Gamer’s Notebook June 2006
Some of you will already know me, through Sumo or The Game Cabinet, in which case you pretty much know what to expect. Some may have heard of me, perhaps through BoardGameGeek, which is at least a start. Others, and very much the majority, will not know me at all, in which case hello. This is a new column that picks up on my past efforts – writing for Games International, G3 and Games & Puzzles, publishing Sumo magazine, running The Rules Bank and being lucky enough to be around when the German Game invasion was just getting underway. Sumo magazine displayed my ability to waffle on about games and other good stuff at great length, and now I am about to do it again. Sometimes, there are even points of interest if you look hard enough.
I am going to be writing about boardgames in the widest sense, through discussion, analysis and in depth reviews, and always with something positive to say. For any number of reasons, not least because I have changed in the last few years, the column will not be much like Sumo in size or content. Neither will it aim to cover game releases comprehensively or in an up to the minute fashion. Both of these important tasks are performed admirably by Counter magazine and the Web at large. Instead, I will offer my views on the latest games, older games, and developments, aiming to focus on the key areas of German Games, design and theme. It will also cover just about anything else that I find interesting. Your comments are most welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org and in time we will hopefully get some discussion going. Finally, I personally guarantee that I will never use the phrase, ‘Very Fun’.
If you are really interested in me (and I find that just a little bit worrying), or in reading my earlier reviews, you can find out more here.
As I haven’t been properly writing about boardgames since the turn of the century, apart from the odd signpost review, interview or annual Top 10, it is probably worthwhile bringing you up to speed. I will make the call on my current psychological make up, and you can disagree if you wish…
In the past I was very enthusiastic about almost all games, especially German Games, card games and sports games. I was always very pleased to find an unusual or innovative title, and somewhat hard on those that didn’t make the grade. Nothing changes here. However, it was a rare game indeed that didn’t contain something positive (even if it was very small and hard to spot). At times I was, if anything, won over by my own enthusiasm. To read some of my early reviews now, one would think these games were largely wonderful. With hindsight, I may have oversold a few and been too easy on others. Best not to mention Settlers at this point, as it brings me out in purple blotches.
Nowadays, I am even harder to please. You can put this down to advancing age, very early stage crankiness, and exposure to a thousand or so games – many of which did more damage than good – and an inevitable degree of cynicism sourcing from industry politics and a handful of gamers’ attitudes. So, basically, I am demanding, exacting and have standards you won’t believe. Or Mr. Picky, if you prefer.
But there is a trade off, and it is an important one. It is that those very few games that stand out, that make the grade by excelling in innovation, theme or clever systems, are now much, much more pleasing. Finding a game like Jenseits von Theben, Roma, Ende des Triumvirates, Friedrich, Reef Encounter, War of the Ring, Legends of Araby, Twilight Struggle or Ars Mysteriorum is quite an event for me. Sitting there in the afterglow of the discovery of a well designed and enjoyable game, it makes suffering all the Robo Rallies, Lunch Moneys, Magalons, Hollywoods and Cheapass Games at least forgettable for a while. To a large extent, it is what keeps me going in the hobby.
Otherwise I haven’t changed that much. I am a bit less exciteable. I now have very little interest in what is coming down the pike, cool titles or graphics without a game attached (that is, vapourware) or rumours, or even playing prototypes unless as a favour, or as work. I have zero interest in hobby and industry politics.
However, I do love playing new, innovative games; I love clever mechanisms and systems; I love card games of all sorts; I normally require decision making but will very happily play experience games; I prefer shorter games (two to three hours is a significant comfort level, but I will occasionally exceed it); I love a strong theme and my enjoyment of a game is usually directly related to that strength; and finally I love a game that tells a story and lets me access the atmosphere of the subject.
You see, I don’t ask for much. Accordingly, I have a marked preference for representational over the abstract, and I display a childlike attraction to good history, sports and railway topics. But not business games anymore. Why, I can’t yet say. We shall talk about confrontational games next time.
