Gamer’s Notebook, December 2009
I have said too many times that I can become disenchanted with German games. This almost always follows a period where I play a lot of new titles and they are all average or worse. It happens, but not as much as it used to, and a restorative menu of old trusted favourites and good friends normally cures me in a hurry. Then again there are those sessions of gaming where it seems every new game is a winner, and even somehow fresh and exciting. This time I have three such games to describe, all fall into the ‘about an hour, sometimes much less’ slot, and all have deceptive weight. Sort of Super Fillers, but a little bit more.
First up is Peloponnes, a neat, lean little game from a small German company – Irongames. The drawback here will be sourcing a copy quickly and cheaply, but everything else is positive. This is a straightforward auction game, but one that offers new angles and, it must be said, makes the boring old Amun Re mechanism interesting again. Well, at least for a week. You are trying to build your ancient civilisation (yes, I know…) and achieve this by avoiding disasters and buying civilisation tiles. Each tile offers either buildings or land, and brings something different to the party – for instance population, powers, or income. Some tiles will be hotly contested because they will ‘fit’ better for some players than others, while others have fairly obvious use only to you. Tiles acquired, after just eight turns you assess your civilisation for balance, add up the points, and that’s it. Because there is an asymmetrical element early on, and because you can’t always get what you want, there is a constant decision level throughout with some recognisable strategy, neatly countered by a good sense of actually building a Greek city state. I think that is impressive in such a short game. It needs a graphical overhaul, perhaps a bigger publisher, and I would make the disasters uncertain. But apart from that, stick it on your Christmas list.
I was a little slow to get hold of a copy of Roll Through The Ages, but I have made up for it with several plays since. Like Pandemic, I will play three or four games in a short period, and then put it on the shelf. Unlike most games, it comes down again a few weeks later and impresses me, and any new recruit that I foist it upon. By now you know the score, and I have to say it is a very clever game with surprising amounts of narrative – hard to believe that a simple roll of a few dice can depict an empire with starvation or years of plenty or booming trade. In short, it is Yahtzee, but it is Yahtzee with soul.
Next is Endeavor (I will suffer the spelling mistake in the cause of world peace). Strangely enough, there is a similar feel to Peloponnes here. There is a lot to do, but you are fully aware that the game is short, and that your actions are precious. Given that, here is a game where you feel you achieve a massive amount of expansion in no time at all, and from choosing a single building at the start, you are managing a worldwide empire by the end. Yet, only an hour has passed. Very clever. This is probably, but only just, my favourite of the three.
All three of these games, along with Hansa Teutonica and even the lighter Tobago reviewed last time, offer a credible gaming challenge in a short and, importantly, appropriate period of time. In fact, in some respects, they can run out a little too quickly. We already have a widely played variant for Roll Through, and it would not surprise me to see spin off expansions for Peloponnes as well. As ever, if you start with a quick, solid, streamlined chassis you can always add some more accessories without affecting performance too much.
As you have probably gathered I like this style of game. I don’t want to play them all the time, preferring a balanced diet of card, short, medium, and longer/flavoursome games, but I like their utility, their clever design, I can see that their creators have made sure that they are ‘finished’ before publication, and I am more than happy to spend an hour or so with them. Like no other type of game, they make me think and analyse. I put this down to their transparency and economy of mechanism. Predictably, I would like to see more of the same and, I hope, the designers feel the same way. Hobby affirming games – I like ‘em!
A slight oddity this, a party style game designed by our old mate FF. In truth, Friedemann and I have drifted apart in recent years. The decline started with Fresh Fish, and was compounded by that awful rolling board monster game Fearsome Floors. In short, I haven’t liked any FF games for what seems like a decade. Felix was okay, and I hope to enjoy Factory Manager, but generally, in Friends terms, we are ‘on a break’.
And then along came Fauna. I really like Fauna. It puts a new spin on the trivia game staple, and it sits proudly as one of my most fun experiences of the last year. I will play it when I can and when there is an English version, will buy a copy. It is this simple: a card is drawn which lists an animal. It is our job to identify its habitat(s), guess how much it weighs and how long it, and its tail, is. In turn, and turn order is crucial, you place your bet markers on the board – either on the world map, or on the weight/length tracks. If you are bang on you get points, if you are close you get points too, but not as many, and if you are way off you lose a marker for a round. Play a few rounds, have a laugh, have your head swell as you recall some dim and distant facts, feel that all is right with the world. A simple idea very well executed, and great fun for kids (like me).
