Gamer’s Notebook July 2006

As the summer hots up, and work on my new house – Sumo Towers – at last declines, my thoughts immediately turn to long bike rides in the English countryside, blockbuster movies, barbeques, gardening, kite flying, and of course quiet afternoons sitting in the courtyard reading or painting. There is even the odd game session available for anyone not sunning themselves. Were it not for work and mortgage sticking their oars in, things would look pretty idyllic round these parts.

But Mike, we want to hear about games. Okay. The Nuremburg releases have been and gone, and outside of Thurn und Taxis and Um Krone they raised barely a ripple – but as ever, there have been a couple of notables which deserve comment. Plus, there are some games from The Gathering still unreviewed. I have also been lucky enough to enjoy some good two player sessions recently (still a rarity for me), and Fantasy Flight would seem to be trying to attract my attention with a slew of releases that have given a hernia to my postman. And then there was the fateful day when I played Sceptre of Zavandor. But first, some serious analysis. Wake up at the back there!

Closed Systems

You may have noticed a little game called Caylus doing the rounds. Seems quite popular on the whole. I can’t say I am huge fan, but if nothing else, it at least got me thinking. I played at Essen only to be predictably underwhelmed, and it was no better when I tried again in November. But recently, after a six month break, I revisited it just to check why this game was still up at the very top of the Geek Hit Parade. At the moment I am happy to let the fans (Colin Excitable and his chums) go mad for this one and when the dust settles we will see what is really there. What I have so far detected is a game that could well have been designed by Richard Breese, like Ys before it, but which clearly lacks that designer’s arch hand. I also think it is overlong. I would be happy at 90 minutes of this essentially repetitive stuff, but two or even three hours? Too much.

Don’t get me wrong, if you can get around the thin theme it is a good cerebral game with some clever mechanisms and a lot of decision making. It is however an interim design, which shows great potential, and so I think the next game from Mr Attia could be very interesting indeed. But simply put, while I won’t veto a game, I just don’t enjoy playing this type of thing. I am reminded of Puerto Rico, Goa and to an extent Princes of Florence, a game I otherwise enjoy. I call these ‘Closed System’ games, wherein there are no surprises, most or all random elements have been terminated, they have fixed resources, and a very firm feel of boundaries on all sides – almost like an intentionally restricted test environment that somehow got released to the masses. And seemingly they like it that way!

Seriously, I find this style of ‘damped’ game to be painfully tight, ordered, rather dry, process heavy and with a strangely studious feel. While there is a little interaction, much of this is simple forced reaction to another’s play.  There is as a result a strong sense of everyone ploughing their own furrow and optimising as they go – a game for Perfect Plan devisers, and we all know one of those. I don’t feel there are any exciting strategies or sweeping plays to be made, or surprises to be had, and I don’t warm to the theme. Where is the flavour, the sweep of history, the narrative quality, the depth of experience, the soul? Above all, it is no fun.

There are of course advantages to the form, and we can see why designers of a certain, shall we say Teutonic, mindset regularly come up with them. Mainly, they provide an intense, close game and allow the sort of gamer (a.k.a. The Silent Ones) to really get into the cogs and pulleys of the design. These players enjoy a mental workout. They play often, they play the same game repeatedly, and very competitively. Understandable. Sometimes I sit and wait months (or years) for a game that hits the right balance of decision making, and flavour. Sadly, I think this depth, and depth it is, is often mistaken for a game with many strategies. Instead I feel Caylus is a game with a number of strategies that may be pursued, but they are not exactly limitless. Of course this is more than 95% of German Games offer, so again, one can understand the appeal. In a nutshell, not my style of game – but each to their own.

The Sceptre of Zavandor

I had avoided playing this one for a long time, but when there is an identifiable level of hobby support for a game that is clearly not based on pure speculative buzz or being first to play, I feel a need to check the game out. My reticence was built on a dislike for Outpost back in the day, the game on which Zavandor clearly draws heavily (I am not sure if there was an agreement or not), and also on reliable advice that the game ran for at least four hours. Outpost certainly took us at least that long. Four hours is a long time playing something you don’t like, so it took a balmy afternoon at the game club where no other games looked tempting, a promise of two hour game length, England losing to Portugal on the TV (unwatchable, my dears) and a transitory Siggins mood swing to get me into it. Truly, the Stars were Right.

And you know what? I rather liked it. This view would be slightly biased by the one point win I enjoyed, but not that much. I ran under the “Fair Deal for Fairies” ticket, and shot out into an early lead with the Crystal Ball and Three Opals opening. I was first to the Diamonds, and made them my own, and managed to secure two Sentinels before anyone else had even one. But gem losses hit my income, my cash flow was already erratic, so after that, like a desperate pace maker in the last 100 metres, I just lumbered on and waited for the challenges. And they surely came, one after another. In fairness, one player could have pipped me had he remembered to buy two Opals in the last turn, but I had made a similar timing mistake earlier. So an honourable draw was agreed and given that we were playing the German version, with some rather nebulous definitions and game text, it seemed the right result.

