Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Zero Unplayed, and A Good Week's Gaming

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!

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.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Municipium is a relatively new game, published last fall by the Canadian company Valley Games and invented by my favorite game designer, Dr. Reiner Knizia. It accommodates between two and four people and it takes between forty-five and seventy-five minutes to play, depending on the number of players and how quickly they take their turns. Within the game there is a blend of luck and skill; a crafty and experienced player will have an edge against newbies, but newbies will have a shot at winning nonetheless.

The setting of the game is an unnamed town on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, circa 200 AD. Each player controls a family of pawns who are angling for wealth and prestige within the town, and they do this by gaining the support of the four spheres of society: the military, the merchants, the priests, and the advocates (sort of a cross between a lawyer and a congressman). In terms of game mechanisms this support is represented by the players collecting citizen tokens in four different colors. The catch is that players must gain support in all four spheres equally; when a player acquires a full set of tokens—one in each color—these are exchanged for a victory token. The first player to earn five victory tokens wins the game.

The citizens are to be found in the seven institutions that are depicted on the board. The soldiers hang out at the tavern and the praetorium (i.e., the barracks), the merchants at the baths and the emporium (i.e., the shopping center), the advocates at the forum and the basilica (i.e., the courthouse), and the priests in the temple. Players collect citizens by moving their seven pawns around the map in the hopes of having the majority of pawns in a particular institution when it comes time to distribute the citizens in that institution. By "majority," I mean, of course, more pawns than any other player.

Players' turns are extremely simple; they can make two moves with their pawns along the roads on the map, and then they must turn over a card from a common deck; that card will dictate how the turn ends and whether or not any citizen tokens will be distributed. In some cases the players will be instructed to each draw one citizen token from the bag and place it in a corresponding institution; for example, a merchant may be placed in either the baths or the emporium. The exception is the priest, who can be placed anywhere. If an institution accumulates three citizens, these are then distributed, with two going to the player with the majority of pawns in the institution and the remaining one going to the player in second place.

Another possibility at the end of the turn is the movement of yet another pawn, the praefect, who is the head honcho of the Municipium. The praefect moves around the board in a clockwise direction, stopping at every institution except the temple. Whenever he moves to a new institution, he grants a favor to the player with the most influence in that institution, the favor being a little chit that the player can use as a "wild" citizen when exchanging a set of four citizen tokens for a victory token. In games with more than two players, the person with the second-most influence will get a consolation prize of one citizen token.

The third possibility at the end of the turn is that players will be able to use the institutions' "special powers." Each institution has its own special power which is available to the player with the most influence in that institution whenever a "one power" or "all powers" card is turned over. I won't go into these in detail, but suffice it to say that they are all advantageous and add a nice degree of strategy and interest to the game. Perhaps most significant is the special power of the temple, because influence in the temple is method by which ties are broken when determining majority elsewhere on the board.

There is one last element to the game that needs to be mentioned, which is that each player has three single-use "family cards." Instead of turning over a random card from the common deck, the players can use one of their family cards to end the turn. These are all extremely useful: one card allows the player to either move the praefect or rearrange all his pawns, one allows the player to draw four citizen tokens from the bag and place them in institutions, and the third allows the player to use the special powers of all the institutions where he or she has the majority.

Now, in the interest of not wearing out the reader I have left out a lot of small details from the above description of the game play, but by and large I think I've provided a good overview if how the game works: players move their pawns around the board and try to have the majority of pawns in various institutions to take advantage of the various possible outcomes of the card flip, whether it be a move of the praefect, the addition of more citizens to the board, or the use of the institutions' special powers. As the game progresses and the situation evolves, some institutions will become more important than others to a player, and with the help of their three family cards players can cook up some rather involved strategies to try to get their fifth victory token and win the game.

The overall feel of the game is an interesting one. A player's turn is very simple—make two pawn moves, then flip or play a card—but at times the decisions can be tricky. What are my short-term and long-term priorities? Will my rivals be able to easily undermine my position on their turns? Is now a good time to use my family cards, or should I save them for later? However, the decisions are not so difficult that the turns drag on and on, and moreover players often have choices to make during other players' turns, so things never get dull, even with players who are on the slow side.

