Gamer’s Notebook January 2011
My worst game experience of the annus horribilis was, by quite a margin, Innovation. Let me qualify that. This was easily my most anticipated game for at least five years, possibly more, based on early reports, buzz and designer pedigree. The rules confirmed my estimation. Even now I admire the ideas, the flow, the combos, the clever card mechanisms. I want to love it, and I still like it a little tiny bit. I may even buy it. But overall here is a game experience on a par with Fluxx. Actually, worse than Fluxx. There is so little control; it is very easy to get hosed and effectively eliminated, often by nothing more than bad cards, timing or situation. And I write as someone who champions both chaos and innovation (ironically). If the process were a huge amount of fun, I could accept the premise. In reality, it is pointless and dull; an arrogant exercise in design theory, failing to produce enjoyment. Carl Chudyk will design more games, and I suspect all will be better games. I hope, in time, he (or someone else) returns to Innovation and re-uses the good bits. Meanwhile, if you must play it, make it two player and don’t get your hopes up.
Conversely, one of my best game experiences was Key Market, but since I was involved with that one, and you can’t currently buy it cheaply, I’ll shut up. Either way, this is probably the best Key game for me. Not by much over Harvest and Dragons, and not Reef Encounter in stature, but still very, very good. Congratulations to David, and Richard, who both put in a hell of a lot of work.
To Infinity, and Beyond
Because I am getting old and therefore predictable, I am going to give a mention to Sierra Madre’s High Frontier. I think it is common knowledge now that I am a huge Phil Eklund fan. I realise there are many dissenters, and that some of you believe I should be banned from mentioning him or his so called ‘games’ again. Each to their own, but I am the one hovering over the keyboard and the editor isn’t paying attention.
Okay. Brass tacks. On the downside, High Frontier is only half a game, displaying many of the Eklundian traits I know and usually love. Like most of the others, it is nothing if not an experience. A big criticism is the slightly contradictory rulebook/walkthrough and the steep learning curve which are typical Eklund – read seven times, mentally edit, start play, lurch forward, realise you are wrong, re-read, repeat. Those of us without rocket science PhD’s get there eventually. Engineers (and I know a few, a few too many) just giggle at me and get on with it.
For Eklund veterans, the core system is the same old, same old. Auction the cards, do things based on the cards, keep the pace up. But money is so tight there is an all too familiar slog at the start, even with the optional kickstart variant. Crucially, you can’t do high tempo because you are consulting the rules all the time and trying to grasp the game. But it was ever thus. This painful early game is compounded as once you have all launched your rockets (this took us over an hour of play), there is every chance that your flight will be something of an anti-climax. There is a strong possibility of choosing the wrong route or planet, dying, running out of fuel (dying), exploding (dying) or being decommissioned (yep, dying). And that is just the basic game.
The main appeal, and oddly also the problem, is what you actually do once in space. In management speak, it is lacking structured goal attainment paradigms. We just flew around happily until one of the above death conditions applied, organised a couple of rescue missions, and in one delirious case, managed to return safely to Earth orbit having achieved a fly-by of Mars. On the plus side, it is good, solid Eklund experience game design with a great theme and a genuine ability to get one interested in the subject matter. It offers very few ludic qualities, but the price of admission is that you make your own fun. Doubtless we will willingly fly onto the expansion board in due time. Go on, you know you want it!
Parade (Alice in Wonderland)
You may remember my earlier comments on Japanese games. There are lots of them, they look lovely, they are quirky, the rules are comical, they cost a lot of money, and they hardly ever function. In fact, one might argue that there are less than ten that work at all. Here is one more. This is a straightforward card laying game that I suspect most people bought because it has pretty Alice in Wonderland artwork (by Tenniel?). In play it is in the Six Nimmt family – you can hold off taking pain for a long time, but eventually you will probably be forced to accept some. In Parade there is a very nice Hearts/Black Maria shoot-the-moon quality in there as well. We all enjoyed it, and most of us added it to our buy list. Oddly, the game feels as if it might be a traditional game, possibly tweaked to include a German style scoring system. It may derive from Europe where short or tarot decks are common. I say this as a compliment. On balance, it is either an existing game that I now know about, or the designer has come up with a clever and original system right off the bat. Either way, a playable Japanese design which is, as I said, something to be welcomed. Recommended.
But no sooner has the Parade passed by, the old warhorse returns to centre stage. 13 Nimmt is a belated, but very welcome, development of 6 Nimmt, a game which has probably sold several million copies by now. Actually, it is quite a large development in that it uses the familiar ox cards, and the same key idea, but is a much much better game. It is also very clever indeed. If you liked 6 Nimmt, you will definitely like 13 Nimmt. Get it.
Note the D. We were sitting at a games day recently and one of the players kept suggesting Carcassonne. I was forced to refer to my excuses book several times. Turns out she was saying CarDcassonne, which we played and I liked. Forget Carcassonne. Apart from the logo and some graphical and mechanism references, there is very little similarity. This is a card game, something of a Coloretto/6Nimmt hybrid, with a bit of extra push-your-luck. Quick, fun, light, but not without some interesting card play. One would expect nothing less from the master, Karl-Heinz Schmiel.
Blood and Guts
On the wargame front, it was a very good year. In truth many of the best games I played involved miniatures rules and/or figures, and I certainly expect that to continue into 2011 withCommand & Colors: Napoleonics. On the boards, the truly excellent Maria rode high as a three player marvel, helping to fill that difficult slot. Yes, it has the silly card system but that is tolerable for most, and the rest is wonderful. I finally got to grips with Gettysburg, and thoroughly enjoyed it – far more than I did Waterloo. For those of us who stupidly sold We the People, you should save the pennies and buy GMT’s Washington’s War pronto. I much prefer it to the original. As ever, the Columbia block system and its successors continue to provide balanced, tense, exciting games: I am going to tip Julius Caesar over Wars of the Roses, but there is really nothing between them; both are hard fought fights and quality design work. A game that slid in under the radar was Dos de Mayo. This was a pleasant surprise, and is quick, interesting, and fairly light. Finally, God’s Playground could easily be in this category as well, given the right type of players.