I don’t honestly know what has changed from Outpost, apart from the theme which I do think fits rather well. I was reminded of Ars Mysteriorum both by the light hearted fantasy motif, and the real and evident effort to make that theme stick. It certainly feels a good degree friendlier than Outpost ever did, and while the ordered and regimented structure is still evident, it didn’t seem quite so onerous. And referring back to the Closed System comments above, it avoided the dry label in a way that Outpost certainly didn’t. Can someone familiar with both games let me know why this might be? But whatever has changed, including probably my receptiveness, makes for title that I wouldn’t mind playing again, perhaps once or twice a year if the mood took me. It is a game that is ridiculously overwrought, with a sore need for decent play aids, and has all the signs of being built in a spreadsheet (!). Elegant is never an adjective we will need to deploy here, but the system stands up and, importantly, it has enough hooks to draw you in and keep you entertained for the three hours or so this will take you.

I really liked that I enjoyed the steady progress, you can see where you are going and how relatively well you are doing, and you can see why a certain artefact would be a very good thing to have, right now. That said it is a bit processional, but I liked the fact everyone was involved right down to the wire (closed system advantages, again). One becomes immersed in the relative pricing, the different strategies, the occasionally vicious auctions and the cleverly staggered and variable cash flows but mainly (and I hesitate slightly here) there is the race element. A very slow race, for sure, but a race nevertheless. The rider is that the ‘race’ did take four hours, including explanation, but that could be improved a lot if everyone kept the pace up.  But still, Zavandor was a very pleasant surprise and I look forward to the English edition from Z-Man which will hopefully have a really tight set of rules, charts and game aids. I am happy to make Zavandor my Game of the Month this time.

Two Player Games

My opportunities for two player games are strictly limited. Almost always there are three or more gamers present at a session, and there can be up to twenty at my local club. So when Richard Breese came over recently we took the chance to play some of the many games in my backlog. Inevitably that means Kosmos are going to be figuring large in proceedings, and as it happened from the seven on offer, we played four Kosmos games.

We opened up with Hellas, a game I have had on the shelf in German for a year or so but never got round to making the card translations. So the English version was snapped up at The Gathering! Talk about lazy… Mark Johnson recommended this one to me and I liked the sound of the island conquest and battle system as a sort of wargame-lite. But in play it proved a surprisingly abstract exercise, with a lot of positional play, and as Richard is a bit good at abstracts I got hammered before I could explore the possibilities. The game is one of those that ‘tips over’ and once you are in a losing position, there didn’t seem any way back. But next time I will know that. It also struck me that the tactical cards were somewhat variable in effect, but the scenario and exploring was interesting and the game well balanced. I will return to this one.

Three Dragon Ante is one of those games that occasionally slips out from the TSR stable (now Wizards of course) purporting to be an AD&D product but is really a proper game. I think in fairness it is something of a cash-in on the worldwide poker craze (has it finished yet?), but it works well enough until the game end which is surely broken? – I suspect in theory it could go on for several days. You also have to provide your own poker chips. The game is essentially one of ante-ing up dragon cards and gold, and then building hands to try and win the pot. It is actually quite interesting in play, restricted only by luck of the draw which can be drastically one sided (he said, with feeling). You win by reducing your opponent to zero gold, but as there is a distinct to and fro quality, and you start with 50 gold, this can take some time. I would suggest either reducing the 50 gold figure, or play the sudden death win but allow a time limit to kick in, e.g. highest total after 30 minutes plus one hand. Okay, playable, and probably better with more players. It is staying on the shelf.

Next up was Odin’s Ravens, about which I had heard nothing but good things. I like the designer Thorsten Gimmler, who at least seems to be trying to push the design envelope, and I was impressed by Aton and Geschenkt. This is a deceptively clever little race game, which didn’t quite work the first time. But we carried on into the second race and started to see the possibilities. By race four, we were seasoned experts and trying tricky stuff. There is actually quite a bit of tactical depth here, but it retains a light, fun, lucky feel – not easy to pull off. We played about six or seven races in the end and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I think the target points total may be a mistake, as it could make the game too long which would be a mistake, but otherwise it is all good. I like the various card effects – not too strong or weak – and the neat ability to come from behind, make a sudden dash or subtly block your rival. Great flavour too, with the terrain playing a key role. Not one you are going to play every week, but a decent filler, a clever design, and well worth your time.

We then took a quick pitstop for an old favourite in new clothes. Predictably, with its status as a huge hit worldwide, Einfach Genial/Ingenious! is now out in a small box travel edition, and while it is exactly the same game (except with pegs for scoring) it is about a tenth the size of the original. So ideal for your beach bag, backpack or bike panniers… I like everything about this game except my inability to plan ahead. It is easily taught, everyone I know loves it, and even I can put up a decent performance. The copy was a German only edition, but that hardly makes any difference, and there may be an English edition coming along. I probably need say no more.

And finally, Jambo, a lightish title from Rudiger Dorn concerning buying and selling goods in an African market. I have a weakness for this type of game, perhaps as a post-CCG legacy. Give me a symmetrical position with new event and power cards to experience, with the possibility of special cards and combinations, and I am a happy gamer. Obviously the discovery element wanes with time, but it is fun while it lasts. Jambo hit almost all the right notes, and apart from the annoying restriction on slots, this was a winner. I even started thinking of a four player variant mid-game, which probably indicates how much I enjoyed it. I like the fact that you always want more actions, and I think the opponent recording those actions is neat. Really good little game, I hope to play it a lot more as sessions permit.