Interestingly, after a break of some twenty years, I have returned to role playing games. In the past I ran just about anything I could find players for, and 99% of the time I was the GM. Over the years, I eventually got short of ideas. Now as a player, perhaps obviously, this game format is potentially the best source of narrative atmosphere that I can expect to find, and given a good GM and an appealing background I am, once again, finding rich seams. So far I have been playing Legend of The Five Rings, some Warhammer FRP, and soon I will be happily returning to Call of Cthulhu. I am very keen to play the new version of Pendragon, and both Pulp and Superhero genres are uncharted territory. I am also keen to try historical settings. In time, and having re-established familiarity, I will probably try my hand at GMing again. This apart, I am greatly enjoying PBEM games of Star Saga (the very old PC game by the Wizardry team) and good old Railway Rivals (France map). I am also threatened with online games over Skype as soon as I get broadband at the new house, but is there enough time in the day? With a continuing interest in miniatures in the background, it seems there probably isn’t.
So how do I go about finding games? In truth, I am still a slave to the ‘try anything that comes along’ approach. I play at two clubs, at micro-conventions, at home, at friends’ and, almost always, it is new titles on the table. I am still keenly aware of the pitfalls of playing fifteen new games in a weekend, knowing full well that I can invest twenty hours and no little money and come out with next to nothing. But in the same way lottery players and gamblers justify their addiction, I know that any one of these games might be a winner. In my defence, I balance this craving for novelty with specific sessions where we play mainly old, established favourites. Classics like Medici, High Society, Tigris, Modern Art, Elfenland, Win Place & Show, Take It Easy, Airlines, and even Magic are like old friends – always there, often generous, and usually pretty reliable. So in the same way that I will re-watch my favourite movies over and over, I am still spellbound when a Donnie Darko, Brick or Serenity hoves into view.
What is my expectation? That on average I will find one winner a month, and in the space of a year I will find ten new (or previously overlooked, so new to me) games that are worthy of a Sumo – my personal game of the year award. And that is how I have decided to structure this column. Every four weeks or so, I hope to find a Game of the Month. Sometimes I won’t succeed; sometimes I might find two or three. That game will get an in depth review, and will go forward to be considered for the year end top ten list. Along the way I will be keeping an eye on artwork, clever mechanisms trapped inside a turkey, nearly-theres, the underdogs (especially DTP games), and the unusual. I like unusual.
My overall view of the German Game market is that we can now expect a steady stream of light or middleweight games with only a very small percentage of those representing a standout design. If we are also seeking gamer’s games (those at the heavier end) we must look to the very occasional release from a major player, to the independents, and to the slowly growing Euro/wargame hybrid area typified by games such as Friedrich, Wallenstein and Twilight Struggle. But it is not a bad old hobby all things considered, and having returned to it early last year, my enthusiasm is as high as ever. There is certainly no shortage of games out there.
The Gathering 2006
Sixteen years is a long time between events. Well, between anything actually. I last went to The Gathering of Friends in 1990 when there were just 23 of us. It was a memorable event, of course, and there was that exciting, pioneer spirit of people caught up in a new hobby. So, if it was that great, it would be understandable to ask why I didn’t return. There are a number of reasons: variously money, time, vacation availability, work commitments and, for a few years, a basic lack of interest in games. But mainly that it was just the way it happened, and time has flown, in that way it does.
However, thanks to the exceedingly generous Mr. Moon, this year I was back, and as Guest of Honour no less. The title proved to be a bit false as Karl-Heinz Schmiel signed up late in the day, and in my (and probably everyone else’s!) opinion, he was the right man for the job. A true legend, it was an honour to share the same billing.
The Gathering is actually very impressive from any number of angles. It is a pretty smooth event, with no real problems. While some contested the hotel choice, or food outlets, or the game room, a very large proportion seemed happy to return in 2007. Essentially, everything is focussed on games. There is room enough for hundreds of people to be playing at the same time, and space for their games as well. An unlimited supply of soda, and regular food deliveries, ensures that it is impossible to expire while playing World of Warcraft. Shelter, food, water… games.
