Earlier in the year I had mentioned my obsession with getting my "unplayed" list down to zero games—that is, to be able to say that I've played all the games in my collection—but I forgot to memorialize the reaching of this lofty goal here on the 'blog; I played Die Sieben Weisen with the Wilton gaming group on June 30th and I played Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde with Keith Corbino, David Molnar and David Molnar's daughter at Alternate Boardgames in Milford on July 11th. These games had been stubbornly sitting on the shelf since October 2006 and November 2003, respectively.
The question now is how many of the games in my collection have I only played once? Well, that would be about twenty, but let's not dwell on that. Yes, I think that would be for the best.
Because of one thing and another I was able to go out gaming three nights last week, and I ended up playing a lot of great stuff with a lot of great people. Tuesday I played my favorite game, Taj Mahal, with Matt, his wife Andrea, and their friends Josh and Donna. I should really up write something about this game here on the blog sometime, but I can give a short description for those who have never played before. At its heart it's a card game; there are cards which show one or two of the six different symbols, and on his turn a player must either play one or two cards or else drop out of the round. When the player drops out he will check to see if he has played more of any of the various symbols than any of the other players who are still in the round; if so, he will take the reward associated with that symbol. During a round a player may play as many cards as he wishes, but he will only be able to draw one or two new cards at the end of the round (three if he stays out entirely), so it is important to pick one's battles very carefully.
Where the game gets interesting are the rewards themselves, for they allow for a lot of strategic thought. For example, five of the six symbols will allow a player to put a palace down on the map, and if the player is able to create a chain of palaces across the board this will add up to a large number of points. There are also special cards that a player can win which will give them an advantage during the card play.
Taken all together Taj Mahal has an excellent mix of tense, in-your-face brinkmanship-type card play with a lot of scope for formulating and executing long-term strategies. A good Taj Mahal player must be able to look far ahead and make plans for future rounds, but he must also be able to keep a cool head during the card play and know when to back away from a fight.
I guess my skills were a little rusty on Tuesday night, because Matt killed us, with me and Donna tied for a distant second place (though if I had given a little more thought to the final round I probably could have squeaked past her). Regardless, it was a good time, and even casual-gamer Andrea really enjoyed herself.
Saturday Night was Sausage Festival II: Electric Boogaloo at my friend Eric's, also attended by game fanatic Mark Casiglio. We had bratwurst, knackwurst and weisswurst from Karl Ehmer. The winner: bratwurst! I vote that the next sausage festival be a bratwurst festival. Or maybe brats 'n' kielbasa? On a side note, it warms my heart that there is a Wikipedia page devoted to the sausage races at Miller Park, including the current standings (hot dog 17, Italian sausage 13, bratwurst 10, chorizo 9, kielbasa 6).
After eating lots of sauerkraut and pitching back a beer or two, we were ready to get down to business. First on the table was The Scrambled States of America, a cute little game won by Eric's daughter. Way to go, Simone! Afterwards we sunk our teeth into a game Mark brought, Stone Age. which among other things features a "birthing hut" to which you can send two of your little paleolithic pawns and get three back afterwards. We enjoyed arranging the meeples into antediluvian erotic tableaux, and some of the birthing hut encounters were quite complicated indeed, adding a dexterity element to the proceedings which livened up the game immensely. In the end Chris waled the tar out of us, in fact almost lapping her poor confused husband, who perhaps was a bit logy from digesting his knackwurst & pilsner.
Sunday night a return to the Milford weekly game group was mandatory, as in attendance was my old friend Martin. Martin is a Very Special Person and gaming with him is always a treat. Sometimes during a game he will set forth a long, detailed argument as to why I should surrender all my pieces to him, quit the game and go stand in the hallway facing the wall. Other times I might suddenly discover that he has been giving me the finger while I wasn't looking, and this for some unknown amount of time, perhaps hours, perhaps even since he first got out of the car. Almost assuredly at some low moment of bad luck or poor decision-making I will get to hear a heartfelt rendition of REM's "Everybody Hurts," a joke that has been repeated so many times that it has become a form of psychological torture. And yet I relish this cheerful sadism, because...well, actually I'm not sure why. I guess it's for the same reason that people like horseradish and tequila: it just makes you look tougher if you can stand it.
