Gamer’s Notebook

March 2017

Well, it has been a while. I won’t go into details but I certainly did not expect to lose three years to illness, leave my ideal job, move to the South coast and then semi-retire. Well, quarto-retire. None of which is that relevant to the return of my interest in playing and designing games, and in writing about them.

I could spend the rest of this column commenting on what has changed and why. But in a way that is redundant. You know what has happened, and as we have been gaming at least once a week throughout the hiatus, so do I. As a quick summary: the hobby has grown to where I once hoped it would; and now that it has, I am not so sure that it was a good idea.

As a result of it becoming a bigger market, there has been some appreciable consolidation amongst the corporates. Some have become very powerful – my corner shop recently stocked some games and Asmodee bought them out within the week. Vertical integration.

The standard of design is, even with Kickstarter pulling down the average, improving and surprisingly high. We have a national magazine. We have apps. We have superfluous plastic figures beyond even my painting capacity. There are undoubtedly more new games than even the most devoted collectors can handle, and surely this must all slow. Price stickers are up to what one used to call silly money.

But for all that we are still in the age of evolution: very few games break the mould, and I have become strangely uncomfortable with incremental improvements. “It’s a legacy system driving off Sentinels with overlaid deckbuilding. The workers need healthcare and can do two jobs with the Night Shift expansion. Ohh.  Okay. Let’s play. The figures are nice.”

Some of you might have noticed this creeping dissatisfaction. Joe Gamer is tired of auctions, tableau solo, cube converters, co-ops, worker placement, engine builders, point salads, Feld inflicted pain and, of course, of deckbuilders. Well, at least the bad ones. As Martin Higham said recently, referencing the St. Trinian’s lines quote, ‘They have got a machine for doing worker placement games.’

Later, a friend pointed the finger at talented designers who started these heinous trends (Attia, Feld, Leacock, Lehmann, Vaccarino, Wallace etc) as being responsible for ruining Euro gaming as was. This seems silly. When these new ideas appeared, we were overjoyed. We gobbled them all up. Well, not Dominion, obviously. It is the passing of time, the familiarity and repetition from all the wannabee titles that kill the initial buzz. The finger points at Kickstarter’s volume, the indiscriminating but booming market, and journeymen designers; not the creative originators. German Games became Euro Games. Offshoots delivered Spreadsheet Designs, Hybrids, Fillers, Ameritrash and Splottism. Euro Games advanced, inexorably, to the post-modern. We await the next ludic movement so that we can moan churlishly about it in five year’s time.

Co-Op Auctions

First out of the traps is New Angeles. This one is unusual in requiring a minimum of four players to support the core deal making/auction system. Typically, we played with three and had little downside.

There is much to like here. The players are corporations trying to exist in, and exploit, a future metropolis. Agendas change, the city is volatile with rebellious elements, and in the vein of Galactica, there may be a corporate traitor. Broadly, you all work together to pass ‘laws’, deals or city ordnances, achieve joint goals on production and try to get the locals to do a day’s work. At the same time you are trying to fill your Swiss bank account. It would have felt an awful lot better set in Africa, with a Junta, Putsch or even District 9 vibe, but I am not a marketing man and I suppose that is ‘done’.

For all that, it is certainly different. It is also good fun and works well to a point. Like Android before it, in my mind one of the bravest attempts to move narrative gaming forward, New Angeles is almost there. Where it fails is that even in our three games I felt that the corporates were not balanced in ability and relevance. That asymmetry is acceptable, even desirable, in a game like this, but i felt at least one of the businesses was dull to play and disadvantaged. If you aren’t in the running and are making up the numbers, you at least want to enjoy yourself. This also speaks straight to the co-op designers out there and why, I suspect, some people just will not play them.

However, the key problem is also the core mechanism. The deal making is just not interesting, important or varied enough to be the joist supporting the game. And given that this is all that happens half a dozen times per round, that is not good enough. Ironically, given recent developments, it is not even as good a deal making game as Trump.  I was going to ask how this repetition got through development and playtesting, but my quota has expired. Cough. Emperor’s New Clothes. But still, New Angeles is a nice try and I will happily play again.

No Yellow Cake, Plenty of Oil

The best game of recent weeks has easily been Energy Empire. It sits within the Manhattan Project brand but has no real thematic links that I can see. Rather than the earlier filler card games, this is a fully fledged worker placement system that supports an interesting business/environment theme. I like environmental games, but they are so seldom done well. And if they are, they can be a bit dull. This one isn’t.

A brief diversion. I recently played Lorenzo. Quite good, clever concepts, but not a winner – it suffered a loss of personality before it arrived with me.  It does however have a similar idea and feel to Energy Empire; I am not sure which came first. Throughout Lorenzo you acquire action cards that can be re-used later on. The catch is that one of your workers must visit the relevant region on the board to trigger the cards held in the same colour. In Lorenzo you must also place at a numeric level at least as high as the card. In Energy Empire it is sufficient for the colour to match. This is neat. It does tend to force you to specialise in, say, green technologies which will give you a weakness in other areas. On the other hand, the chance to access all your cards every turn is a powerful temptation. Diversify or not? Some interesting choices result.