Then there is the Prize Table to which everyone contributes something good and then leaves, like all the best parties, with a gift or two that seems to fit them perfectly (largely because they choose it). And then for those that like them, there are a few tournaments thrown in for good measure. But mainly it is open gaming, end to end. Is that enough? Well, read on.
What really makes The Gathering is the people, especially spending time with old friends and making new ones. I have vowed not to list any names here, because inevitably I will forget one or more, but they all know who they are. Suffice to say I chatted, lunched, drank, reminisced and gamed with at least sixty people and there were another three hundred or so whom I missed. However, quite reasonably, I felt I would have a very good chance of getting on with any one of them, right off the bat. That is a pretty positive environment, especially for a wallflower like me.
On the very first morning, before even Alan Moon hosed me at Twilight Struggle (“I have seen people crushed like that before; the cards can do that.” – note the use of crushed as a verb), I sat down with three complete strangers, played Diamant, and had a great time. And I won. I figured that I was in credit already, the ice was broken, and it just got better. Another highlight was Inspirations which saw me crying with laughter. The Gathering makes the ‘People, not games, are key’ point in spades, and I had some memorable moments during the week even playing games I wasn’t particularly enjoying.
Inevitably, cliques form. You may get on with a group of people, or just decide to play a game, then another, then another. As people pass, they see you in same group, and build a picture. Later, there are drive-by insults! In some cases it seemed that a local game club had just upped roots and set down in Columbia for a week. But that is fine, and not everyone is a great social mixer. Or in my case it may just be that you haven’t seen these people in five, ten or sixteen years, so you should probably spend some time with them. Others, who I perhaps knew over the Web or via correspondence, I had agreed to play a specific game with, and that took some juggling as well.
It goes without saying that there were a few games around as well, though surprisingly Caylus was a rarity – I had mistakenly expected this to be the big draw. As it happened, it was Thurn und Taxis, of which there were enough copies for everyone to play if they wanted and which, to my mind, seemed to be The Hit. Elsewhere, anything just off the boat was eagerly learned and played, so brand new or even preview copies (Augsburg 1520) shared rules queries and table time with old favourites and quite a few prototypes. Of those I played, and I intend to get back to most of them next time, these were the standouts: Ars Mysteriorum, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Crokinole, Glory to Rome, Hacienda, Haste Worte, Lucca Citta, Mare Nostrum, Sports Illustrated Baseball, Tarot, Thurn und Taxis, Tsuro, Twilight Struggle and Um Krone und Kragen.
Famously, I can’t stick day after day of solid game playing. I want to go out and see the sights, check out book and game stores and model shops, visit malls and Amish country (neat contrast…), relax in diners, eat good food, drink Californian wine, and watch movies and lots of baseball. Okay, so I did all these things, but I also played a lot of games. Far more than I expected. Many of them really long, again unlike me. I reckon the final total was 46, but I may have missed a couple. This makes me a relative lightweight, I know, as there were many people playing non-stop and racking up totals in the hundreds. I am sure someone was keeping stats – that’s a hobby feature, isn’t it? And probably there is a site somewhere where I get rated for gameplay, social skills, hygiene and dress sense. I am hoping for 7’s or better, or I will feel snubbed.
Another anomaly was that I won quite a few games. Trust me, this is very rare and distinctly suspicious. I detected a level of deference amongst people I knew, as if Siggins was some sort of gaming deity. I find this often happens in England as well (in my dreams). Or perhaps it would be like beating the boss at golf – even if you could, you just don’t. Bad form. Yes, I am sure that was it…
While I didn’t enter any tournaments, I wasn’t going to miss The GameSpot. Over 130 people crammed into a large room, formed teams (we, mainly Brits and ex-pats, were The Mennonites) and we submitted ourselves to torment by Dave Arnott. This is not something anyone would do lightly, but the quiz came highly recommended. The game was a twist on Haste Worte, Outburst and Smarty Party. The Grand Torturer came up with a category (Spiel des Jahres nominees, countries, games with colours in their title etc) and the teams had to respond with a steady stream of unique (and correct!) answers. Under time pressure. Answers become more and more obscure, until you dried up or matched something already said before. If you failed in this way, you were out of the round. Last one standing scored points (although this part seemed completely arbitrary and, may I suggest, unrecorded!).
