Gamer’s Notebook, March 2009
Trouble Comes in Threes
I hope. It has been a traumatic few months: a bad bike crash; having my wallet, keys, phone and design notes stolen in the British Museum; and finally a water leak which, uncannily, homed in on some of my favourite books – mainly the big, expensive ones with pictures. This latter event gave rise to all sorts of emotions, none good, and of course a frantic effort to save what I could. Despite this, I now have several crinkly paper doorstops lying around.
All of which is the main reason for my tardiness. The other reason was a writer’s block of enormous proportions, lasting over two months. It started to ease last week, and 11,000 words later here I am. I’ll try not to let it happen again. As if I knew why they happen in the first place.
Do I blog? No, if the paltry number of my inbound blog links is anything to go by. My natural rhythm is quarterly, not hourly, daily or weekly, and I admire those that can bash out those columns that require one to start work again as soon as one is finished. Frankly, I can’t come up with interesting topics that regularly. It has to be said that neither can many other people.
One of my favourite, well paced, always interesting blogs can be found at [link]The Game Ranch[link]. As in many cases, the appeal is that the writers, Susan and Ed Rozmiarek, share many of my interests but always have a good angle, or analysis, that makes me think. I was chatting to Susan recently and she said that she hadn’t been blogging as much because was a little burned out with Euros (“another worker placement game…”) and that she had been playing Descent and World of Warcraft. But she is all better now.
Fortunately I am not currently singed, hopefully having had all my burn out in one big five year slice. That position is rooted in a conscious and constant effort to pace myself on Euros. I am also very aware of my expectations in that just one play is highly likely, as is a degree of disappointment. At the moment I would say that most games are at least okay, which has been true for a couple of years now, and almost all have something interesting and ‘new’ to offer. One is always reminded of the film industry where the sequel is often the safe option. So even if Stone Age is recognisable in many ways, and draws on previous titles, it is good enough to stand on its own and generate the magical five plays. A Castle for All Seasons and Wasabi, on the other hand, were definitely not.
Then occasionally a game comes long that makes you sit back and say, yes, that’s really good. Numerically, it pushes into the eights and even the nines. These are the ones that make it all worthwhile and there are two or three mentioned this time. Does one have to go through the sampling to get to these games? I would say yes, and that the sampling (done with the right people) is still fun, or at the very least a positive experience.
Once again, the social element is an important factor and one that keeps me firmly engaged. The problem I have, like the movies, is that often reviewers or friends will not like a game, but usually I find I need to play it to decide for myself. The best verification, after playing, is a quick Geekbuddy analysis where there are usually enough trusted people at least in the same ballpark, but one still returns to the blogs and friends that got you to play Stone Age in the first place.
Martin Wallace had quite a year in 2008. Toledo, Tinner’s Trail, Steel Driver and After the Flood. Not a bad haul, I am sure you will agree. While Toledo is by no means a heavy game, it is very good and I detect some belated interest even amongst hard core gamers. A bit of a sleeper perhaps? I will say no more because I did a bit of work on this one. We have also been playing Struggle of Empires, Brass and Byzantium regularly and with Waterloo and Automobile imminent, this could well turn into a regular Wallace love fest.
That Mr. Wallace and his railway games, eh? You can’t get him away from them. This one is a bit different though, and I think it is fair to say it is lighter and easier to play than his usual brain busters.
So, the good bit. For one joyous moment in the first turn, I thought Martin had designed my dream railway game. There is an unfettered choice as to where you build your empire, and an ever changing, interesting map results. Some areas close down, others remain open for exploitation. Rail routes grow in believable ways most of the time.
The weird bit is that there is a bit of herky-jerky throughout the turns, where you are obliged to change company and lay track you don’t really want to, and a very strange end game where bonuses are handed out for all sorts of things. Let’s just say that in the second game, one might be clearer what to do. Because of the former aspect, control and strategy also felt compromised but, again, one would do things differently second time around.
Overall I found the game good, with some great bits and some odd bits. I would definitely play again. Two of the other three players did not agree with me and were quite critical. I know why this was, and I suspect it relates to the management of disappointment I was talking about earlier. For me Steel Driver was a solid game that had some very promising aspects, but which was ultimately a bit disappointing because of a dose of short termism. As I was playing for the first time, I was not too worried about winning or even balance. I do however want to be a contender in the game, playing it my way, and trying to enjoy the ride. One to return to.
