Gamer’s Notebook, February 2013
For various reasons, I have only just got round to playing Eclipse properly. I had long been wondering whether to buy it based on others’ very positive views and my initial one hour try out. In all attempts I was stymied by either the high prices asked or unavailability. In a way, that was fortunate. I am glad I didn’t bite. I really liked playing Eclipse – three games now – I think there is a lot of clever stuff going on and the design is elegant. But given how many shots designers have taken at the 4X and Civ formats, perhaps we have every right to expect this.
Accordingly, Eclipse is the culmination of many, many evolutionary design advances. There is some excellent design: I could name the ship building, post pass actions, tech tree, resources, and expenditure track mechanisms off the top of my head. There are many more. It is very good, it is clean, it is accessible, you should play it. It wins a Sumo. But what puts me off a full blown love-in is that (with set up included) it is not a short game – I don’t get many four hour slots – and, to be frank, it hasn’t tackled the key issues of the multi-player game.
At heart, it is still a build up, squash your neighbour exercise. It would be nice if it wasn’t (it was sold to me on the basis that combat was not necessary to win), but the designers have taken the easy route and certain types of players will follow them. The first player attacked, or with poor luck, or poor resources, will always remain behind and unlikely to catch up. Ultimately there will be two (or three) on one situations, there will be players sandwiched and unable to expand, and there will be a curiously mad game end where everyone wants to fight and grab. This is not edifying and it would have been good if the design talent clearly on show in the systems had also been applied to the wider interactions. I could forgive much of this if the game was an hour long, a little less dependent on dice, and stronger on narrative. “Oh, it all went wrong here. I had those awful die rolls, I got kicked by the weak alien, it left a gap in my defences and Toby took the opportunity to walk through the hole and steal all my hard work. Game over.” That’s fine to explain away 90 minutes, but not 240.
Another disappointment is that one of those 4X’s is distinctly lower case. Given the choice, in this type of game I will always eXplore. I am quite happy doing that, and still want a game that lets me do it properly. In Eclipse, any initial exploration seems largely designed to establish lebensraum and routes and buffer zones between neighbours. There simply aren’t enough ‘external’ hexes to make exploration very useful as a long term strategy (or even medium term). I understand that it is promoting interaction – what fun is a game where all four players head off in different directions? – and that, anyway, most tables couldn’t handle the length of an explorer’s vapour trails. Still, one of the more disappointing aspects for me.
Balancing that is the really good news. As normally accrues from a decent game, I can see that Eclipse II or perhaps the expanded game, or of course another entrant to the lists, may move us a little closer towards the ideal. Which neatly brings me to Clash of Cultures. After a couple of turns I thought, and then voiced, that it seemed to be Eclipse meets Civ. The more I played, the more it appeared that this was the case. I have no problem with that; mainly I am impressed at how quickly the Eclipse model was absorbed, adjusted and returned to market with a new coat of paint.
You will know how Clash works because you have played all the previous Civ wannabee games. In this case it works a little better than all of them, and will take around three hours if you keep up a good pace. The downsides are that you can probably win or lose a game based on the objective cards you are dealt – Good fit? Easy VPs. Bad fit? Almost impossible! – but you do get quite a few cards to offset this. You can also get that common setup issue where someone is quietly turtling in a corner while rivals are at each other’s throats, again like Eclipse.
As much as I like the 4X/SF genre typified by Eclipse, I have to say I thought Clash of Cultures at least as good, if perhaps not as polished. It has a different approach to the overarching multi-player issues (not perfect, but good) and I felt the tech tree was more interesting (high praise given Eclipse’s clever subgame). I definitely want to play the designer’s pirate game, and I recommend Clash of Cultures highly.
This was a very pleasant surprise. When the box was opened, and the lovely artwork admired, I was expecting a lightweight, fun game. More Huber than Lehmann, if you will. In fact, this is a rondel based game that has a lot of interesting decisions, considerable depth and some clever design work. I liked it a lot and apart from some issues with the length, rules and timing of actions, it worked just about perfectly.
There is little new in the theme. Players are space traders, sourcing and selling various interstellar commodities. You have options to improve your existing ship, to buy more, and to do all those neat things that one wants to do in Merchant of Venus (but usually give up on while waiting). There are also further mechanisms that really up the ante. You can, for instance, put a hold on your resources allowing for guaranteed supplies and denying others access. You can buy refineries that enhance your profits. The destination mechanism is pure design class, if we read the rule right. The rondel confers a challenge in the timing of trades and actions – one is reminded of petrol stop strategies in motor racing. All good stuff. Ultimately though, all this comes down to the old business cycle – befitting that rondel – of acquire, sell, invest, expand, acquire more but also wedded with the choice of one, fast, vessel or several slow ones, or perhaps several fast ones!
The only negative comments I am going make are, firstly, it drags a bit. Try for two hours if you can. Secondly, the rules are not the best. Actually, they are among the worst I have seen this year. I know this is probably not down to the designers, but someone deserves a roasting. Thirdly, I know the designers quite well, and know their gaming preferences, but I would politely suggest that they look to move away from 18xx mechanisms, such as rusting, especially for a middleweight, public accessible game like this. It is a pain for those to whom rust forecasting is neither fun nor second nature and, in this case, it makes little sense. There’s no harm in innovating from time to time.