The whole quiz was great fun, as it embraced a ton of in jokes, piss taking and laughter at some of the answers, some of which were fiendishly clever. But it was also quite pressurized – struggling for answers, trawling long forgotten memories, trying to listen and remember what had gone before, and choosing the best of three possibles… We were holding our own until the last couple of rounds which were very U.S.-centric (it is important as an Englishman to have an excuse), and so we fell by the wayside despite our best efforts at naming Disney rides and Rio Grande games. As usual, something we invented is hijacked by the yanks (!). Of course, it really didn’t matter who won, it was simply a memorable couple of hours.
The only Gathering restriction, as we often find in life, is time. There were several occasions, often at 4am, where I was in the middle of a conversation, meal or game that I wanted to go on for hours. Sadly, Eyelid Support Control overruled this and we trekked back to the rooms as the sun was coming up to snatch a few hours rest. Breakfast, when taken, was usually mid or late morning. On one occasion, it was at 2pm. Meals and days took on a strange elastic quality, where the body clock was saying [about 8pm?/still time for games/hungry] while real life was indicating [3am/bed soon/eating sliders at White Castle is only option].
To run out of time with ten full days seemed inconceivable, but that is exactly what happened. Sleep became a less and less appealing option, and by the end of the week there were some spectacularly tired people, me included. I lost the ability to do basic maths, a few tempers were fraying, and the weaker types (well, okay, me) were dozing off during rule explanations. A certain Danish gentleman, dressed in black, may not have slept at all – some species of vampire, I suspect. Of course this didn’t stop me playing Parthenon on the last day and boy did I regret that in all sorts of ways.
To get 350 similarly minded gamers under one roof, and importantly to have everyone getting on and meeting new people, is a unique achievement. Alan Moon tells me he works hard at this, which I almost believe, and that sometimes tough decisions have to be made. The outcome is that he presents as a benevolent dictator. That is fine, as it works pretty much faultlessly – a clear case of the end justifying the means. I had a great time and it is easy to see why people come back year after year, and why there is a huge waiting list.
And so it all quickly came to an end. On arrival, the ten days ahead stretched out almost to infinity. At the death, a small group of us were still playing after the closing ceremony and dinner. Keen? I’ll give you keen. I took the next day to recover, and about a week to catch up on sleep and jet lag. But it is all worth it. Not here the angst of Essen, which can be hard work; The Gathering is an enervating, positive event. So much so that the ‘landing’, on return to England and work, was pretty hard. Back in Cambridge, I desperately wanted to walk downstairs, meet up with ten great people, head for Steak ‘n Shake and return to play games all night. Repeat until happy and the concerns of the world are forgotten. Hard to beat that, eh? It was a truly great event, and I would happily do it every month. Thanks to everyone that made it happen.
Too Much Luck?
But back to games. If there was a trend at The Gathering, which several people remarked upon, it was that the new crop of games was pretty good, but they had way too much luck in them. I have to say I am completely in agreement. To me, a game sets out its stall early on. Is it a fun game, a quick filler, or a game that is going to take you 90 minutes and require some level of commitment? If it is the latter, and we see a lot of this style and weight of German Game, then I expect my play to require some skill and thought, for the experienced feedback to be consistent with that, and for my game position to have some relation to the skill displayed. If that same game reveals at mid-point, or worse at the end, that the effort has been frittered away, then I am less than happy and ratings start to fall.
The best example of the trend was Masons (aka Mauerbauer). This is a distinctly abstract game about building castles and walls, and enclosing areas – core German stock. Teutonic, but quite enjoyable. Your tactics are based on the scoring system, and your decisions are directly based on your cards. Some of these randomly dealt cards will generate small numbers of victory points, others considerably more. Quite why I should start an abstract, seemingly closely balanced game at a large disadvantage is not explained. Add the facts that you draw more cards at random throughout the game, which can compound (or perhaps salvage) a poor deal, and that the cards are not unique, so you may find yourself building up a game position for a rival. It seems ridiculous that a game should stagger the start and the race to this extent. Very few gamers mind a slight imbalance, but this one can deliver victory or defeat in a heavy handed way.