After The Flood
Last year, Brass was just pipped for top honours by an outstanding game: 1960. No playing second fiddle this year. After the Flood has been on the table four times and I experienced a very different, and enjoyable, game in each. That may not be a good sign in some cases, but in a Wallace game it is usually a sign of replayability and robustness. The game has a lot of clever ideas, not least in the way the game handles the traditional two on one problem in three player games. As of now, my view is: all good, nothing bad. An excellent game from a designer now well established amongst the world’s best.
Snow Tails & Powerboats
I have grouped these two games together because they are both fun, clever, light race games. They are very quick to complete, feel strangely alike, and make Formule De seem an even longer marathon than it already is. Most impressively, they actually convey a sense of speed. As such, they constitute the ideal filler.
Snow Tails deals with husky sled racing, tackled years ago by Mush, and typified by the Iditarod race. The steering and speed mechanism is rather clever, and unless you have trouble with right and left, you will pick it up in an instant. While I cannot say that the sleds have the correct physics when cornering or hurtling through trees, it is these two skills that you will need to master to win the short, frantic races. I didn’t, and my sled is still wrapped around a Scots Pine. I can confidently state that, for me, Snow Tails is the best yet from the Brothers Grimm Lamont.
Some of you probably think I am holed up in my internetless, phoneless, TVless little house in the Fens, oblivious to what is going on in the wider world. You would be quite right. But out there, because I have been around a long, long time, I have a number of operatives. Agents, if you will. And they tell me things.
They tell me of hobbits, and a ring. They tell me my teams, the Phillies and the Steelers, will be world champions at the same time. Pah! They tell me that some gamers are taking each other to court. They tell me that my bank is now owned by the government and that I personally owe the directors some bonus money. They tell me I can’t afford to go to Essen or Paris ever again. They tell me that Martin Wallace is churning out good to great games once every four weeks. But mainly they have been telling me that Dominion is the hot new game and that it is the next Agricola.
I have played Dominion three times now. The zealots told me I must play it at least one hundred times to get the net. Preferably two hundred. I think not! All I remember is a lot of shuffling and a neat little bit where I had to stop getting money and start buying land. This reminded me of Carpe Astra’s excellent resource arc. Apart from that I could not really see the appeal. The theme is embarrassingly weak. The artwork is plain nasty. It ain’t exactly cheap to buy, and, predictably, I won’t be doing so.
My level of excitement here is much lower than that for Fairy Tale which was interesting, different, and a game I will play every now and then. They are both clearly very good ideas in search of a decent game. That game will undoubtedly come along eventually.
And Dominion will of course be a huge success.
It is a long time since Ravensburger had a game in my annual top ten, let alone the top five. But I don’t mind where games come from if they are as good as this one. Ironically, the Ravensburger ‘luxury’ production is a bit cheesey but there is nothing that will stop you playing. There is a lot that is clever here – the main appeal being the role selection/auction system (borderline genius) and the distinct ‘loosened corset’ feel – you can always get something done, without much pain. Which is more than can be said for some of Rudiger’s other games.
It also has genuinely different routes to victory the validity of which are currently being hotly debated. Which is good. It all plays quickly, considering. This is excellent stuff, overall. Not only can I say I liked this game, I can also say that everyone I have played with has liked it as well. Everyone. Apart from Jambo, I don’t really care for Dorn games but this one is a must buy. We await the English edition, not that this is in any way necessary to play the game.
Frank Branham said, a little while ago now, that the Eurogame is dead. I generally agree, but we seem to have moved firmly into the Zombie Era regardless. Because these games surely keep coming, with their little tweaks and occasionally good ideas, and they are a pain to kill off. Once in a while I set aside a couple of days to blitz the latest twenty apparitions. At a recent weekend session the outstanding game was Comuni. Not because it is stellar, or because it is going to set the world afire, but because it works, it is fun to play, it has some of those clever little ideas and only one or two little concerns. It has an original auction that even I enjoyed. It even has a decent theme. Okay, so the theme is Renaissance Italy, but as I’ve said many times before if the game is good, I’ll take a repeat theme every time.
