Gamer’s Notebook

White Rock Games

Twice a year Mike Clifford and I run a minicon on the South Coast, and have done for about twenty years, more recently with Jenny Bradbury’s help. We always try to be right on the beach and this has taken us to venues in Bexhill, Eastbourne and now Hastings – at the White Rock Hotel, which overlooks the new pier. We have visitors from the USA, Holland, South Africa and even Wales, as well as local gamers. We play anything from dexterity games, through RPGs, Spreadsheet Games and Euros, to wargames. There is a Facebook group if interested in coming along.

Flat

I have just returned from the November, post Essen gathering. It was perhaps the most disappointing for some time. Perhaps ever. It is down to luck, or fate, and release schedules, but sometimes we hit a batch of duff games. This was compounded by a marked similarity between at least six of the titles I played. Not theme, though building cathedrals is still a thing, but just a sense of ‘seen it all before’. Games that have resource conversion. Games that are overlong. Games that have a giant rondel and precious little interaction. Games that are thematically stunted. Games that require you to feed your workers (arghhh!). Games designed by journeymen who need to get good in a hurry, or stop inflicting pain on gamers. Poor or bad games that make it to our tables purely because of Kickstarter and the booming market, not through development, testing, merit and selection.

But these days I like to spare you the ranting and negative comments whenever possible. No really, I do. You would be surprised at the number of games I simply do not mention. Accentuate the positive, and all that. But for those who wish to save five hundred quid, I suggest you avoid:

The Great City of Rome (seriously dull and seen so many times), Blackout: Hong Kong (interminable, repetitive and plain frustrating), Medioevo Universale (Developer! Stat! Serious case of Kitchen Sink Syndrome), Heroes of Air Sea and Land (disappointing old school stodge from the reliable Almes) and Monster Lands (anodyne, unengaging and dumb).

You will not go far wrong with:

1066 (see below), Architects of the West Kingdom (fresh twist on Pillars of the Earth), Promenade (see below), Underwater Cities (solid but way too long/samey for me), Teotihuacan (enjoyed but doubt will play again) and AuZtralia (Wallace on chaos pills. Good fun).

Promenade

I am breaking two rules here, such is the quality of the game. I do not promote Kickstarters and I very rarely play games that are pre-production, unless it is a professional contract. Lots of reasons, but hard learned lessons indicate it is the right approach for me. Also, either situation usually means neither you nor I can buy it tomorrow, or perhaps for a couple of years. So, consider this an exception, and thanks to Neil Walters for the chance to play a preview copy.

Promenade is an art dealing game designed by Ta-Te Wu, and should be published by Sunrise Tornado Game Studio at some point next year. The game thematically follows such luminaries as Modern Art, Vernissage and Masters Gallery. Art Shark has great art, but I worked on it, so no opinion. At a pinch I will include The Gallerist. I love art and as Mr Wu has done all the images for the game (impressionist school, no little talent), I was immediately engaged.

Promenade is a deckbuilder, a type of game I hardly ever enjoy. I happily play Trains and Tyrants of the Underdark, both saved by their map play, but most are actually quite irritating, even if they display theme attachment. Not this one.

You are an art dealer or perhaps collector who is playing the markets. As in Modern Art we are trying to establish which artists will be up and coming, building a portfolio to reflect this, making paper and real money, and trying to place key artworks in prestigious exhibitions. The game combines all these elements in a rather neat way, and not long after the start you feel as if you are really getting involved. You can easily see which art is in fashion, and why.

Paintings start with varying values, galleries are selling the art and will commission more, and the exhibition halls lay empty. But each exhibition has a curator and they know which type of painting and mixture they want to show: landscapes, abstracts, animals and so on. This demand is shown by coloured cubes in a similar fashion to Showbiz, but in this game the demand will not vary, just be partly satisfied.  When we have twelve pictures in all the exhibitions, the game is over. Your job then is to identify  suitable paintings, purchase them and hang them in a suitable exhibition. Or, you can just play the market. Because this is a deckbuilder, you will guess that you buy with money cards (upgrading to 5s is pretty much essential) but you can generate money from your growing art portfolio – also part of your deck.