I would rank these games Three Dragon Ante lowest, then Hellas, Odin and Ingenious, with Jambo at the top. This is because I rather like slightly chaotic, interactive card games like Jambo, and because while I love Ingenious, I am not that great at it. However, unusually for a single session, I felt every one of these games worked and can happily recommend all of them, as long as you fix the Dragon game end…


In what has become a largely disposable hobby, some games stick around. The really good ones are self explanatory, but there is a broad sub-stratum of games that are The Nearlies. Even though they don’t really excite, they don’t disappoint either, often having some little residual hook that makes you think, hmm, okay, go on then, once more. These games are rewarded with something that very few titles get – repeat business. Hazienda is a good, and timely, example. The first time I played I thought it was okay, but I also expected to leave it behind me: it’s Kramer solo for starters, a complicated version of Through the Desert with all sorts of random factors, cash and systems thrown in, and possibly even a flaw in the shape of the land strategy.

However, this is a Hans im Gluck game, lots of people said they liked it, and some raving individuals said it was the best of Essen. But then there are always such comments, and in this case I don’t think it was. The most persuasive argument came from Larry Levy who said I should try it again on the asymmetrical map rather than the default ‘dogbone’. This I did, and two plays quickly became five plays. While I still don’t think it is a great game, there is definitely something there and I’ll play at the club if there is nothing better to do. Perhaps importantly, I haven’t yet bought it.

Faint praise, Siggins? Yes, I am afraid so. Hazienda neither shines nor smells; it is just slap bang in the middle of acceptable – about a solid an example of a 6.5 as I can offer you, and I don’t usually do halves. Or numerical ratings. But today, I needed one. It’s a playable game, it works, it’s quick, and I like the feel and weight. I am just frustrated that a little more development, or perhaps some deciduous trimming by the designer, may have made it an 8. From Hans im Gluck the least one expects is superb development and fine tuning from Bernd Brunhoffer. Perhaps this is just a game that wasn’t meant to shine.

So let’s have a look at why this may be. Firstly, the appeal. You are building, which is generally a positive thing. There is a decent level of interaction, competing for resources, claiming land and racing for the important markets. A very strong element is the global timing of ones moves – different actions need to be taken to optimize your position and score, so your valuable turns must cater for short termism, funding, re-stocking, and long term strategy. There are also some interesting and varied tactical approaches possible (I chose those words carefully, and will return to them in a later column), and the situation, rather than the theme, is challenging. I think this is because there is a decent balance of random factors, timing, options, cash control, setting up potential VPs, and working out how to optimize that lot in one big game plan.

So that’s all good, and one can see the considered design, or probably development, that has gone in. The result is a game that has a base appeal despite a clear abstract core and I am pretty sure that we will see improvements, revisions and spin-offs in time. Certainly the game is ripe for any amount of variant play – the official variants included are a good start point. I have already seen some good homebrew maps, there is at least one map generator available, and one could feasibly tweak almost all the game components for interesting effects. Not often one can say that. On the downside, I think that the standard, recommended board (the notorious ‘dogbone’) is an idea bad enough to sink the game for some. The reverse side of the board, or one of the abovementioned maps now appearing, are so much better it is baffling that the symmetrical board was even included.

We have established that there is a fair bit going on, generating interest between turns. The trade off is that the underpinning money transactions, as ever, impede the game flow and in this instance combine with action points to make it worse. There is a major disconnect between your downtime – where you know clearly what you want to do – and your turn, where these aims are not easily implemented. The Moon Patent System of acquiring animals, Airlines/Reibach style, is both good (quick, immediate, some decision making) and not so good (luck of the draw, crap selection when your turn arrives forcing deck draws). As a result often one has that ‘Two or Three Turn Delayed Execution’ issue that is not because of decisions or having too much to do, just because the game situation or availability of cards dictates it. The game still comes in at the 75 to 90 minute mark, so there is no great concern here, but there is a noticeable pacing issue.

I think as a function of all this, the game feels fiddly rather than elegant. There is also slight sense that there is a little too much to be considering for the weight of game – for instance, water tile play is almost always an afterthought – and that perhaps we are working too hard for the rewards on offer. Mark Johnson raised just this point in his excellent podcast, Boardgames To Go. I think the crux of the matter is that I like the options available, and where that leads, but the way I access those options is somewhat fiddly and not quick in process or maturation of plans.

Compare and contrast this with something like Ticket to Ride, or indeed Through the Desert, where we are offered just the bare tactical bones and a transparent, intuitive system – the resulting immediacy and snappy play is pretty much what lifts those games. There is much that feels fresh and interesting in Hazienda, and it makes one think even though there is little new on offer. I can happily recommend it to you, largely because I very much doubt that you will dislike it. It is a game that will see occasional use, as long as you don’t even think of playing the dogbone more than once.

Mike Siggins