There were nine or ten people at Joe's, and most of the group sat down to a marathon game of Battlestar Galactica, during the entirety of which we could hear Dan insisting vehemently that he was not a cylon while all along actually secretly he was. Left to our own devices were me, Martin, the pleasant & charming Melissa, and Eric Summerer, voice actor and noted bon vivant & raconteur. We started off with a game of Dominion, which was followed by a game of Dominion, after which we enjoyed a game of Dominion. The first game was played with the "Hand Madness" deck as specified in the Intrigue expansion. Everyone thought that I had won, but it turned out that Eric scooched past me. For our second game we drew the setup out at random; if I remember correctly, on the table were the Shantytown, the Bridge, the Courtyard, the Noble, the Pawn, the Festival, and the Wishing Well, as well as two other cards I'm forgetting. I won this one, mostly by virtue of ignoring the cards. One of the players somehow straggled in with only seven points, and for those who don't know I have to mention that you start the game with three points already in your hand. We considered this to be a noteworthy accomplishment in itself, but I vowed to respect this player's privacy and keep her identity secret (though as a clue I will say that she has long dark hair and does not live in Milwaukee).
We did another random setup for our third and final game, and this turned out to be one of the most cruel and hurtful Dominion setups ever seen or heard of. Among the cards were the Throne Room, the Militia, the Torturer, the Thief, the Mine, the Library, the Duke, and the Secret Chamber. Were it not for the Secret Chamber we probably would have all gone broke after the first three rounds. Martin's favorite trick was to Throne Room the Torturer—in other words, to make players discard two cards twice in a row—and more than once I found myself with only one card left in my hand when it got to my turn. Luckily, more than once that remaining card was the Library. It was tough for people to put together 8 gold at a time, so dukes & duchies became quite popular. The game lasted a relatively long time, in the same way that an Olympic sprinting match would take a while if the contestants could throw rocks at each other while they were running. At the end Eric announced that he had tied me, then counted his points again and realized that he'd won. Typical.
I must confess that I've warmed up to Dominion quite a bit, and I enjoyed our three games. It's not the type of game that I typically like, because ordinarily I prefer games where players are a bit more involved with each other, but it turns out the game is quite entertaining, and it also scores points by virtue of the fact that pretty much every gamer likes it and knows the rules. Also, I happen to be fairly good at it.
Even so, we couldn't just play Dominion all night long, so I suggested a nice friendly game of Ra, another one of my all-time favorites. Ra is an auction game in which the lot up for auction starts out small and is added to turn by turn until someone caves in and starts the bidding. Instead of money, however, the players have a limited number of ranked bidding chips, each of which can only be used once in a round. There is also an unpredictable timing mechanism, and if they're not careful the round can end before players have had a chance to spend all their bidding chips.
The setting of the game is ancient Egypt, and there are lots of different things that players can win at auction: monuments, pharaohs (i.e., political power), farms along the Nile, gold, technology, et cetera. Each of these items scores a little differently, and like Taj Mahal the game rewards players who are able to successfully concentrate their efforts in one particular era. By the end of the game I was able to put together a respectable collection of monuments, and I had scored some other points along the way via pharaohs and Nile farming, but Martin ended up winning the game by a healthy margin. The audacity!
Afterwards I suggested that Melissa pick the last game of the night, since Eric had picked Dominion, I'd picked Ra, and Martin didn't want to be bothered. She pulled out Taluva, a game with neat-looking terraced tiles and wee little huts and temples and such. It first appeared to be about building a tropical island paradise, but then she explained the rules about how we get to destroy each other's villages with exploding volcanoes. The game ended up being a vicious free-for-all in which many hapless islanders were immolated in lava, and we all took a savage glee in beating down anyone who had the temerity to try to expand their empire beyond one miserable hut. Towards the end I made a cruel but much-admired move in which I cut Melissa off from a tower opportunity with a long chain of huts, but it turned out that the move was less clever than I thought because while I was blocking Mel from getting her first tower I failed to block Eric from getting his second, and he won the game. To congratulate him on his victory we found a real lava pit and threw him in, which was also bad for Martin because Eric was his ride.
Thanks to everyone for a great week of gaming!