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Gamer’s Notebook March 2008

Many apologies for the delay. January is always busy to the point of running out of time. This year was worse. Then I got ill. Anyway, plenty to write about.

Tribune

Regular readers will remember that I got to play this game last year at Essen. Then it was a game about collecting, tentatively entitled Sammelsurium. Now re-themed, and published in a professional package, we have Tribune. And it remains a very good game indeed.

To head off the inevitable ‘pasted-on theme’ comments, I would say that the new theme is actually a much better fit, not that there was much wrong with the original. Now we are dealing with political wrangling in ancient Rome. Each player is trying to build support from the various factions, eventually gaining enough to become tribune and win.

The game structure is a straightforward action drafting system, which we seem to see more and more these days. At the moment I like them, but familiarity can breed contempt. Your markers are placed into various sections of the board, which offer money, faction cards, and various other items needed to progress. The clever part is that rather than just claiming on a first come first served basis, as one does in Pillars of the Earth, some of the sections trigger a short sub-game. This is all good.

Interaction is excellent. You always seem to have a rival for the cards you want to recruit, and there is even more friction when claiming majorities. The whole basis of the game is to knock the leaders over, and I will leave that for you to discover. The game offers some interesting decisions, not least on timing of your tactical moves, and generally works perfectly as one might expect from this designer. No complaints here.

I’ll finish with what was, for almost all those who played, a definite issue. Tribune is over too quickly. Games were taking an hour or less. Now many will regard this as a plus, and remind me that this is a prime trait of German Games. But this is a game that plays engagingly, has plenty going on, and seems to suggest a ‘long game’ strategy. Wrong. In one game, it was all over in four turns – you really must be in there and fighting from the start. This is okay if a title feels like an hour game, but this one seems to have a pacing issue. It also means that a gamer who has played before will have an advantage over rookies in knowing when and where to focus.

Fortunately, if you consider pacing and length a problem, it is easily fixed. Victory conditions require us to achieve three from eight or so targets. To set the winning terms at four or perhaps five conditions satisfied would seem to be eminently workable. Either way, as with all variants, it is your choice. Play as it is intended first, feel free to tweak, but do play – it is not broken, just quick!

On language, the German version (Tribun) is playable but there is just enough German in the game to make waiting for the English version well worthwhile. So, definitely a strong recommendation but I can see some variants coming into common usage for this one. Good to see Herr Schmiel, the Old Master, back in business.

Year of the Dragon

I remember one nasty incident in my school life. I was watching a bunch of older kids in the playground who were picking on some unfortunate lad. He ended up ‘running the gauntlet’. At school, this meant that he had to run along a narrow channel between a wall and a line of the bullies, and be kicked and punched all the way. The military equivalent is much less pleasant. In some small way, this game reminded me of that memory.

Don’t get me wrong. Alea are still a source of good games. Stefan Feld is one of my favourite designers. I like all his games, and all have a welcome, fresh approach. So I had high hopes for this one, and was very keen to try it. The systems are clever, the components are lovely. You can score points in many ways, and there are several options to explore.

Simply, there are twelve turns in the game, loosely representing the months in the Year of the Dragon. Each month has a randomised chit – famine, tributes to the emperor, disease – you get the picture. Two of these months are harmless, and we let off fireworks to celebrate, the rest are just plain nasty. Life in China was evidently one long nightmare.

As a player, you are a landlord (or similar) building houses to accommodate the dozen or so types of character. Each of the characters has a special skill, either providing protection against the nasty events while others provide immediate or deferred victory points. Your task, apparently straightforward, is to make sure you have the right balance at the right time, and have the rooms to accommodate them all.

The trouble is one can rarely really get this right, I managed an optimum in just two of the turns, and it seems you face losing something most of the time. Even in a well played game there will be substantial tenant turnover. You even lose buildings if they are unoccupied, which tends to happen a lot when your lodgers are dying or leaving in droves. In short, you are taking actions and planning ahead just to avoid pain and stand still. Add to this the pressing need to get money, rice, fireworks and victory points at the same time, and the game quickly takes on Kafkaesque overtones.

So let me sum up in a way I have never done before. I really liked the idea, theme, game systems and mechanisms, regarding the whole idea and process as original and clever, but didn’t at all like the negative experience it provided, of being kicked at every step of the way. Also, it is fair to say, I am not representative of everyone who played. At the convention, I would say the split was 60:40 pro and con. I will have to play again, but I don’t see this one changing its tune, and it is a tune I definitely didn’t like.

Year of the Dragon is the antithesis of those positive, building/snowball games. It is also overlong by 20 to 30  minutes. It is a little like watching a three hour war documentary: technically it is spot on, but it is not entertainment. Eventually, the seat becomes uncomfortable.