Another point on the spectrum is represented by Aquadukt. Here is a game that offers an initially interesting if derivative Santiago type scenario; supplying areas on a grid with water. Unlike the latter excellent game, this one requires you to place pieces not freely, nor by negotiation, nor auction, but based on the roll of a d20. Hello? If you roll weak numbers (and these quickly become apparent) then you may achieve very little, except become frustrated. If you roll better than your opponents, you are going to have a much better positional chance of the win. And some gamers were walking away from this one at least happy. For me, it’s a crock and a poor game.
Jericho is a quick ‘Take That’ card game in the classic mould, so perhaps it is harsh to criticise a high luck element. Build walls as fast as you can, with some thought towards defence, while your rivals come along and blast them down. Here, there seems to be a card balance problem. Construction became a dangerous and pointless exercise, while having greater access to the destructive cards gave a player a powerful edge. Okay, so it is a filler, but why not a filler that works?
Second Class Return to Nottingham
If you are playing a large number of games, you are going to hit some crappy specimens. That’s a given. It’s what we expect once the honeymoon period is over (usually defined as getting fed up with El Grande, but you can always have a year off and return to it). My reaction has changed over time. I used to get quite frustrated with poorly designed games. How could this game be doing so many things wrong? Even if you copied Game X wholesale, and added your mechanism on top, it would be way better than this. Even worse, how could the same designer be brilliant in another game, so cleverly tempting me into buying this piece of junk. And then there were the designers who just weren’t any good, full stop, so you avoided them and wondered how they kept getting published.
Nowadays, I’m more mellow. Resigned. A little bit jaded, but nothing to worry about. I try to accentuate the positives. I know almost every designer has the capacity for greatness and mediocrity, and I adjust my expectations accordingly. At least I’m not raising my blood pressure too often. Until something like, ohhh, Nottingham comes along.
Goodness me, what a stinker this is. For a start this is Uwe Rosenberg, a man who has built a small industry out of one very average, quick-to-pall game and has spoilt many game sessions for me with yet another Bohn variant. Okay, so he did Schnappen Jagd and Klunker, which are almost there, but then he did the grim Yellowstone Park, Titus and the unaccountably popular Sole Mio to restore the cosmic balance.
Anyway, back to Nottingham. Have we learned nothing from Knizia and Moon and Teuber? Where are the elegant, positive systems we love? Where is the feeling of advancement? Where is the clever little mechanism that saves the game even when all else is death and ruin? Where is that blowtorch? Nottingham is a bathtime game. A game that could have been, and probably was, designed, developed and tested within the duration of one bathtime.
Let’s sit down (or lay, if you prefer – it’s a bath after all) and work out all the fascinating ways you can take cards from a rival. Let’s make that negative act the featured highlight of the game. Ask people to collect sets, but constantly frustrate them in that aim. For best results, ensure this takes a really long time with even four players. And then, as a piece of sheer audacity, suggest that up to seven people can suffer at the same time. Seven! Talk about spreading the love. The net result is a nasty, negative little game, with nothing much to commend it. The only possible saving grace – the interaction – is both forced and false. I suppose in fairness the melding is okay. Otherwise, this is a really poor game, so save your money. The greatest crime of all is that it is lazy work.
And finally, to the (non-food) highlights of The Gathering. I will cover some more next time, but these are the best of the bunch and I wanted to start on a high note. Since there are five of these games, and since that fits in nicely with the annual target, you can consider each of them as a Game of the Month for January to May 2006. In alphabetical order, then:
Now this is a very good game indeed. Highly flavoursome, tight, and all the mechanisms hold together really well. A true light heavyweight, it will give your brain a decent workout. It is also a game that says, ‘I have been developed and tested to destruction’. It also has that lovely flexible quality where you are able to try unusual tactics, like cornering all the red resources, or not spending, without the system swooning from stress or getting all out of sorts. Overall, apart from a couple of minor frustrations, and a tendency to slow up a bit, this was a clear first play highlight of the Gathering.