The worker placement is unusual, and delivers more decisions. You may place normally unless there is an existing occupant – yours or a rival’s. In this case you can still place but the ‘pile’ must be taller – height is boosted by energy counters, which are also useable for triggering those stored action cards. You can even overboost height to deter and even block following players, depending on the relative turn positions. Areas accordingly become congested and expensive, but as players reclaim their pieces at the end of their energy cycle (everyone is on different turn patterns with rewards for fewer actions) they free up. Clever.

Without going into too much detail, you are buying power plants, mining, playing the markets, investing in industry or eco projects, and crucially appeasing the UN, all the while trying to keep your pollution down. The most successful country, because that is your player level, wins. There is a point salad at the end, but it makes a lot of sense – that for me is the key difference in this approach. Games have been varied, tight and as with Terraforming Mars, people want to keep playing it. I don’t think it is as exciting as TM, but it is not half bad.

As on old time cynic, I can see some ragged edges. Card actions, prices and rewards are not quite there, the six global event cards can be brutal, and there seems to be no option to refuse the UN VP track – I have tried, believe me – so this becomes effectively compulsory and therefore could have been left out. Discuss! But the markets work, you can always accept a little fudging of numbers – for flavour if nothing else, and you always seem to have at least two tactical choices and more strategic. You are always in the mix, such is the forgiving nature and balance. It is undoubtedly very good, but on a hunch level I think something is missing. When I work it out, I will get right back to you. Meanwhile it has rapidly hit five plays – Modern Classic! – and I see no reason not to return. I would have been pleased to have designed this one and it wins the first Sumo of the year.

Jump Drive

Tom Lehmann is a naughty man. He entices you, with a sexy title, into his new game. But rather than an exciting space travel system, or another Starship Merchants, we are back in Race for the Galaxy territory which is nothing if not static. Granted this is the ASL Starter Set for Race, but Race it is. With bits lopped off.

Why the antagonism Siggins? Well, I may as well admit that I do not like Buy It With Cards mechanisms. I used to suffer in silence while people enjoyed San Juan. I mention my reservations every now and then, but all I get is suggestions that I am in some way odd; an outsider, or even a pariah. Harsh. Can I be the only one who does not want to look at every single card, decide its fate, and almost always throw out the wrong ones? One mechanism for a spin off filler is fine. But I see it too much.

Anyway. It is not too bad in Jump Drive. You tend to get a lot of cards each turn. Sometimes they can be rejected without interview. The game is also over quickly. So quickly that you have barely got going. Any slips, mistakes, or missed turns, and you will be on the losing team. Once ahead, you should probably win. Jump Drive is a bit like that but it is not a concern because you just play again.

Let’s say that the game runs six to eight turns. Twenty minutes. You shuffle and repeat. And again. It is impressive simply for its speed. I went and bought it the next day, which may have been a little hasty. It is not a game you are going to play a lot, but you will get it off the shelf in a year and enjoy it again. It fits with all the cool short German stuff you will get back to some day. When did you last play High Society?

In essence you add to your engine/tableau by playing one or two cards. These are planets and developments in time honoured Race fashion, and we have a downsized and intuitive way of playing and paying for them. Performance is quantified each turn in income – new card draws – and VPs. Players announce their VP earnings and this tells everyone precisely how you and your engine are doing. Groans happen here as you confront inadequacy. This continues until someone has passed fifty points, and we are done.

There is definitely a luck element and not a little chaos. You start your engine – I hesitate to say strategy – and this will almost certainly require most of your initial cards. Let’s say your first couple of plays are blue planets. Are you going to get any more blue, or blue multipliers? Or multiple multipliers (Yes!!)? Who knows. The counter measure is to up your income and make sure you see a lot of cards throughout the game to maximise your chances. If not you just wing it, or change tack. Given that you can sneeze and the game is over, this is not often possible. Then, as usual with the Race family, you choose whether to go for lots of builds or fewer high value cards.

What I immediately think about this game is that I can just dream of the app. It really is about testing lots of different engines and seeing how they perform, in much the same way that the program for Ingenious took it to another level. But until that happens I would happily buy expansions, unless they are of the ‘expansions that should have been in the box’ variety.

Overall? There’s not a lot to Jump Drive, but it’s sufficiently distant from the parent to be worthy of its own box and fan base. It is fun. It is engaging. It has nice combos. It is quick. Somewhat like The City but much better. One reviewer namechecked Friesematenten, a much underrated game, and I can easily see the similarity. But I do feel Jump Drive is low on interaction and essentially… light. At least I managed to learn all the icons quite easily! Recommended.