Origins: How We Became Human

I have still not managed to define this design from Phil Eklund. It is no secret that I am a fan of Phil’s games, but this is a new departure. Not only does it have professional quality presentation, it is also the closest to being a game in the normal sense. Nevertheless, there is still a huge dose of experience gaming, and ‘going along for the ride’. I like this, I realise that others don’t. There are also some very clever mechanisms, not least the cards. The theme itself is highly ambitious, but it does work. It beats all of last years games for innovation. I have some reservations about the ‘levelling up’ and some of the powerful cards and options. That means I am questioning balance, which also means here is an Eklund design that is also a game. I recommend it highly, and would simply say that if you have played an Eklund before, give this one a chance. It is different.

Starcraft: The Boardgame

After my lengthy and negative reaction to Descent, which seemed to run against most of my friends’ views, I will keep this rant short. I believe the explanation is that there is still a surprisingly large market for eight hour plus games with huge amounts of bits, seventeen different types of unit, r&d trees, resources (money) and with play values that deserve to have stayed in the 1970’s.

I was, despite all the above, and having suffered Warcraft: The Boardgame in the interim, still keen to play (!). But apart from the sheer excitement of opening the box and sorting the ridiculous number of bits, this one was a bust from start to finish. Oh, and the rules take an evening of study and a dry run. In summary, I feel saddened that there are still people who can term it a game, and give it a 10 on our favourite ratings site. The game is preposterous and represents the worst outcome of a ‘throw everything in and keep true to the license’ mentality. I would like to say it is unplayable, but I know there are people who will sit there and persevere for a considerable chunk of their lives.

If you really must play, ideally you should all know the rules, be set up, ready to spend two hours learning, and play with no more than three. My biggest tip is that all those minuscule little icons on the tiny counters all mean something, and the yellow and the orange counters are virtually indistinguishable. Otherwise you should be fine, given enough time. Enjoy.

Me? I am moving to Greenland to avoid it.

Phoenicia

It is probably no secret that I didn’t care for Outpost. But since then age, changing tastes and experimentation have secured Sceptre of Zavandor a one-outing-per-year visa. Then word arrived of this game. The latest, final (?) incarnation of the system, it was rumoured to play very quickly indeed. Thanks to a review copy from JKLM, I have played this one twice in recent weeks. It is definitely quick, and it is very good. It is also clearly the son of the father.

I have two slight reservations, otherwise it is all positive.

Firstly, I will need to play more to get a feel for what exactly to do, typical prices for the cards, and to master the key task of balancing one’s assets. In my first game, excusably I hope, I worked my way into a dead end by which I couldn’t access sufficient storage late on in proceedings. Game over. The second game was better, but because my opponent knew what he was doing, he romped away. While I am no natural at these games, I am not an idiot either. So, as with most of Mr Lehmann’s games, there is some serious learning to be undertaken. No bad thing, but not to everyone’s taste.

Secondly, the game predictably retains a similar feel to the earlier designs. If anything, it is even more mechanical and teutonic. This is, I feel, compounded because the system has been boiled down to the minimum – perhaps to far? Like an overcooked Brussels Sprout, boiled until the flavour has all but gone. Also, in Outpost and Zavandor one felt some affinity to the items and artifacts being bought, building into the story (such as it was), here I am not sure the implementation of theme helps any – we have probably seen far too many instances of ancient civilisation to make a storehouse seem interesting.

I am working a balance here. While the game feels an even more sterile exercise in calculation, it is at least the right length for such an experience. And it is an experience I enjoy occasionally. Why? Because there is definitely some meat here, with interesting angles, and if I want to apply my brain this is one of the environments I will work within. However, as I have said before, I do feel as if I am playing around with a spreadsheet. Sure, there is an unknown in the form of the auctions and the run of cards, but still, these are math heavy, and cash driven, games.

As it happens I quite like spreadsheets, and financial models, so there’s the answer. It gives me the good parts of Outpost without the length. What I can’t tell is if you have been looking for a copy of Outpost, whether Phoenicia will end your search. Apart from the pokey little card icons, and some ragged edges in the rules, I liked it a lot.

Brass

I feel quite pleased that I was there at the start of Martin’s efforts to design the ultimate train game. To an extent, this can be seen as the latest attempt, and what an attempt it is. It will take you two hours, and more when learning, but that time is well spent. This is a very clever, modern, deep game that really works on just about every level. It is also full of flavour. I have played five times in the last month, and it is still getting better. In any normal year, it would easily be my favourite game.

I’ll tell you how much I enjoyed this one. The box that arrived in the mail got The Treatment by the Post Office and is best described as ‘distressed’. I feel I should go and buy another copy so that I have a good one for the future and one to play. As a reformed collector, that is not something I easily say or do. Excellent stuff.

Mike Siggins

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