I think it is fair to equate the feel, weight and process of this game to a typical Richard Breese design – collect resources here, convert them into something else there, score some victory points. So if you like Aladdin’s Dragons, Keythedral or the derivative Ys, this game is for you.
In this instance we are playing alchemists, so the theme to mechanism link is close to ideal. The frustrating parts are event cards, which singly or in combination can put a twist in play, and sometimes one can miss out on a long planned-for acquisition. Still, everyone is in the same boat and as in Caylus, if you need to go first and you aren’t, it is probably your fault.
One word of warning. Ars Mysteriorum could take a while to play. Make sure you select your opponents carefully, making sure Steve the Sloth is at his sister’s wedding, and agree between yourselves to keep the pace up. Otherwise you could be looking at three hours or more, and that is rather too long for what goes on here. Otherwise, excellent work and highly recommended.
Command & Colors: Ancients
This is the third, or fourth if you count the renegade Napoleonic set, in the massively popular miniatures/boardgame series by the entirely likeable and talented Richard Borg. Unlike previous incarnations, this comes without figures and instead uses wooden blocks, a la Columbia, which take a fair while to sticker up. It would be the work of a few hours to replace the blocks with small monochrome figures, if you felt the urge. If you want to paint them properly, then make that estimate quite a bit longer. Personally I don’t have a problem with the blocks, and actually prefer them. The unit graphics serve the purpose.
I am on record as saying that Battle Cry and Memoir 44 are not entirely to my taste. I am not clear on exactly why, but let’s just say that they don’t work for me. I’ll play them, but I am not enthralled as others are. I think it is to do with the level at which they are pitched, and the card system which doesn’t always quite work. I also feel that while I am playing for a result, it is a game result rather than a historical one. I am no fan of the American Civil War either, so this could explain much. I also have both WWII and Napoleonics covered in other rules. Whatever my concerns, there is no denying that these games hit the mark for thousands of crossover Euro gamers, or as entry level wargames, and almost all of my regular opponents are positive. So, it’s just me!
Where I do see a lot of merit in the system is in the flexibility of the terrain and units on a mix and match basis. With the advent of some rather tasty expansions, we are starting to see some interesting terrain and rules, all of which can be retro-fitted and, in a more limited way, used across all the periods covered – that desert board is tempting.
So now I have to explain why Command & Colors: Ancients is the best of the lot, and how it somehow works better than the previous incarnations. Firstly, I think it is simply a good fit. The period suits the card system well, and the new card effects add to the experience. This fit encompasses pace of the game, the way we have lost some of that brittle unit feel of the earlier games, and because I just like ancients more than the others. I also happen to like the scenarios offered and the slightly more complex rules. Ultimately, it is probably that I feel happier resolving a unit of Roman archers under this system than I do a unit of Shermans. Above all, I like the diversity of troops on offer here. Again, I realise this is slightly nebulous but with my background of miniatures and boardgames, it may just be that I am confused. The important point is that my first game of C&C:A was a superb, closely fought tussle; quite the epic until my general blocked an arrow with his forehead.
I can see this one running and running as expansion sets come out and add different scenarios, terrain, troop types and mixes. If they do it properly and also offer some generic counters, over time one could recreate almost any battle of the ancient world. It is that potential that scores for me. Given the current price of this game, and the contents and gameplay on offer, the whole package is a veritable bargain. Recommended.
Mare Nostrum + Mythology Expansion
Any game that describes itself under, or somehow acquires, the ‘Two Hour Civilisation’ tag is probably on a hiding to nothing. Tempus is about to travel that rocky road, and I doubt it will emerge puncture free. This game actually does fit the bill quite well though, and I played it expecting a so-so, but hopefully interesting, experience. Why? Because almost everyone I had spoken to was lukewarm. Or downright hostile. Me, I figured there was something there, even if it was just Gallic flair.
