Gamer’s Notebook, October 2008

Another long break. Sorry. Designing two games, and developing three more, in eight months is not an ideal recipe for regular gaming and writing. But here I am with an overdue update, and I am hoping to deliver the usual Essen report later in October.

Leader 1

There are very few negative moods associated with gaming. Perhaps the empty hole after a day of new, but distinctly average, games is among the worst. But for me it is having designed a mechanism years ago, failing to produce the associated game, and then seeing the market come up with a similar idea. Yes, I know, only myself and a dose of procrastination to blame. That is exactly where I found myself with Leader 1, the latest cycling game to hit the shelves, which came worryingly close to spoiling my day…

The good news is that it is a really impressive game, and an added bonus is that the components are excellent. I say all that in the firm knowledge of Ghenos’ earlier output. While Bolide’s and Rugby World’s vector system appeal to many of the engineering mindset, and work perfectly well, they are not my idea of fun. Leader 1 is a different beast altogether, as I hope to explain.

The first clue to the game is opening the box to find a stack of lovely thick card hexagons, each with a section of a bicycle stage race route. Wide and narrow roads, flat sections, climbs, descents and finish straights in all combinations. And there are plenty of them, allowing mix and match. There is even a roundabout and uphill and velodrome finishes, which instantly give away the designers as true fans.

The graphics are bold and computery, but also rather good. You could happily use these hexes for your own designs, or perhaps for car races. Each type of section is rated for speed (obviously climbs are slow, descents are easy) and the system is clear and elegant. Importantly, each hex also has a number which when totalled gives us the difficulty (think par in golf) for the entire stage, and also dictates the number of stamina points your riders are allocated. As the race progresses you will burn the stamina, and so management of these is key. Only a feed station or tactical riding (‘sitting on’) will gain you more energy. It seems to work very, very well and while I should work out the math, I am happy to remain ignorant for now. Trust me, this system is spot on.

You have three riders in your team, each identical to the other players, although you can differentiate them by allocating one sprinter skill and one descending skill. In the background, but not depicted, are your five or six domestiques. This set up will give you an equal chance to win the race, and the game is well balanced in that sense. For those who know me, and my love of replay systems, this is a proper game, with decisions and stuff. It also happens to have a strong feel for cycling, so I am happy both ways.

The clever part, and the mechanism that sent a warning shot across my bow, is the peloton. This is simply a marker that moves along the stage setting the race tempo, representing all the uncommitted key riders and domestiques. It is automated by die roll and rules but, in a sense, also seems to have a mind of its own. Nicely designed, this. In theory, if no-one did anything, it could go all the way to the finish and it would be a big boring draw. But in reality riders will attack and get away from the peloton, at which point their individual marker is placed on the road, or even drop behind the pack and have to catch up – not easy. Once outside the peloton, especially in the initial breakaway, you will burn energy at a much greater rate than those left safely behind. And that is the rub.

The key to the game is team tactics which, oddly enough, is very much like cycling. The decisions forced – timing, stamina management, risk – are interesting and true to life. The resulting narrative is excellent. Riders breakaway and bravely ride off on their own. Will their stamina hold? Will you commit early or bide your time and go for broke on the descent? Where is the best place to launch an attack for a climber? When will you chase the leaders? Can you get another man up to support them, or hold back to get your sprinter home first? Riders who have made a long lone break struggle at the final kilometre, sprinters and the peloton closing in for the kill. Brilliant stuff. If you like that hidden gem that is Metric Mile, and it is one of my all time favourites, you will have a feel for this element of the game.

There are few negatives. The main one is that, as with most games that allow individual ‘space’ decisions and movement for a lot of pieces (Homas Tour, DTM, Formule De and so on), Leader 1 is not that fast. I would reckon on around 90 minutes, depending on length of the stage. We took two hours (three players) on the basic layout, so whatever you do don’t build a massive track for your first game or you may never return. Timing is initially deceptive, because the early phases of the game are very quick – not many riders to move with the peloton. But as more breaks come, and every rider on the team gets onto the road, it slows up towards the end. Irony of ironies, the final sprint is the slowest part.