The clever part is the price mechanism that means paintings in the various categories go up in value at different rates, depending which gallery is selling. Entry level prices change as well, and even your cash holdings move relative to the market. We know the whole price mechanism is a victory point gimmick, but it is fascinating (and essential) to watch the volumes of cash and sales, monitor which genre is driving the market, and which will in the future. We end up with the desired effect – your hand of cards increases in value over time, and you want more of the most valuable paintings, but the skill is in guessing which genre will be valuable and exhibited. Not easy.

The overall feel is quite light, and I doubt there are hidden depths, but there are decent strategies to explore. It plays quickly and elegantly, it is highly intuitive, and the most common desire is to know what you have in hand for total portfolio value. This can be established when you shuffle, but I think there is an element of memory game here. It is okay; it just adds to the hunches, speculation and investments that you are making.

I enjoyed Promenade greatly. The design is clever and engaging. Your turn never comes round quickly enough and there is a wonderful suspense as we calculate the game end holdings. And it plays in under an hour. I am very impressed and suggest you try or buy Promenade when it becomes available. Highly recommended.

1066: Tears to many Mothers

This new card game about the Battle of Hastings appeared bang on time and, indeed, location. We enjoyed two plays and the second game was very different from the first – I expect this will continue until such times as we file it on the shelf. So far there has been one win for each side. Reckon on 60 to 90 minutes per game.

The game is designed by Tristan Hall who did the interesting Gloom of Kilforth which we enjoyed, but which proved to have a few issues. 1066 plays with two players but also has a well developed solitaire system built into the cards. The artwork is gorgeous and production quality is excellent. 1066 is one of those games full of design ideas that make you think of new twists and mechanisms. I think even if you played it, and hated it, you would still get some design inspiration as a bare minimum.

The underlying problem for a reviewer is that it is difficult to conclude much after the early games. We use less than half our decks and different card sequencing or availability will make for a diverse outcome each time. The first game was super close, the second was a solid victory for Harold. You can see exactly where that result could have fallen apart, and the Normans would have been back in it. This uncertainty, which works well as a device, means that you don’t get very close to the historical situation. In fact, you probably never will. What the game offers is a believable series of events and a battle system that makes some sense.

So how does it work? Not your typical board/card wargame, that’s for sure. Not only are you going to fight the famous battle with all the units and characters that brings along, but you are also going to tackle the key elements – military, financial, godly and diplomatic – of the preceding campaign. This campaigning element occurs at the same time you are building your tactical forces, and uses most of the same cards. By way of time telescoping, the two elements are cleverly combined.

In short, units and commanders will start turning up from turn one. Their cards are placed on the map and are paid for either by tapping valuable and rare resources, or discarding cards. They line up in three wings or battels with three levels of depth. Positioning is important, and they can sometimes be rejigged, retired and replaced. Best of all you can deploy tactics cards that you will grow to love.

The base mechanism is the old Seyfarth/Lehmann device where you pay for deployment by discarding other cards from hand. I am not that keen on this, initially you do not know the value of cards, but it gets us through. You can sit there with a full hand of eight cards and want to keep all of them, but an expensive unit is demanding five discards. You know the trade offs from Jump Drive and Race. Whether it is better to churn the cards or preserve them, inevitably until you discard them anyway, is part of the strategic read of each game.

The game therefore raises an interesting design discussion point. The decks are large and event cards must be played from hand. Events are powerful and desirable, and often are clearly going to affect the final tactical battle. Picking up a time specific event means you have to hold it perhaps from the start until mid game, or the end, which bites into your hand size and willingness to spend the card as a resource. I know Martin Wallace has a store facility in A Few Acres of Snow where you form a side hand/sideboard and can retrieve them later. Magic had something similar. I think that would work here, but it is interesting that the designer has decided not to include it.