What I found was a good deal better than interesting and comes as close as any game I have played to this game design grail. Whether it is the beneficial effect of the Mythology expansion, or that the naysayers are simply wide of the mark, I don’t know, but this struck me as a game with very little out of place. It works on time required, involvement, clever systems, flavour, artwork and even the heroes and god powers create some real tension. It is not perfect, but one could certainly tweak and adjust from here on in to get something close to ideal. One has to applaud the original trading system, if nothing else.
True, you might quibble over the relative strengths of the various factions, and the strange restriction on resources that forces combat (though that is a sound reason if you are going to have it – it certainly works better than Antike), and perhaps the ‘no trading’ option is a mistake. But overall, yes, I really liked this one and I have added it to the Buy List. I look forward to my next game to see if it stands up to cheekier ploys and scales to different numbers of players.
Thurn und Taxis
Mr & Mrs Seyfarth for Hans im Glück
A game that appeared to great acclaim at Eastbourne in March, survived right through The Gathering despite a rules query, and is still being played here weekly. I am over the ten games mark in six weeks, and that doesn’t happen too often. The game is about building postal carriage routes in Bavaria and surrounding countries, and it has certainly stood head and shoulders above most early year releases. That is not to say this is the next big thing. It isn’t, so all you Caylus fans can put down those pitchforks and return home to hone your tactics.
Thurn und Taxis is a solid middleweight game with plenty of interest and a lot going for it. It may be a bit low on interaction but as a game for my semi-gamer group (half way between non-gamers and gamers), it is perfect. We all liked the card collecting and organising, and the route building aspects, and the fact that we get to say Lodz a lot. Trust me, it is pronounced wodge (no one believes me). If nothing else, clever dicks get to explain that the game is nothing to do with taxis, and why.
While there is nothing really new here, the game has more than enough in it and it has all been combined neatly. After game one I was borderline, but wanted to play again. The second game confirmed that there was indeed more to it and I have happily played since. It is the old story. Quite often we see games that have little innovation, but instead combine and tweak a number of familiar systems. Sometimes they are not worth our time or money (Mall World), sometimes they are (Vegas Showdown), while others like Thurn und Taxis seem to tap into the productive synergy that they are all seeking and a good game results.
Those kicking a perfectly good horse tell us T und T is just another route laying game like Elfenland, and that it is too luck based. I disagree. Others may get some mileage from the ‘first player advantage’ argument, but I suspect it is just a tight game and in time, if needed, a variant will straighten this minor kink. But for most, it is what it is – a good, quick, attractive, closely balanced game with no little flavour. Accusations of lack of depth are often well founded in this weight of game, but I would suggest that Thurn und Taxis is no worse than its rivals in this respect – I reckon you’ll play it at least five times, finding new stuff, and as long as you are not expecting Die Macher, you’ll be fine.
You can call me a sentimental old twit, but I can see this game being very popular in 2006 and it may even scoop some awards. It seems to hit the mark for most that play it, and it is very accessible. Having just seen the SdJ nominee list, I should think it will be between this and the interesting Blue Moon City. An old style German Game that sits happily in the new era, Thurn und Taxis is an appealing package. Once again we take our hats off to Bernd Brunhoffer.
Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta for G.M.T.
A slightly cryptic title hides a game on the Cold War, a period during which almost all of us grew up, and which doesn’t naturally suggest itself as a subject for a historical game. If I immediately say that this is one of the best games I have played for some years and that I can see myself playing it many more times, perhaps that will set out my stall and encourage you to read further.
Twilight Struggle is a two player card driven game – events and campaigns are triggered by play of cards by yourself and your opponent. This puts it into the same family as excellent games like We the People, Hannibal and Paths of Glory, but where these games can run to many hours, and the card play can appear somewhat false, Twilight Struggle manages to advance the genre into a new leaner, meaner era. It takes just three hours to play, often less than that, and uses some concepts from German Games, like area control, that make the systems entertaining and engaging. It is also, at heart, a simple game made playable by tough decisions. If it had wooden cubes, it could almost be a Euro. Almost.
