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Gamer’s Notebook, November 2009

It has been a while. Too many reasons to explain, but apologies. What you have below are my thoughts on games recently played at the Eastbourne convention here in the UK. Next time, and I promise it before Christmas, there will be another batch of new games written up, plus (probably) The 2009 Sumos.

Pocket Battles

I don’t think I have ever seen such a good game come out of such a small box… Pocket Battles is right up my street. A quick, easily learned game that is both reasonably historical and fun. To be honest I wasn’t at all hopeful after reading the rules and play sheets, which have some small holes and fuzziness, but in play it all came together well.

This is how quick it is: choose your army up to a set number of points, take 10% of that number in command chips which are depleted when hits are taken. Set up the armies. Attack. Win by killing 50% of the enemy points. That’s it. As a result, a common complaint is that the game is over too quickly (oh, what a disaster!). We had games that were over after a handful of turns – this is a decisive system. So play best of three, or just choose bigger armies. Problem solved.

Pocket Battles is one of those games that punches above its weight. The best guidance I can offer is a game somewhere between Battleline and Command & Colors: Ancients. This first set is Romans vs Celts. But I suspect we will see more armies, more periods and, inevitably, fantasy battles before too long. Assuming, that is, everyone likes it as much as I did.  Some units have traits, such as fury for berserkers and command for Roman generals. These give a good feel for the different troop types even if some (Druids) do stretch the historical envelope.

Overall we are talking deadly, fast and fun here, with army choice, set up and play in about thirty minutes or less. Think below C&C:A’s complexity level, but much quicker. The game can indeed turn on a bad or good die roll, but that rather adds to the narrative appeal with a sense of making your own luck. The historicity will be the test for some hardcore wargamers, but we had some believable stuff going on at the combat level if not the command, and it would be very easy to tweak the setup and add on further rules. On my buy list, and a nice surprise.

Hansa Teutonica

While he has produced some oddities, Andreas Steding always comes up with an interesting game.  Hansa Teutonica, as befits its name, is a dyed in the wool German Game, riffing on the network building/trader theme. While we have seen many of these network games – some good, some bad – I think I can now say, after four games, that this one is among the best. It solves a lot of the common issues and, with the right people, really rattles along.  There are several ways to score VPs, the game end triggers add a pacing dimension, and it has that lovely, ‘Can’t wait for my turn’, quality. My first game was excellent, the second marred by being kicked a lot by rival players, the third and fourth games returned to form. I was impressed and so were all the others that played.

This is a game you will learn by instalments. The early play is quite leisurely and friendly. Even fun. Later in the game you will experience the pain of interaction, and needing to pronounce escritoire all the time. Then you start to work out new tactics and strategies, for this game has many. By the second or third game you will have realised how tactical, cutthroat and just plain nasty Hansa can be. Some players take this sort of thing well, others get very stubborn, and some are genuinely hurt. Because the game will drag with slow gamers, you need to choose your opponents well: thick skins and fast brains should do it.

Hansa Teutonica is hampered by some woolly rules; the drafting is poor throughout and, worryingly, some German words remain untranslated…). The play aids aren’t much better (fancy Latin terms in games never really work), but we were there by game three. The board is nicely rendered, but the white Germanic text on pale grey is a disgrace – town names can’t be read, so much historical and geographical flavour is lost.  But overall this one has struck a chord and I am putting it right up there in my favourites of the year so far. I wouldn’t want to be playing for more than 90 minutes with five, and I have a nagging doubt about something indefinable lurking, so I am really hoping this has been tested to destruction. That slight caveat aside, highly recommended.

Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation

I like this company and, by extension, these designers.  Last year I played their earlier effort – Die Wiege der Renaissance – and while it wasn’t quite there, I saw enough clever ideas and differentiation to make me sit up and take notice. When I finally got a chance to play Uruk recently I was hopeful, even a bit excited. Fortunately I was not disappointed and managed three games in the same weekend. That doesn’t happen very often. Plus, I now have Seidenstrasse to hunt down…

Uruk is another game from the Civilization-lite school. It is a small box game, is reasonably priced, and gets the best out of its limited components. Clever use of cards and cubes, and an hour or less duration, makes this a game that can be played on a train, and we did exactly that.

The game is simplicity itself. You have five slots in which to place inventions, or Civilization cards if you prefer. Think bean fields, but there is no planting in this game. You start in Epoch I with a basic skill and, fairly quickly, you build more low level cards. Soon you will be able to purchase a settlement which validates your slot for more VP’s, and later these upgrade to cities which double the slot value. Time passes, Epoch II and III come along, and you start to overlay your original slots. You will now be looking at more powerful cards, useful combinations and even game winning coups. In the later stages gods appear, as do disasters, and the game accelerates to the endgame. While cards buy cards, which can generate resource cubes, and cubes buy settlements, Uruk somehow manages to avoid that conversion game ennui that many of us are now suffering.

After the third game I started to pick up some concerns from other players. Firstly, there was a suspicion that the game could often be close overall, and a marginal win may come down to a lucky run of card draws, or timing and focus of a god or disaster. For me, given the speed of play and the weight, this is okay. If anything it is a plus. I can’t see myself levelling the same complaint at Roll Through The Ages, for instance, which has similar victory points/turn considerations. Also, Uruk can finish quite quickly. Epoch III in particular can disappear in a blur. Perhaps, as with all these lite games, we are left wanting a little more.