Arkham… Something

I will play anything Lovecraft. Even the bad stuff, once. I own real estate in Arkham and far beyond: Lovecraftesque, Call of Cthulhu and that wonderful effort that was Mythos. But age is upon me and the brand is… blurred. So blurred that I missed Eldritch Horror entirely for a year – now corrected. The main problem I have with the various FFG renditions is that I can’t tell my Elder Tomes from Mansions of Dread. I also avoid anything collectible or living, not just because of the cost, but because the games are poor. And it’s worse now that the lapsed copyright has given rise to Cthulhu games from every Joe in gaming. Cthulhu Munchkin. Cthulhu Fluxx. Okaaay. But Cthulhu Monopoly?

Into this branding mess comes Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Great things were promised; I found it a little disappointing and very pricey. So much so I have not bought a single expansion. Why? Partly the blurry stuff above. It strikes me as very similar in scale and feel to Mansions of Madness II, and that was one of my favourite games of last year. So why would I play this inferior, non app version instead? I suppose one can argue that you experience different characters, and can buy new cards, but it always seems to be Pegleg Pete, the feisty woman reporter, dynamite, a .45 and a dog. The scenarios are also… hackneyed. The main gripe is that they are still doing the clue schtick. It doesn’t work. It never did. It kills the mood because it is so obviously a fudge. With the designer hivemind of FFG, can they not come up with something better? Go on, brainstorm it.

And finally on Lovecraft, if you rotate the vowels (A-U) in Cathala, what do you get? Hiding in plain sight, in France. Who knew? Just sayin’.

Ares

I assume you noticed the glut of games about Mars last year. Matt Damon inspired? At our November con there seemed to be at least five games on the theme, with more coming. But I think we all know the one that works and has become a breakout hit: Terraforming Mars. It is so good I actually bought it after the first play, and that is a rarity these days. So why?  Apart from the fact that it can run a bit long, and some of the Take That cards could easily go, it seems in all respects a proper game. Well designed, thematic, challenging, and for at least the first five games or so a varied and interesting learning experience. Almost educational!

Much to my taste, there are very nice card combos linking to the fact there is real strategy here. And, importantly, time to see it unfold. When it does, it is very satisfying – not only have you had the play value but the theme shines through. How have they done this? Well, I am going to say it is an elegant, considered design. Nothing much between you and the game system, so transparent decision making. No clever mechanism as such, just clean functionality. But here is the trick: an absolute ton of work has gone into the cards, their effects, the theming, the mix, and their interactions. This is not just about playing a card that will double your production. It is about thinking how all your cards and production and the planet will work together, steadily grow your tableau, and get you over the finish line with some exotic combos.  I am very impressed. Oh, and if you were avoiding the leap, yes you need to do the variant draft. It is okay without but an excellent, if very slightly longer, game with it. Highly recommended.

Mike Siggins

Admin note. I am aiming for monthly or quicker columns plus odd short bursts. As soon as I can I will upload the most recent Notebooks, and then progressively the older reviews and Wargamer’s Notebook/Forward Observer. Late vintage Sumos are a massive and much overdue task but I hope to get them posted somehow, even as a PDF. Anything earlier (and there is an awful lot) lives happily in retirement on The Game Cabinet.

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8 thoughts on “Gamer’s Notebook

  1. I quite enjoyed reading through your thoughts here! I (mostly) agree, but am now lamenting even more my copy of Energy Empire sitting in shrink waiting for me. I spent the last couple weeks getting to dive into this year’s Splotter reprints so Energy Empire will just have to wait til i’ve had my fill of Indonesia 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish i was imbued with the same eloquence possessed by Mike,so that i could express how immensely i have enjoyed his reviews,and more to the point how they have been sorely missed.I regard Mike as the proverbial “giant” whose shoulders others must stand on to reach the heights he achieves in his analysis.Just saying……

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Firstly, Mike, great to see you back, and hope the health issues are behind you. The hobby is a better place when you’re writing.

    This post resonated with me. For the past six or seven years I feel like I’ve been swept along in an increasing torrent of new, average titles. During this time my weekly game group served up a platter or two or three new titles a week, which we rarely revisit, and they gradually became a blur. Nothing seemed new, or different, or really really good. I perhaps saw one great title a year. That Martin Higham comment is bang on.

    As a cleansing exercise about 12 months ago, I decided to re-visit/play my 40 odd Knizia titles, and write about them. The effect was startling. I loved it. This is where I want my gaming to be. Three pages of rules, and an hour of interesting, quality game play.

    So in the past 18 months I’ve pulled back. Don’t look at BGG so much. Don’t go to game shops. Don’t go to game night if new stuff is on the menu, because basically I don’t care for it anymore. The hobby has evolved past me, and that’s fine.

    But Terraforming Mars does look good. Luckily a friend will soon own it. I may turn up that night 🙂

    Again, GREAT to see you back.

    Like

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