It is not difficult for me to open this column with my current bugbear. In fact, I can feel a rant coming on. At our recent post-Essen convention we endured three days of dodgy rulebooks and resulting problems. It was either just a very bad batch of games, or standards are dropping. Whatever, we may have spent a good 20% of the gaming time struggling with rule comprehension and interpretation. Not good enough.
I am going to blow my own trumpet here (usually far better than sucking it, I find). I am pretty darn good at working out rules. I think this is based on solid English comprehension, knowledge of game systems (and even how certain designers do things), on having written several sets of rules myself and developed/edited loads more, and, I suppose in truth, some empathic guesswork. I am aware of the dangers of the latter approach, so it is only used in dire situations!
I feel this obscure superpower gets us through most games, hopefully playing something at least related to what the designer intended. Combined with Ken Tidwell, Mike Clifford or Charles Vasey at the same table, we are almost invulnerable in crushing poor drafting, sloppy thinking and fuzzy logic. Nevertheless, this recent batch of games was beyond our combined skills. There were rule sections that were not finished. There were unclear rules. There were rules that said the opposite to what was intended. There were clear rules, clearly contradicted by later rules. There were rules contradicted by examples. There were rules hidden within examples. There were rules that weren’t needed, and rules that were just missing altogether. There were games where the rules were on the cards. And finally there were rules that were so poorly drafted that they rendered the game unplayable and raised blood pressures around the table.
Okay, I concede that sometimes this problem is down to translation and one can often get the real meaning by referring to the French or German rules. I am less competent if those rules are in Spanish, Russian, Serbo-Croat or Polish… Sometimes, as I know, it is not possible for the production to allow for much time to finalise rules. Living rules help here. I have known rules to be re-written just before release without the designer seeing them. And I am also totally aware that rules drafting is not an easy task in the first place. But come on guys, as a minimum, let’s at least try to get the final ruleset in front of some blind testers and see if they play the game correctly. Note to self: possible business opportunity, even if gruesome work.
A few of the worst culprits? Bios: Megafauna, Rallyman, Colonial, Hammerin’Iron, Pergamemnon… I could go on.
1st & Goal
As far as I am concerned, it is a brave man that releases a game in the same slot as Football Strategy, one of the finest games to grace my table. Ever. Okay, so I am not entirely sure that one can get hold of Football Strategy these days, and some would point to its near perfect symmetry and complete lack of team flavour as a drawback. So, after consideration, perhaps I can see why someone would do it.
1st & Goal is an excellent game: slight emphasis on game. I approached it with a completely open mind, and in truth it is some years since I played either Paydirt, Statis Pro or Football Strategy anyway. Ninety minutes later we had learned it, played it, and were sitting there discussing a gripping 14-13 win for the Mortlake Tossers over my Fenland Eels. I had a last minute 60 yard drive, only to fumble within the five. Earlier, I had slotted a long field goal and almost landed a long bomb. We had some exciting punt returns. I could go on.
In short, the whole game was completely immersive and full of narrative flavour. I find it helps to put on a bad American accent. It is fun to grab and roll the dice. The magnetic chain gang is genius. The playlength is just about perfect. I like the fact that I can go and buy team expansions. It is tense, and a little draining. Most importantly, it is an awful lot of fun. And I don’t get to say that much these days.
I love rallying. I used to go and watch them, still watch them on tv, I even like playing the console games. Predictably, I would love to design a boardgame that evoked the speed and excitement of this underrated spectacle. I had thought that it would be a tough task, but I have to say that Rallyman has come very close. It suffers from that boardgame issue of depicting a high speed sport at a much slower pace. Inevitable, but Rallyman does a clever job of concealing the join.
Otherwise, it is a very good game. The highlight is the cornering mechanism, which pretty much captures the very different approach to the racing line, compared to say, Formula One or Nascar. The fact that the mechanism changes depending on the surface in the expansion just made me even happier. Accordingly, one gets the feel of the various surfaces, the key tyre choices, and the time trial nature of either setting the pace or chasing the man in front. I thought it was very good, and like Powerboats or Snow Trails, I would always play if the opportunity arose.
As I mentioned above, the rules (especially in the Rallyman: Dirt expansion) are a little woolly. The games took a while because of the rules discussions, not helped by ‘an expert’ on another table misleading us every half hour… I think it is fair to say that in a race stage consisting of six major corners, we played each of them under different rules! That said, I am not going to let the rules get in the way of a neat system. On the buy list.
Since the earliest days of my gaming life, I have been looking for a good trading game. You know, one that would evoke the excitement and flavour of the East India Company, or Hudson Bay, the Hanseatic League, stellar empires or even just wheeling a cart of potatoes around Germany. We have seen many attempts. Many. And I like to feel I have played almost all of them. At least it feels like that. The problem was always that the games took a long time, and that the trade off was usually a loss of atmosphere.
