pulling chips at any time, but if he draws two matching chips—there are ten types in varying amounts—everything goes back in the bag and his turn is over. If he quits while he's ahead, he adds the chips to his stack. Players sometimes also have the ability to steal the top chips from other players' stacks, so the stacking order is important, particularly because there are bonuses for having the most of each particular type of chip. The larger bonuses ended up being decisive, and it made me wonder if players need to be more aggressive about guarding collections of certain animals.

Last up was a game of Dominion. I won't say too much about this one because it's quite popular and most gamer-type folks are well aware of it. This was only my second play. Eric warned me that Chrissy was a shark, and sure enough she kicked our butts.

All in all it was a good amount of gaming for a weekend, but there was to be some unexpected gaming as well. On the following day, the fourth of July, we were enjoying a barbecue with our neighbors and I was talking with their son about the various outdoor games one can play—foxes and hounds, capture the flag, kick the can, et cetera. Naturally we didn't have enough people for those sorts of activities, and I said that I was sorry that I hadn't brought over one of my board games. "Well, I have some games," said the neighbor kid, "Monopoly, Lost Cities...."

"Wait, Lost Cities? Really?" Lost Cities is a Knizia game, and one that I don't have, though I've played it online. I was thrilled! I told him to bring it out, and we had a very entertaining game. However, I was a bit surprised towards the end when he started feeding me cards that he knew I needed. "I'm helping you out a little, here," he said. I told him that he was helping me out a bit too much, and he said "that's okay; I don't care about winning, I just want everyone to have a good time." I was really impressed with this display of sportsmanship, particularly because when we had played a game together previously he had seemed a bit crushed when he lost. Of course my gamer instincts had kicked in and it never even occurred to me to let the little fellow win. I didn't actually care about winning or losing, though; like my young friend, I was happy just to get to play.


ekted said...

The same thing happened in my last game of Liberté. I saw the RL coming during turn 4, but thought I could win it. I got distracted by the possibility that it might not happen, and lost red control by a huge margin. I blame my own laziness, not the design. :)

Thi N said...

Hey Joe - does Liberte still stand as one of your favoritest games ever?

-thi (a.k.a. rorschah from the old days)

Joe Gola said...

Hey, Thi! I miss seeing your comments around BGG.

Liberté is still a favorite, though I have to admit that the shine has been wearing off a little as I've played it more and more. It's a game that can be fun, but it's also a game that can be frustrating or anticlimactic. There are some games which are fun to learn and explore but which lose their punch after you're done with the learning curve, and it's possible that this is one of those games...