On a strategic level, you can record remaining stamina and points and then move on to the next stage with a neat carry over rule. Riders behind the leader are charged with time difference and quickly you see how a stage race works. Whether you would want to do an entire Tour de France in this manner would be debatable (think a full season of Formule De), but you could certainly do a long Spring Classic in one sitting, or a three day race – with a mix of flat stages and mountains – in a long session or over a weekend.

Another oddity is that of your three team members, the team leader is in some respects the weakest. It obviously depends on the type of stage you are racing, but a rouleur will always be faster on the flat, and a climber better going up the lumpy bits. The leader is an average guy, and so in our game, albeit with a very close and exciting finish, a sprinter won. The beauty of such a mechanism is that you can easily tweak the ratings to taste.

Finally, there is an annoying translation error on the English game aid card. Phase 1 should read ‘movement’, not ‘placement’. It will drive you mad until you fix it somehow.

I am going to go out on a limb here. Even allowing for my bias towards cycling of any description, this is an excellent race game. In fact, I would also say it is the best cycling title published so far. Even though there are a few rough edges, and the rules could be tighter, it combines convincing theme and narrative based on evident knowledge of the sport. As a result it has plenty of race drama and decision making thrown in. If it played in half the time we would be talking genius. If you like Homas Tour/Um Reifenbreite hunt this one down; you won’t regret it. Highly recommended, and one of my highlights of the year. I am off to track down at Ghenos’ sailing game.

Tinner’s Trail

There is certainly no lack of spectacle in the career of Martin Wallace. The trends and phases are always worth watching and analysing, the changing pace and weight of output remains an eternal mystery, and his gradual departure from inconsistency now makes each new Wallace game an enjoyable experience. Usually… He is, as I have said before, the most interesting and talented designer working in our field (meaning, loosely, gamer’s games with some theme and substance). Long may he continue.

Martin’s latest, and the first in the fascinating Treefrog line, is Tinner’s Trail. It fits firmly into the economic game mould that Martin frequently returns to. It is lighter than Brass, and quicker, and I think better for both those achievements. Where it fails is in being a little dry and calculable. This is balanced by an excellent theme, some clever ideas, and an engaging system that impressed me and seemingly most people who have been lucky enough to get hold of one. A very good release, and establishing a strong pointer for the two new games at Essen.

Age of Discovery

Oh boy. This game is so nearly good. I like everything about it except for the awful, inexplicable, unbalanced, (untested?) Mission Cards. It also only seems to work with two or three. I think it is fixable, however. Mayfair, I would like you to meet Development. Development, Mayfair.


You will all have played this mini-hit by now, and if not please correct that omission immediately. Whether or not you like co-operative games, this is worth playing at least once to experience the clever mechanisms, uncanny appeal and involvement, and inevitably, to get the rules badly wrong. I liked it enough to play four games in a weekend. I may not play again for a while, but that should not put you off. Excellent design work.

Shadow Hunters

A lot of people have been bemoaning the fact that games are no longer fun. Well, this one is. It is not perfect, and in fact it has some strangely unbalanced cards that should have been picked up in testing. But it is good. We played it again immediately, and you know how rare that is. Essentially Werewolf: the Boardgame with a bit of Bang! and Kutschfahrt thrown in, but different enough to deter lawyers. You are a Vampire, a Vampire Hunter, or a Neutral. You know your identity, but no-one else does. By playing cards you try to work out who is on your side, and how you might generate a hope in hell of achieving your victory criteria. Meanwhile, there is mass carnage and everyone edges slowly toward death. But even in death you might win! As I said, good fun. Leaner and meaner than Kutschfahrt, and altogether better than Bang!