Merkator is the latest candidate to shuffle into the interview room. I liked it. A lot. Yes, it is dry and not very flavoursome, and by the end of the game you feel you are going through the motions. But it is clever, it has most of the trading elements I am looking for, and – importantly – it is quick. Possibly too quick. The reason I am writing it up is because the Merkator system can easily be built upon, adding back some of the flavour that has been taken away in the pursuit of playing time targets.
Martin Wallace dropped Gettysburg on us, a little out of left field. He often does military based game themes, but this is an out and out tactical wargame. Of course, because it is area based (hurrah!) and spiced with Martin’s clever ideas on how command and control should work, it pretty much sets itself apart from the army of hex and zoc clones. We usually play the first day as the main event, and push on in to the second day only if the situation demands it. As such it cuts down the play length to a reasonable time frame. Unusual, but we liked it a lot.
I had heard very good things about K2, and I was hoping for something in the vein of the excellent Safe Return Doubtful. I was not disappointed. For once, here is a game designed by an aficionado of the sport that does not sink under factors, chrome and boredom. The designer has extracted key elements of climbing, made a challenging and innovative game out of them and, frankly, has done an excellent job of balancing the difficulty of the task. To make it an effective multi-player outing is just icing on the cake. And I really like cake.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Fate is a funny thing. At the Eastbourne convention in November, we were at a loose end. As usual, I dug deep into a friend’s crate of new games and, unusually, came up short. Then, by chance, I spotted his bag behind a chair. I rummaged, not hopeful of finding anything apart from ziplocs. Nestling forlornly at the bottom was Sentinels of the Multiverse. I swerved round the loud cover artwork to read the box blurb and, oddly, immediately wanted to play. We gave it a run, and another, and another. So, who would have thought that a co-operative game with an automated opponent could grab our attention like that? The explanation is that this is a well designed, well tested game with tons of atmosphere. As a first design, it is rather good. Bloody good.
The enemy is an arch villain, their evil deeds driven by a card deck. The players are a team of super heroes, each with different skills, again represented by a unique deck of cards. There is also an environment deck (Megacity, Mars etc) which provides welcome variety and flavour (let’s call it the stock in this recipe). The game provides a decent selection of all three types of deck (nearly 600 cards in all) and you can bet that more will be coming along. You can guess the theme – all the heroes work together to defend against, and then overthrow, the villain.
I have three concerns with an otherwise impressive debut. Firstly, the game does not scale too well – playing with one or two heroes is tough; three and four is usually a bit easy. You can work out the approximate sweet spot, which at times (new players, weaker villain) may be an advantage in disguise. Secondly, the game is based on dishing out damage. Yes, I know that is a comic staple. There are however several types of damage, and you are always thinking about how your hero and team can deliver it in a clever way; it is not mindless fighting. But in the end you are simply reducing a pile of hit points to zero – there is no way of plotting downfall by other means. Or at least none I have yet spotted. Thirdly, the font on the cards is not exactly the clearest – especially for numbers. Otherwise, it’s all good.
The game scores highly in several areas. It feels fresh, it all works seamlessly, it is not overlong, it is an unusual topic done well, it engages the players and they work as a team without reservations, it is full of comic book atmosphere and I thought the rules were excellent despite the mixed rules/flavour text layout (although others have disagreed on this). The best part for me is choosing, playing and gradually discovering the heroes and their interactions with the villains and environments. You will not see all the cards in every game, and almost every card adds an interesting aspect to your character and the battle. Different environments can adjust these aspects in subtle or greater ways. Multiply this by the different hero decks on offer, whose skillsets really are diverse, and you have a lot of fun just running through the decks in the basic set. This aspect is so good that I am moved to design my own deck, and it has been a while since that happened – with Middle Earth: The Wizards, since you ask. Sentinels comes highly recommended.
A Few Acres of Snow
As good as Sentinels is, my favourite game of 2011, by some margin, is A Few Acres of Snow. Designed by Martin Wallace, this is a two player card game loosely based on the French Indian War, thus offering scope for establishing settlements and forts, sparring for key Canadian terrain and drawing on trade resources and Indian allies over a wider period. How good? Well, I really must get hold of another copy as this one is having a hard life.
Like Dominion, to which it gives a tip of the hat, this is a deck building system – you start with a very small hand of cards, and add cards as the game progresses, expanding your options but reducing the access to any one card – usually the one you need. The major difference from Dominion is that this game has a theme, and I am happy to play it. Actually, make that a lot of theme and very happy. It isn’t perfect – there is a curious middle game where one marks time waiting for certain cards – but that is a minor quibble.
It is possible to approach the game in several ways (aggressive, passive, military, settling, naval, economic, besieging, raiding, fortifying etc), each of which adds a fascinating new slant to the experience. Then when you think you have mastered it, you can change sides. Big deal you say, but the twist is that Acres is asymmetrical. The French have subtly different cards to the good guys, which is not immediately apparent. Add in the geographical positions, plus the naval imbalance, and this is a game that offers many, many hours of strategy to explore, test and experience. The telling factor is that when it comes to adding up the VPs, it doesn’t really seem to matter because the game has been so enjoyable.