So, what do we have? Comuni pretty much checks all the boxes in the cliché column: auctions, cubes, worker placement, erecting buildings, collecting guildmasters, majorities, a dose of co-op, catch-up mechanism, longest road, fight off invaders, collect VP’s. I hope you are not dissuaded by this identikit approach. Every single aspect of this game feels fresh. It hangs together well, even if the rules are a pain and it badly needs crib sheets. It provides plenty of opportunity for clever and wicked play. It is all over in an hour and a half. Comuni missed winning a Sumo by a hairsbreadth, which I hope says a lot for this game.
No, I have not yet watched the new series. Yes, I easily understood the game. I have almost no clue why I enjoyed it so much.
You want more? Okay, the selling point here is superb atmosphere. I did actually feel like a Viper pilot, launched to fight the Cylons. Raiders turn up with alarming frequency, building pressure. I managed to take out six fighters before I crashed and burned. It was tense, gripping, exciting. Bottle that feeling. Better still, there is a traitor or two in the game, one of whom was my wingman who left me to fight alone. Remember Shadows over Camelot’s little agitator? This is way, way better. We saw real paranoia at the table. Accusations, suspicion, betrayal, classic poker faced lying. Wonderful, flavoursome stuff.
The trade-off? It is slooooooooow. It takes three to four hours with considerable downtime. In this respect, one reaches the half-way point with a sigh of relief, and a sense of terminal achievement, only to have to do it all over again. Also, the traitor is superbly set up, then weakened because the Cylon has to know the rules and timing strategy, and exactly what to do to cause disruption and when to reveal. The card play, while clever in itself, feels samey because no-one took the trouble to write some interesting text, they just cut and pasted duplicate cards. Over time, one will become familiar with the situations and I suspect it will become stale.
The solution for me would be to put it away on the shelf, and take it down again sometime next year. This will remain the fate of Fantasy Flight games (the playable ones, anyway) until someone comes in and does some decent development work. I think the game could happily play in 90 minutes. I fully understand that FF and their audience may not want it to. In short, BSG is a very, very good game that is criminally overlong. That will not stop me playing it when the stars are right, once a year.
It is said that there are as many chess variants as there are players of chess*. Sometimes they remain a brief glimmer of inspiration, a fleeting daydream; others are nurtured, tested and sometimes brought to market. Shuuro adds to the genre, and is notable both because it is designed by Alessio Cavatore of Warhammer and LOTR fame, and because I think it is worth your time.
* I said this, just now.
Shuuro comes in a very classy box, which contains a sturdy folding board, a load of plastic chess pieces in blue and red, dice (dice in a chess box? Sacrilege!) and a plush rule book that seems to have been translated into every major language and a couple more for luck. As an added bonus, you can use the components to play standard chess as well.
The purest variants retain the core movement rules of chess, meaning that the game is easily learned – doesn’t everyone know how to play chess? Clearly, this is a major advantage for accessibility and learning. Hundreds of board games experience the purchased-stored-sold unplayed cycle because of lengthy or opaque rules. In Shuuro one has just two pages of rules to absorb and we were underway in no time at all.
So how does Shuuro differ from standard chess? Well, in three major ways. Firstly the board is extended to 12 x 12 squares. Secondly, a number of blocking obstacles are randomly placed to create battlefield terrain. Thirdly, you get to choose your own pieces secretly, generating two different sides. In true wargamer style, each chess piece has a points value and you select a mix that suits your style of play and intended tactics. The King is free, Queens cost 110, Bishops 40, down to pawns at 10. Anyone thinking ‘Chess with an Army List’ or Seastrike may claim their £5 reward when you next see me.
I have to say that this army building is good fun. There is a great temptation to buy lots of bishops, because they seem good ‘bang for buck’ value, but they bring their own drawbacks which you will soon encounter. Neither should one ignore the humble pawns as without them you will have no screening capacity. I leave the discovery of the rest to you.
In play Shuuro is essentially chess but with enough differences to make it a completely novel experience. I know this because I am a pretty bad chess player. Okay, really awful. But this did not seem to matter so much in Shuuro. The asymmetric sides create one level of interest, and the obstacles, which always seem to be in the wrong place, add another. Indeed, they seem to be specifically designed to frustrate bishops, he said with feeling. While some of our games went a little longer, we found that the indicated time of 30 minutes per game was not far off the mark.
Shuuro brings chess a little closer to the battle game it claims to be. For collectors of chess variants, I expect this will be a must buy. It will make for an excellent closer, or a change of pace from the 36 page rulebook games. Good fun, and recommended.