Municipium has gotten a mixed reaction from the people to whom I have introduced it. My first two playings of the game were with crusty, hardcore gamer types, and the response was lukewarm at best; in particular they felt that the game was too luck-heavy, as both games ended with several players poised to win and the victory going ot the person who first turned over the common card most favorable to his particular situation. In the third game, however, one of the players did something rather clever, which was that he saved his "all powers" family card for a winning coup de grâce. This changed my perception of the game, and I began advising new players of the usefulness of the family cards at endgame; thereafter all the games had very tense finishes, with the players in contention having elaborate plans hinging on their remaining family cards. The players in these games enjoyed themselves more and said that they would be willing to play again in the future.

I myself wasn't quite sure what to make of the game at first; there was something a bit odd and unintuitive about it all, perhaps because it breaks the familiar mode of players reacting to a random event (for example, a card draw or a die roll) and instead puts the random event after the player makes his move. However, as I've played it more and more I've come to really enjoy it and have found it very entertaining. I've gotten it to the table seven times now, one of those a two-player game, four three-player games and two four-player games. It works very well with all the numbers in the range, though of course a player will have a lot less control over the board in a four-player game than in a two-player game. It struck me that the two-player game was actually a very good way to introduce it to new players, since the newbie will feel more in control, and also since it removes the one confusing element, namely that of the winning of citizen tokens from both the institutions and the praefect movement.

For those who are familiar with the game and who are interested in learning a little strategy, here is what I've gleaned so far:

The Citizen Invitations card. This card can precipitate a windfall if executed at the right moment–eight citizen tokens, conceivably—and so a major priority in the mid-game is to watch for a time when there are a lot of tokens on the board and then to try to get one majority in each color and play the Citizen Invitations card. Ideally this will coincide with a moment when you have...

Temple Majority. The temple ranking (and thus the tiebreaker ranking) is extremely important. Typically the common card deck will be run through twice, which means that the All Powers card will appear twice and so the temple ranking will change twice at the very least—more if the player currently with the majority uses the temple power via a One Power or My Powers card. If you are on the bottom rung of the ladder, one of your highest priorities should be readying yourself to improve your position when the time comes. The baths can be very helpful in this respect. Ideally you should get yourself on the top rung at least once, and once you have made it to the top it is then important to move some of those pawns out of the temple and take advantage of the situation. More than once I've seen a player hole up his men in the temple to try to guard his ranking, resulting in fewer pieces everywhere else and so no real advantage.

The My Powers card. As said above, it is a good idea to save the My Powers card for the end of the game. In the early and mid-game you have the luxury of being flexible, whereas towards the end you will need to outmaneuver your competition for a specific reward. Also, because it is so powerful, the My Powers card allows you to lunge at the finish line from farther back, thus potentially taking your enemies by surprise; using the card to take the lead mid-game might only serve to make you a target for citizen-theft via the forum.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Various & Sundry

I apologize for the absence of new material here on this blog in recent months. Part of that is having been caught up in the holidays, thought part of it is also not having played anything that has inspired me to write. Actually, that's not quite true; I did write a comical fictionalization of my one play of Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game (found here), but that seemed a better fit as a boardgamegeek session report than as a blog post.

I had high hopes for one particular new release, namely Municipium, designed by Reiner Knizia and published by Valley Games, but I've only played it twice and I'm not sure I have anything coherent to say about it yet. Sadly, I don't how quickly it's going to get to the table again, because it got a lukewarm reaction from the people to whom I introduced it. Specifically they felt that there was too much luck in the endgame—in both games several players were one step away from the win and the game was decided by who turned over the right common card for their situation. I'm not convinced that this is something that is necessarily going to happen every game, however. Moreover, I'm wondering whether it had anything to do with the fact that both games had four players; in both games the twelve-card common deck was reshuffled right before the end of the game, whereas it seems that three players would finish their game before the common deck was reshuffled. This would mean that players would have a better idea of what was left in the deck and could plan for it, thus reducing the feeling that the outcome was dictated by blind luck.