Age of Industry
I really enjoyed Brass, so it is logical that I would like the cleaned up, slimmed down, streamlined second edition that is Age of Industry. It is quicker, more logical, and has lost that slightly uncomfortable feel of some of Brass’s rules. On the downside it may have been sanded a little too much, and we have lost a bit of character. Still, doesn’t stop me getting Brass out again does it? I think that is all I have to say, except that despite the box legend, it doesn’t seem to work with two players. I look forward to the expansion maps.
Battles of Napoleon: The Eagle and The Lion
The widespread success of Command & Colors: Ancients, seemingly throughout both the boardgaming and miniatures hobbies, has inevitably seen related games in other periods. We have had WWII, Medieval/Fantasy and ACW, and now, belatedly, we have Napoleonics. I say belatedly because I have had the C&C Nap rules for over a decade and, as a right minded individual, Napoleonics should clearly have been first choice! But the long awaited GMT game has not reached me yet, which has given its rivals a chance to perform unchallenged. To be honest, C&C is going to have to work a bit when it finally appears.
The first rival game on the table, just beating out Worthington Games’ 100 Days, is The Eagle and the Lion by Nexus, out of Italy. I did have a slight involvement in this one, as I helped get the uniform research underway, but that was such a small role it doesn’t even merit a credit. So my conscience is clear! The game is huge and looks a treat. It comes with four large, thick card hex maps which will fill a decent sized table. The maps are double sided and also have overlays, thus adding to the terrain options. There are full colour unit and tactical cards, rules, scenarios, dice and markers and, tadahhh, rather nice hard plastic figures with stands – French and British, just as it should be (!). Some of you may wish to paint these. I couldn’t possibly comment.
I think I can sum up the game very quickly. It does exactly what C&C does – battles at a high, fairly abstract pitch – but it does it all at one level of complexity and detail higher. This is not far from a basic set of Napoleonic miniatures rules. Not only is the game good in its own right, it is different in feel from C&C (mainly manifested in the orders mechanism), and it also allows gamers to decide on a more involved (dare I say realistic?) game system. I think it will fit right in above C&C and I think it will do very well.
I am doing a good selling job here, but there are some drawbacks. The first is that the ‘gravestone box’ (description based on size and weight) and quality components attract a chunky price tag. Definitely try before you buy. There are a few odd rules (immobile lines for one) which are, of course, tweakable. It is not the quickest system out there – reckon on around two hours per scenario. And finally, a certain something is not quite there. It is that experience of playing a new rule set in your favourite period and thinking, mmm, I wouldn’t do it quite like that… So, nothing more than we usually encounter. Recommended.
I am impressed that two designers would set out to design an interesting game on this subject, but as someone still grappling with Negro League baseball and 1980’s Rallying, I should just… empathise. That they managed to make a very good multi-player game out of it is impressive. Think Credo, think Campaign Manager. You are playing cards to sway opinion and votes to crystallize the Constitution. As with most such games, this is an enjoyable exercise but with weak control (I suspect rightly) and some ‘take that’ card play, it is probably best to go along for the ride rather than hope for a skilled victory. In truth, the game is not as polished as either Twilight Struggle or 1960, and there are some rocky moments – don’t get tied down in the repechage committee room! – and even worrying moments in the case of some of the heavy handed cards. But it works, it engages as do most CDG’s, it is highly flavoursome and I found myself wanting to read up on the history – always a good sign.
Friedrich was very good game indeed, and was in some ways exactly what I had been seeking for many years. Okay, so it has its quirks, the playing cards, and the balance was a bit off, but I think most people enjoyed it. For whatever reason, after taking fifteen-odd years on Friedrich, Herr Sivel ‘rushed’ out Maria, made some tweaks, ignored half the historical war, and gave us a little gem. It gets a ‘Siggins 9’, which is a 14 in most people’s purview.
Yes, it is another rondel game and have we not now seen enough of these? Well, no, because while the circular mechanism stays pretty stable, the games hanging off it are getting better. I think this is the best yet, although I still have a soft spot for Hamburgum and the pleasing financial chaos that is Imperial. In Navegador you are all done in 90 minutes, there is plenty of decision making and just about everything is tight – the race for the East, the money, the ships, and if you are not pipped at least twice in the game I would be surprised. On the downside there is a feeling that if you are successful in one area of victory point harvesting, someone else will certainly be beating you hands down in another. And there are huge swings in the luck of the draw of the face down chits. I didn’t mind this, partly because I was on a run and gun strategy. Overall this is a good, solid game design that I will play again.
I know a lot of you are getting very excited (again). Don’t worry, I am not going to knock it. Even I played this one repeatedly on first encounter, and that is a rare occurrence. I like it a lot, but I currently don’t love it. There is not much wrong with the game, but it is what it is – a very clever, and synergistic, combination of existing mechanisms which works well, quickly and is fun to play. In some senses it is too quick, and certainly most of the sense of theme and narrative are lost in the rush. It is also a filler, even though it has decent depth, and after the initial foray of five games I thought it might fade as quickly as it plays. Still, I know I will return to it many times, and teach others, even if I have suspicions about the science score weighting. I also thought the card symbology was very well handled in exactly the same way that Race for the Galaxy wasn’t. I think when the inevitable expansions arrive it could easily go up a level – I just hope they are fairly priced. Good stuff, and a definite buy for large game groups as it scales very well.