Stone Age

Early on this year, when this game was being previewed, someone described it like this: ‘Stone Age is a worker placement game. There are dice that are used to find out how many resources you collect. You have to feed your people. You build buildings which give victory points. You can use resources to gain bonus cards that give you an immediate thing and an end game bonus.’

My response was Wow! I have been looking for a game like this for some while, without success…

Okay, sure, it sounds exactly like any cube pusher of the last five years or more. This one could (and would) surely be a twist on Leonardo, Pillars of the Earth, Notre Dame, Cuba, Yspahan, Caylus, KeyX etc etc. But as I firmly believe most games offer at least a very small design step forward, and because I love to be proved wrong, I sat down to play Stone Age. I liked it. I played again. I liked it some more. I now rate it marginally above Pillars, which I have yet to play with the expansion, but will play either happily. Yspahan is still okay, as is Notre Dame, but I am still not sure Cuba works properly.

Meanwhile, Stone Age clearly does work and has a lot of good stuff going on, with even a decent bit of theme in evidence (‘Just off hunting, love’). And while I am now bored by Leonardo, I have not yet become bored with action draft systems in general. I also really like the way that four gamers can play Stone Age and come up with four different routes to victory (or in my case, defeat). Some espouse the tool approach, others make babies, some collect civ cards, while I generally starve. I am sure there are other tactics… About the only thing I am not keen on is that ‘apparently in contention until the final add-up when all the VP multipliers are played and ending up dead last’ thing. A trifle annoying. Multipliers are such difficult things to control, especially when we can’t see them. Overall, considering it is about as hackneyed as they come, recommended.

Espana 1936 & Warriors of God

What with design, playing and miniatures, my opportunities for board wargame play are few and far between these days. So, my purchases are restricted accordingly. Having survived several years without adding a single wargame to the collection, two good ones came along at once… They are both very good, and very different.

Warriors of God is that pleasing rarity, a game about the medieval era. We are looking at a top level strategic game with Euro overtones, in that it is quick, highly flavoursome, decision heavy, and there are lots of options and tricks to learn. The rules meanwhile are pretty awful, but they are at least thin. The most appealing element is not combat, but the management of leaders and factions, and land grabbing. Leaders die off at inopportune moments (much like the clever ageing process of In the Shadow of the Emperor) and armies, titles, kingdoms and territory change hands. For a historical game, there is a surprising amount of risk analysis and many outright gambles. Good stuff. The resulting narrative is impressive. It is all based on a well tried Japanese system and works well. Enjoyable, light and fun – one to return to when the opportunity arises. Congratulations to MMP and to Adam Starkweather who both championed the game and developed it.

At the other end of the scale is the gutsy and grinding Espana 1936, now available in an English edition from Devir USA. Depicting the Spanish Civil War at a strategic level, with excellent components, it uses simple, easily remembered rules, victory conditions and combat procedures to put both players in a tough position. The system is transparent; you are left to your own devices with flavoursome cards adding regular chaos. Heavy on decisions, and never enough actions, you may feel that you are having it bad, with your entire front trying to hold and a key objective city under imminent threat, but the other guy is probably feeling much worse.

If you like games that offer tense, nervous energy, constant pressure and epic battles, this is the game for you. Fortunately (and appropriately) you need suffer this only for two to three hours, and there may often be a quicker sudden death resolution. Historical atmosphere is excellent, graphics are great, I learned quite a bit about the period (through the point to point map, counters and clear objectives), and the game situation is one of the best I have ever encountered. Not since Friedrich and Wallenstein have I played such a good game in this category. Highly recommended.

NB Devir’s English edition is well worth tracking down as it saves on card lookup, and it also includes a naval expansion as standard – I have yet to play this.

Carcassonne: New World

Unless it is absolutely necessary (social pressure, monetary bribes, Toblerones) I don’t play Carcassonne or any of its fifty seven varieties. Having played New World recently, and twisting my own arm, I would prefer to play this one more than any other. Not bad for a little filler. Almost <gak, choke> fun.

Enough! To Essen!

Mike Siggins