I should probably make an all-out effort to get the game to the table again so I can write something up about it, but there is another goal/obsession which tempts me even more, so much so that I am willing to set aside a brand-new Knizia game so that I can pursue it. What it is is that I am finally within striking distance of getting rid of my much-hated "unplayed" list, which is to say that I am only two games away from having played every game in my collection. The first offending title is Die Sieben Weisen—German for "The Seven Magi," I think—which is a partnership card game about dueling wizards. I bought this a little over two years ago when I was collecting Alea games; at that time I already owned at least two Alea games that I had never played, but it was an out-of-print title that I found for a reasonable price, so I snapped it up. The other hold-out is Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, another partnership card game which I am embarrassed to say I bought five years ago and which I still haven't played.

Speaking of card games, I might as well throw out a mention of the one game I've enjoyed the most lately, which is Die Sieben Siegel, or "The Seven Seals." This is a trick-taking game similar to "spades" in which players try to predict what tricks they will take, though instead of receiving victory points for correct guesses they receive penalty points for incorrect guesses. Additionally, one player per hand gets to be the "saboteur"; this player does not have to make a prediction, but rather starts the round with four penalty points and is allowed to reduce that total by one for each extra trick that another player takes. The idea is that you try to avoid taking tricks that you ordinarily "ought" to take—for example, by holding back high cards—so that your opponents take tricks that they didn't expect to.

The game is one for veteran trick-takers only, I think, because tyros will be content to simply fulfill their predictions, whereas what the game is really about is screwing up your opponents, even if you're not the saboteur. There is a delightful nastiness to the game, delightful because it's not arbitrary—you can't necessarily stick it to a particular player just because you feel like it, but all sorts of opportunities arise where you can throw metaphorical cream pies in your opponents' faces.

Perhaps most importantly, I like Die Sieben Siegel because I'm kind of good at it.

The one criticism of the game that I've heard is that the saboteur has it too easy; the maximum number of points that the saboteur can take is only four, whereas otherwise a really unlucky player could conceivably take many more. I think this is a valid criticism, but the issue doesn't bother me. I don't automatically take the saboteur just because I can, because unless I have a hand that's well-suited for the role (which is to say a hand that has high cards and which has a disproportionate number of cards in one or two suits), I find it more fun and interesting to be a regular player.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bohnanza: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

In 1999 or so, back when I had just started to get interested in gaming again, I bought a funny little German card game called Bohnanza. The title is a pun on the English word bonanza and the German word for bean, which is bohn. In the game players must plant and harvest beans for cash, though in order to do this with any degree of success the players will have to trade beans with each other, as there are a limited number of fields and larger plantings lead to bigger profits.

The game was a huge success with my family and friends, and we played it fairly regularly for a year or two. The fact that all the little bean names were in German only added to the charm, and words like rote bohn and brechbohn quickly entered our everyday vocabulary. Eventually we moved on to different things, but the game continued to gain a wider audience and in the U.S. and ultimately an English version was published by Rio Grande Games in 2000.

There were two significant differences between the two editions, however: the Rio Grande edition had incorporated part of the first German expansion into the base game, adding between twenty-six and forty-six cards to the deck depending on the number of players, and including variants for two, six and seven players.

In the past few years I've played the six-player version of the game twice, and I found it to be a bit of a chore. With that many people haggling for trades, progress slowed down to a creep, and what was once a fun little half-hour game became an hour-long slog. I decided that the decision to expand the game to more players was a mistake, but I didn't have anything against the U.S. version otherwise.

However, just this past weekend I played the U.S. version with four players, and I discovered that even when playing with a smaller group at the table the Rio Grande rules compared poorly with the German version. There were twenty-six extra cards in the deck, increasing its size by 25%, and increasing the length of a game by a bit more than that because players go through the deck three times. You might think that if Bohnanza is fun to play it can only be a good thing to increase the length of the game, but somehow the math doesn't work. It might have to do with how the game develops; after a certain point you're simply doing the same things repeatedly, and deferring the conclusion makes things seem draggy. In general, no matter how fun a game is, length has to be justified by depth or some kind of larger development or story arc. A game can have repetition, but some kind of finish line needs to be in sight, whether it be the end of a round or the end of the game, or the tension becomes watered down. There is a delicate balance that has to be struck, because if the game is too short it can feel like everything depended on the turn of one or two cards and that skill didn't enter into it. An example of this might be the Reiner Knizia card game Katzenjammer Blues. On the other hand, if the game goes on too long, the individual plays can feel insignificant. A good example of this would be the Alan Moon board game Wongar. So, it strikes me that it would be more fun to play two half-hour games of the old Bohnanza than one hour-long game of the new Bohnanza.