This will be one of the easiest, and shortest, reviews I ever write. 1989 is a re-theme and slight re-design of Twilight Struggle. Perhaps even a streamlining exercise, at heart. I believe that the changed mechanisms help the game no end, and offer some subtle strategy distinctions. I also much prefer the theme, largely because it seems to me a much better fit for the system. As you may recall, Twilight Struggle is a Top 20 game for me. As a result 1989 cannot really fail to gain a Sumo. The fact that I don’t own Twilight Struggle is no longer an issue as I will always play 1989 in preference. However, this does not mean I am now happy with the game length – still an hour too long – and the core mechanism of scoring regions known to only one player and understanding the resulting tactics! If you like Twilight Struggle, and I understand it has a few fans, then 1989 is a must buy.
Two games I have played recently have been rather offputting, yet eventually proved to be good, solid, very enjoyable games. I just wonder if they could have been made better through development and downsizing. The games in question are Terra Mystica and Robinson Crusoe. By the time we had set up the myriad piles of cards, counters and markers, and read the rules, I was ready to abandon both there and then. I was having a Fantasy Flight moment. Peer pressure (Terra M) and intrigue (Robinson) kept me on board. What was the issue? Essentially that there was way too much clutter and at least one or two mechanisms too far. In short, they are overwhelming when they should be accessible and welcoming. I cannot help but think that both titles could have used the Alan Moon policy of “when you think a game is finished, take something away.”
Pax and Polis
I go way back with Phil Eklund. I reviewed Lords of the Sierra Madre in 1993 very positively and, with the odd exception, I have revelled in and supported his games ever since. For instance, Lords of the Spanish Main is right up there in my all time favourites. So, all in the garden was rosy. Until recently. First there was the move to boxed games and higher prices – if nothing else, Phil’s games are somewhat experimental and experiential, so lower prices ease us over that speed bump. Second, there was High Frontier (rules that could make a non-engineer weep) and Bios: Megafauna (rules and development that were so poor I called a halt on Sierra Madre altogether, particularly because I had bought the game twice already.)
In fairness, Eklund games have always been challenging on the rules front but this was a case of proper production values with rules that made the experience painful. For me, a major fan and evangelist, it was simply the last straw. For two years I refused to play the games, and I stopped following one of my game design idols. That told him! But I was not alone, and even if I was keen, finding players to try Phil’s games was an increasingly difficult job. Most of my regular opponents did not hesitate to use their veto if the idea of an Eklund game was mooted. For those that didn’t buy into his experience game ethos, there had just been too much pain for too long. Was it all up for our favourite quirky rocket scientist?
Then along came Pax Porfiriana. Small box, reasonable price, and – hallelujah! – a very tight set of rules. This may or may not be down to the co-designers who worked on this one. Given that I knew the theme already – this is Lords of the Sierra Madre in card form – I decided to lift the embargo and pre-order. In truth, I would have bought and played it anyway as a card adaptation, but it turned out to be a game that also solved the major issues of LotSM while reducing game time by about 70%. Things were looking very positive. We played. We played again. At the last count I am at twelve games in two months. Almost all the former cynics have enjoyed it. I really like it. And best of all it has done something to unlock my design process such that I have cracked at least three sticky problems over the holidays.
So for those who don’t know what I am on about… Pax Porfiriana is a multi player card game concentrating on Mexico in the early years of the 20th century. Revolution is in the air, the U.S. is keeping a watching brief. You are a powerful landowner looking to topple the president and, ideally, make a lot of money in the process. There are wooden cubes but there is usually plenty of military action in the game mixed in with the economic and political systems. Be ready to deploy local militias, rail guns, Federales, banditos, U.S. Rangers and Apaches (among many others) in ploys that will deny rivals their income, encourage American intervention or prompt a revolution. The game runs around 60 minutes, sometimes a bit longer depending on the president’s fate, and I have to say it is an absolute gem. Not perfect, definitely tweakable, and I have some concerns over the calculable toppling procedure, but different every time, very chaotic, excellent narrative, great fun and already being hailed as one of the best of the year.
Secondly, we have Polis. This is a Spanish designed two player game about the Peloponnesian War and the surrounding decades. Again, as with Pax Porfiriana, there is a distinct economic and political element to this one. Indeed, the first two turns of four do not even allow for battles – you are assumed to be indulging in strategic manoeuvre, trade agreements and border skirmishes. The scenarios include both naval and land considerations for Sparta and Athens, providing a nicely asymmetrical situation that I am sure you will find interesting. Control of the sea lanes is almost a game in itself. Elsewhere, you will approach and besiege neutral city states, or perhaps send a diplomat, in trying to build your population, resources, power and military strength. As if the strategic considerations weren’t enough, you must also ensure your cities are fed and nurtured – you will find yourself scavenging desperately for wheat, trading, building temples, holding festivals and erecting statues to keep your campaigns on the go. It is in many ways like nothing I have ever played, and the design is first rate. The jury is out on the history, but it is certainly not too far adrift. Whatever, the ludic challenge in Polis will not disappoint. It takes around two hours, and it is intense, rewarding gaming. Based on three plays, this is my favourite game of the year.