Secondly, interaction is undoubtedly low, and in some cases minimal –  the whole thing is a race, you keep an eye on the other players’ actions, count cards if you wish, and sometimes you get a chance to make a build that affects them, or pushes on the game tempo to your advantage. But in the main you are building your own empire, as quickly and efficiently as you can. There are no armies, and so no combat. There is not even trading (there may be, as we haven’t seen all the cards). Again, the game length mitigates this criticism but it may bother others more than it does me.

As you can tell, I was impressed with Uruk. As soon as you start playing it is clear that the designers have grasped the problem and made a decent fist of cracking it. It felt quite fresh and, like all these new fangled fast and solid games, it gives me confidence in seeing some really classy games in a year or two. Another firm buy…

Arena: Roma II

I like Stefan Feld’s games; I guess you know that by now. Even if he does sometimes run against my preferences, the designs are always good quality. That said, I don’t have much to say this time as apart from new cards and some minor play tweaks, this is much the same game as Roma, still one of my favourite two player games. In fairness to Queen’s marketing team, Arena is both a stand-alone game and an expansion to Roma, which rather covers all the bases. It isn’t very expensive either. In an ideal world I had hoped it would take Roma to the multi-player level, but that treat hopefully lies in the future. Meanwhile, this delivers exactly what you might expect and all fans of Roma should buy Arena immediately.

Maria

Another short review, because there is no need for a longer one. Everyone who played raved about this follow-up to the excellent Frederick. This time, the three players have well balanced armies and options, and there are some minor improvements to the system. The map is gorgeous. So, it would seem difficult to go wrong here. Another buy for me, even though I didn’t get to play it. I don’t expect it to be cheap when I get the chance.

Colonia

The latest from Queen and Dirk Henn, a designer who once sold us games from his backpack, but who now has probably made it to the elite group of designers. Seemingly Queen will publish anything he delivers, so that can’t be a bad gig. I say that advisedly as Colonia doesn’t quite work. There is much that does, but it is the final reckoning that is flawed, which leaves a strong sense of anti-climax.

In essence, this is a game governed by the days of the week, which is a pleasing idea. We all progress through the week, phase by phase, placing workers, visiting the market, producing goods, passing bye-laws, loading goods onto ships, sailing for foreign lands, earning foreign currency and finally, on Sunday, buying relics (VPs) at the church. It is mainly resource conversion with knobs on, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but it is fair to say that each day has something original going for it – the waiting list for the tradesmens’ goods is especially clever. Shorn of theme, this is buy resource a, convert to b, to c, to d and then e. Added back in, the theme just about raises it above the abstract algebra.

But when we get to the end of the cycle, there is a big problem. You have carefully worked your way through the week, planning and squeezing out your optimum play. Come Friday it is starting to get a bit chaotic, Saturday compounds to that feeling, and by Sunday you are desperate. In short, you lose control of how many d’s and e’s you can reliably identify and obtain, so you take what is on offer and make the best of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but to go through all that, and to commit two valuable gaming hours, you rather expect more correlation between effort and reward. Don’t get me wrong, this is a decent game but even I, a notoriously uncompetitive gamer, wanted a more refined end game because I felt short changed. So good in parts, and plenty of ingenious ideas, but on balance not properly finished. The result was, quite surprisingly, a game that none of us felt we needed to play again in a hurry.

Vasco da Gama

This is a much bigger game from the designer of Pocket Battles, showing his range and talent. Vasco da Gama is the archetypal Euro design, offering a set of tweaked, clever mechanisms, role selection and a brand new action selection/auction technique, all wrapped up in a thinnish theme. Phew. This time we are buying, crewing and launching ships to sail to India and set up trade ports. I thought the sub-games, the coastal contest and the action selection worked very well, but the latter wasn’t  perhaps shown in its best light. The mechanism allows for fine and discrete player order resolution, but I felt we didn’t always need that level of granularity. Still, it does work. Like Colonia there is a sense of just going through the motions and I wasn’t engaged overall in a theme I should theoretically enjoy. Between me and you, I thought it would work much better as a space race game: public opinion, recruiting astronauts, obtaining funding, suffering political setbacks, and launching missions. Yes, on balance, that would have been better. Overall, good but not great, but offering plenty of quality hints for Mr Mori’s next design.

Tobago

And to finish, a really excellent game that reminds me of why we play German games. Tobago is a lightish, family style Euro, so you wargamer types can put your wallet away, but this is a brilliant design, with lovely graphics and a fun, original system all in one (admittedly rather expensive) box. It has family Game of the Year written all over it, if only I could be bothered with such things.

On the island of Tobago are several buried treasures that are slowly tracked down by the play of clue cards. We all drive around in ATV’s hoping to be first to the site, but anyone who helped to locate the treasure gets a share when it is finally dug up. The share out mechanism is a rather nifty card draft with a couple of kickers, and it makes for a short, intense decision making sequence. There are three neat systems on offer here (movement, treasure locating, and treasure sharing) and the whole thing plays in an hour. Universally liked, even by the jaded bunch of gamers I played with. Highly recommended.

Mike Siggins

Postscript: I couldn’t make Essen this year. A long time friend and gamer passed away suddenly and I felt my loyalties were to her family – my best friend Paul, and my godsons – rather than a trip to Germany.

Jayne Townsend, 1959-2009.

 

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