The latest game from Cwali, who are a bit hit and miss, but for me have delivered for the last few years with Factory Fun and Powerboats. This is an auction game – not my favourite beast these days – but this works well enough to overcome Auction Ague and has some clever ideas to boot. You build your basketball team from five categories of player, with an eye to height, form over several future seasons and income potential. In time your squad and income should improve, but may also decline, while you try to win as many titles as you can over six years. The season is resolved by having the highest team value – no games are played, so it is rapid fire stuff and it is all over within an hour. A degree of variety is added by choosing coaches, referees and agents to help the cause. Fun, light and for those that are worried it is NOT a replay game! Another success, but I would say mainly suitable for the late night finisher slot. On a par with Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice, World Cup, the much underrated Hockeyswap! and similar fun games – and if you like those, you will certainly like this.
Hexer von Salem/The Witch of Salem
This co-operative game immediately looks like a slimmed down version of Arkham Horror but is in fact based on a successful series of German novels. The novels seem to use the Arkham mythos, and we get the same Old Ones and most of the monsters, so people seem happy enough to regard it as the real thing. At least it saves me having to bang on about IP for a paragraph. Either way, I think all this game will do is offer a quicker, leaner version of Arkham Horror for those that are willing to give up on the plot cards, immersive play and characters. Hexer is essentially the exact same plot (discover rifts, seal them up, don’t get eaten by an Old One in the process) boiled down to the essentials. You can play it in an hour, and frankly I can see many more opportunities to play this one than the Elder Game. Obviously there will be times when I prefer the longer, richer form. A classy piece of downsizing, beautifully presented.
Block games and I go way back. I like almost all of them, and in some respects they can provide the optimum gaming experience. This year I have greatly enjoyed the very limited run Pax Baltica (currently awaiting a reprint by GMT) and, more recently, Richard III. This latter game started life as War of the Roses (now reduced to a mere strapline) and has often been tagged as Kingmaker for the new century. I think that probably presses all the buttons for me.
The first comment, in case you were flinching at the mention of Kingmaker (games of that old warhorse could, and did, last many hours and/or hit painful stalemates), is that the playing time has been hauled down close to two hours. This in itself is a decent piece of design work. Perhaps as a trade off, it is now two player only which seems fitting as we are still dealing with the Wars of the Roses – Yorkists vs Lancastrians, get your pretender established on the throne to win – but as befits a block game we have strayed over towards a wargame rather than a 1970’s gamer’s game. Think Hammer of the Scots, or Martin Wallace, in weight.
In short, there are twenty one turns split into three campaigns of seven phases driven by a simple, rather bland, CDG system. Between each campaign is a political phase where the King may be usurped. In this way, players take turn to be the King and the Pretender. In each phase you can move your forces (including your valuable heirs), or recruit more nobles and armies. The most nobles on the board when the political phase is reached either holds on to the crown, or takes it over. You can quickly see that killing enemy heirs and nobles, preferably by risking only bog standard troops, is a key element. This is fortunate because when two armies end up in the same area of England or Wales, there can be, and usually is a battle. This follows the usual pattern of block games and is fine, if a little drawn out sometimes.
Overall, Richard III feels slightly more game than wargame. You have a limited number of actions, and – Euro style – you always have more things to do than you have action points. This is solid decision making territory. Combine that with the restrictive geography of the map, no sieges, nicely handled treachery, and a decent fog of war element, and you have some interesting situations to encounter. Wider, there is definitely some depth of strategy to explore. I certainly felt I wanted to play again to correct my first game errors (protect your heirs!), and I could see that once into games two or three, four and five should soon follow. At that point we have had the value from the game, and it is all free fun thereafter. Is it fun? Yes, in that Wallacian way where one is negotiating a number of different obstacles and considerations under limited time and action point restraints.
Against this, I am not yet convinced play is balanced, and there is a definite sense that big killer stacks are the way to go, and that there isn’t an awful lot of strong history here. Frankly, for this type of game, and game it is, I don’t think the latter matters too much, but the two former comments do. We do have a feel for campaigning and noble power bases, a sense that there might be two or three decisive battles and several smaller actions in the duration, and a decent stab at the heraldry, names and atmosphere of the period. Some of this fits well, some of it doesn’t – we still have plague cards as a hangover from Kingmaker. But it’s a good game, commendably quick, fairly challenging, and I suspect many will like it as a complement to, or perhaps even replacement for, Hammer of the Scots. Good stuff.