Players take the role of the US and the Soviets, each looking to establish world domination without actually blowing the place up in the process. The game covers 1945 to 1990 and features all of the key events and characters of that period such as Cuba, Angola, Vietnam, Arab Israeli Wars, the Space Race and even the Peace Movement. Nuclear war is a constant threat, and must be avoided while destabilising countries or mounting coups – the stage is the entire globe. In one turn you may be contesting control of Indonesia, another might see Poland or South Africa in the frame. In essence, each player is aiming to control areas – Europe, Africa, Asia and so on – in time for the scoring rounds. This is done by placing control markers; the more markers you play, the stronger your hold on a country and the harder it is for your opponent to pull it to their side. Some countries are more valuable than others and will affect the scoring when it happens.
The key to the game, and what generate much of the post game discussions, is the scoring cards – a species of Wertung with timing notice for only one player. These are dealt randomly into the two hands. When, not if, they trigger – they are compulsory lays – the specified area is assessed for majority and control of key countries. There were all sorts of neat things going on here, like bluffing into Africa even though you hold an Asia scoring card. At this time other theatres tend to be ignored, which I really liked – it added to the strategy and the narrative quality. Then all of a sudden, Angola becomes important, for instance, and you can see why. Real events start to make some sense. I suppose this represents the powers focussing on an area, or switching targets as different issues arise. In this way the game swings back and forth, countries falling and regions becoming Soviet or US held.
As a result, there is a strong sense that this is a “high water mark” game. If the Soviets, who start strong, can get a win by mid game, great, but otherwise the momentum swings back and the Americans have their chance late in the game. This has lead to comments about imbalance, but I think I would argue that even if it is slightly off, who cares. Just switch sides when you next play.
The best bit is the event cards themselves, which again push the card driven technology a little further. The way the play of each card needs consideration, the way events are forced out into play even when you don’t want them, and the constant choice between operation strategy and events strategy is well handled. Okay, so some events happen out of sequence, and some are late or early, but generally the designers have done a credible job here. In this respect, and for its strong links to the historical events, it is the most logical of the card driven games – it is easy to rationalise what is going on.
What is interesting to me is that this game, in respect of rules and systems (and implementation of those systems), could happily drop a level – away from complexity, towards simplicity. I think when that happens we will really be talking about a game that appeals to wargamers seeking shorter games, and to German Gamers seeking a more challenging and thematic experience, and accommodating both. It would also be interesting to see a theme that handled multi-players rather better than the disappointing Sword of Rome.
Another longer term issue is that, with experience, players get to know the cards – both what is coming along, and which are the strong ones. In time, these bruisers are linked up into even more powerful combinations. I am not particularly happy about this, as it shifts the system way over from an unfolding story, with unknowns to be experienced, towards gamey. I would probably temper it by taking out some non-scoring cards at the start, but I can see that this would not appeal to everyone.
Is this a wargame to appeal to German Gamers? Possibly. It certainly is accessible if you have had some exposure to area control systems and card driven games. Otherwise, with varied card powers, a fair chunk of luck, historical considerations and an unusual victory curve, perhaps it is a leap too far. I also think the scoring card system may not sit well with many. I’d like to think that isn’t the case, and we shall see. We also missed the wooden markers…
I could write pages about Twilight Struggle. It is one of those games that just sits up and asks to be played, analysed and discussed. In fact, I shall probably return to it next time after I have played a few more games. The simple fact that you wait eagerly for your turn is the giveaway sign, and what a good feeling that is. The narrative arc is usually believable, there were clever and flavoursome events, there is a great feel for contesting theatres rather than just countries, and there is neat stuff going on at every level. The pleasing part is that, even after getting thrashed thanks to some unlucky card breaks and a few bad rolls, it is a game one enjoys simply participating in – as with a good game of tennis, you savour the rallies even if you don’t win the point. This is nothing less than a must buy.
This column is dedicated to Dave Farquhar, 1955 – 2004