The point of all this is that if you are someone who owns the Rio Grande edition of the game and ever felt that something was lacking, you might want to try taking out the coffee, wax and cocoa beans and limiting the game to five players or fewer. Why? Because sometimes shorter is sweeter.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Witch's Brew

Most people are familiar with the game "rock-paper-scissors." Certainly it's not the most fascinating way to spend one's time, but it is a useful method for deciding something arbitrarily on the playground, like who gets to play first base or who has to sneak up and depants Jay Durham in front of the girls. Gamers call this "simultaneous action selection," and it's a mechanism that is often used to drive what happens in a game. It allows there to be uncertainty and surprise, but with a bit more player involvement than just the rolling of dice. Ideally, the various possible outcomes will be more interesting than the all-or-nothing nature of rock-paper-scissors, and ideally players will have different goals and motivations that must be deduced. If players can make educated guesses as to what the other people at the table want to have happen, there can also be a fun/agonizing element of second guessing: if so-and-so knows that I want to do X, shouldn't I surprise him by doing Y instead? But won't he know that I know that he knows that I want to do X, and so block that move instead? But in that case I could go ahead and do X with impunity! Or...or...or....

Many well-known board games have utilized this mechanism to good effect, including Adel Verpflichtet, originally published in Germany in 1990 and later published in English as By Hook or By Crook and Hoity Toity; Roborally, published in 1994; and the classic Diplomacy, published way back in 1959. Adel Verpflichtet is an interesting case because it is a relatively abstract game and yet there is a wide variety of possible outcomes depending on the choices that the players make; players can exhibit collections of Meerschaum pipes and advertising placards for points, they can try to steal objets d'art from other player's collections, they can set a detective to catch thieves, et cetera.

Last night at Matt L.'s Tuesday night game group I got to play a brand-new game which utilizes this mechanism, namely Witch's Brew, published by Rio Grande Games here in the U.S. In the game players are trying to brew up various sinister potions and vile tinctures to score points, and there are many different ways to accomplish this goal: there are bubbling cauldrons, eldritch incantations, and mysterious alchemical procedures. If all else fails, you can just beg and steal.

What's interesting about Witch's Brew is that instead of players revealing their choices simultaneously, there is a turn order element. Players each have identical hands of twelve role cards, and each round they choose five of these that they are going to play. The player who "leads" will lay down one of the role cards, which might say something like "I am the alchemist!" Going around the table, any other player who has the alchemist card in their hand can say "no, I am the alchemist"—and, at their discretion, some epithet like "punk" or "sucka." The last person to play the alchemist card gets to take the role and all the other pretenders get bupkes... except every player with an alchemist card after the first has the option of playing conservatively and saying "so be it!" In this case they bow out of the fight and accept a lesser reward, but one which is still better than nothing. In these instances is it usually not appropriate to say "punk" or "sucka."

Mark, Donna, Alan and I played a four-player game, and we had a pretty good time with it. Early on Mark was a thorn in my side, always choosing the same cards as I did and one-upping me, but his luck soon changed and he found himself poorly prepared to perpetrate potions. Alan's performance, I regret to say, was somewhere between hapless and disastrous. It was like watching a freight train go off the rails, tumble down a hillside, crash into a molasses factory, continue on through a large, dirty hen house, and finally come to rest, steaming and defiled, in the middle of some Main Street just at the moment that a parade was scheduled to pass through. If you want you can pause in your reading and take a few moments to close your eyes and picture all that in detail. Don't forget to include a group of teenage girls dressed in majorette uniforms huddled in a group and saying "ewwwww" for maximum embarrassment.

My potion-brewing abilities, however, were simply astounding, dare I say breathtaking. Donna made a game attempt to outpace my juggernaut-like success, but I spanked her down as I would any impudent pup. Can you overmatch perfection? Can you defeat destiny? No, you cannot, Donna. Not even hardly.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I lucked into the win.

And, to be sure, there is a fair amount of luck involved in the game, though smartness and savvy play a part as well. Moreover, even if the game is not a pure strategic contest of wits, it makes up for this by providing a lot of opportunity for groaning and cheering and all other manner of carryings-on. In fact, afterwards the other table informed us that we were behaving very noisily. We blamed it all on Alan.

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?