Meanwhile, on another quantum level and earlier in the year, Halley’s Comet appears. The Normans are still at home raising support, while Harold is up at Fulford. Each side has half a dozen strategic hurdles to jump before actually turning up at Senlac Hill for the tactical battle. These hurdles are dealt with by card play or using the forces already deployed at the battlefield – some quickly, some taking a while.  As well as the leaders, heavy infantry, cavalry and missile troops, we have nobles, financiers, monks, religious leaders and all sorts of flavoursome event cards. I know the overlay of time sounds weird, but it does hold together – there is a good narrative feel and probably more historical card references than even local historianss are aware of.

Importantly, one side will usually beat the other over the final hurdle and be ready at the Sussex battlefield, waiting pensively. At this point there is a feel of lost initiative and urgency for the player lagging behind, and we start the war of Zeal – a sort of morale based, low level combat. Eventually both sides are present and we start the battle proper with Zeal and Combat facing off to secure two of the three ‘wedges’ or wings – the centre and two flanks. Over a series of turns each wing fights the opposite forces, cavalry charges are made, The Fyrd can run off, and bluffs and terrain take effect. There are no dice but those carefully saved event cards will help your cause.

So just to recap, for clarity, you will get a different mix of forces in each game. You may be well supplied or starving, you may get archers or crossbows or neither, you may have a huge cavalry force or just William and his retinue, you may even have a fort. But some of these precious units may die early at Stamford Bridge or crossing the channel, thus representing campaigning losses, while others will campaign, then battle and possibly survive the whole game. Alles klar?

1066 is an innovative design, making for an entertaining game with solid decision making. Personally, I don’t feel it is that historical but it certainly has the right feel of battles and campaigning in this era, and tons of detail. That is probably sufficient, and the artwork helps a lot. It is quite a hefty package and is good value for money, especially if you can secure the neoprene play mat. Recommended.

QG: The Cold War

I commented on this one last time and it has, predictably, gone up in my estimation. This is clearly the three player pitch for the series which now covers two to six, with a sweet spot game for each. At White Rock we played games four, five and six. I think this is a superb game, medium in weight but ringing the changes, and at least as good as the others. As each game passes and we see the different sequencing of cards, the map unfolds in quite different ways. In one game Africa was not even a factor, but in another all three factions were fighting away as if it was the main theatre. We have seen a Cuban Missile Crisis pulled off to perfection, and the Chinese once took Moscow.

Another aspect to report is that game has a mercy rule that can kick in with a fortunate run of cards, and the smart money is on the Russians to achieve this. If it kicks in then the game is less than an hour. If it doesn’t, and the game goes full term, then it is a fairly intense couple of hours.

I always hesitate to analyse balance because the QG games are so dependent on the cards and the players, and we have all seen Italy rule the Southern map in QG WWII.  Half the games so far have been neck and neck. I think that the non-aligned ‘third player’ is perfectly balanced and is not only in contention, but can and does win. It is also very interesting to play this role. I feel NATO/USA has a hard time of it and is consistently the lowest point earner, but their array of status cards can really put the pressure on. Also, we had the situation where China desperately needed armies but had no more builds. This feels wrong given their manpower, so I assume this is game design/balance decision or perhaps they didn’t have enough rifles to go round. As with Root we will probably have a short break from this one but fully expect it to be a fixture in future. It is a very clever design and its subtleties appear slowly.

Mike Siggins

One thought on “Gamer’s Notebook

  1. Your description of (most) of the new releases at Essen is a perfect summary of why I am a card-carrying member of the cult of the old. Resource conversion (sick of this). Overlong (intolerable). Giant Rondel (kill me now). Precious little interaction (just like a spreadsheet, no thanks). Thematically stunted (why bother?). Feed your workers (you lost me at “workers”). Journeymen (give me Knizia, Kramer, et al.). Kickstarter (never again).

    Thanks for putting into words what I have been sensing for a few years now.

    Like

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