Gamer’s Notebook September 2006


Okay, let me get this out in the open. Emira (Phalanx Games) is one of the funniest games I have played in some time. I will get in trouble for saying that because it revels in pre-PC sexism, has more double entendres than an Austin Powers movie, and a decent running gag about Palace Size, but never Palace Envy.  UK readers should just imagine Carry On Caliph. I am convinced the designers, and definitely the rules translator, have milked what they can from the scenario and all inhabit some weird 1970’s time bubble, or perhaps have read too much Loaded or Maxim. In truth, I enjoyed the temporary juvenile freedom, the journey back to a time before PC, and the shocked reactions from women playing on neighbouring tables. I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, but I did. I apologise in advance.

Emira could have been done ages ago – I have often wondered about a dating agency theme, but this puts a slightly more dubious spin on the subject. Players take the role of princes building their harems, recruiting wives from a string of beautiful and willing princesses. Each princess is looking for a different quality in her man, and the game is about achieving that match before your rivals do. Most princesses, quickly, wins, which you have to say makes a change from victory points or cash as a winning condition. Emira won the famed Hippodice Game Design competition and comes highly rated by many of my fellow reviewers. Sadly, it is my job to tell you why it doesn’t make the grade. Emira version 2.0 undoubtedly will, but Emira 1.0 falls short as an operating system.

The player is given a card that shows what he is looking for in his princesses. He can win by just acquiring seven quicker than anyone else, or he can go for the quick win by getting five princesses who have the right mix of attributes – housekeeping, intelligence, cooking and ‘romance’. The princesses appear one at a time, at random, and they are drawn to the palace with the best fit for their desires.

A nice twist is that some princesses also have ‘skills’, which will please Napoleon Dynamite no end. This may mean that they can help you close business deals, or they may be really jealous, or they require a special payment to stay in the harem. In addition, all princesses demand a cash upkeep, which in the wrong company quickly translates to ‘money for shoes’. This gives the princesses a bit of character, and they are all individually named and illustrated, which allows one to assess them in the worst possible way – ‘Oh. Right. So she’s basically a tramp/nympho/horsey.’

Over time, the sheikhs build up their appearance, status, palace size and wealth and try to be first in line when the right woman comes along. If the fit works, and you have a spare room at the palace, she moves in. If you don’t, she goes to a rival with a weak chin and a hook nose, or worst of all, a small palace. And that, essentially, is it. Repeat until your harem runneth over.

Here, in that repetition, we see problem one. Emira is a looper. By which I mean the system goes round and round through eight phases per turn, with every phase needing at least cursory attention. The only variety to this looping is that the turn marker moves round, and sometimes someone might play an event card. These have to be bought, and they are not inexpensive. Their impact is wildly variable. There are weak cards (like those crappy ones in Dune) and very powerful cards. You just don’t know what is coming.

I have a few pet hates at the moment. One of them is London Bus ticket machine policy, another is the Scissor Sisters, and the third is Too Many Auctions In Games – a thorny subject to return to at a later date. At present I would happily live with no auctions at all. Especially when said auction serves only to determine turn priority. Basically all the princes bid gold to get first access to the tempting one-shot actions on offer, which then need to be paid for. You would think that the first to drop out got the last pick, and the one who paid the most got the first, similar to Amun Re. No. Too easy. The winner of the first auction takes his pick, and this can be jolly useful. Then the remaining players bid again for second choice. Oh my. Please save me. So in a five player game, you have four auctions per turn, in each of perhaps twenty or thirty turns per game.

Warghhhhhhhhh! I know it can be important, as in the closing turns of Indonesia or in Age of Steam, but please, please don’t make me do it every single frickin’ time. Design a better system. You will be pleased to hear that Emira has the abovementioned turn order importance, sometimes down to the fourth action pick, so rather than just leave it like Princes of Florence, which can be bad enough, they crocked it to make each turn extra painful.

I cannot begin to express how inappropriate this process is, how much time it takes, and how annoying it was. I also understand that you need the first choice to be able to change in a game like this. But that isn’t the whole story. It is not just gold that wins auctions. If you own a camel, you get a discount on your bid. It is a decent discount, and it gets bigger the more and better camels you have. It means that the player with the most camels bids, ohh, 280 gold, which costs him nothing, and he usually gets the first choice. The player with the second greatest camel fleet does the same. Finally players with few or no camels get to pick up the scraps. But still we must bid. Unbelievable.

Next up, as if auctioning every five minutes wasn’t enough, they kept money in the game. In multiples of 10, on bids, income and prices that that can go as high as 1,000 or more. Cue loads of fiddly payment, income, and change making transactions.

The result of the choice order fiasco is that some lucky player gets in early on the spice caravans. These are low risk multipliers of your income. You tip in 750 gold, and 2,000 gold comes out over time – we move the markers along tracks, which is even more faffing around. And don’t whatever you do knock the board. What it also gives you is instant extra income every turn, which is vital in all respects. But, in a cruel twist of fate, there are only two caravans available each turn. Guess who has the best chance of winning the second round and buying another caravan? After a few turns I was left with basic income of 350, compared to all the other players earning around 1,000. All I could spend my money on was plastic surgery and clothes, so I ended up as Mr Vanity while the others cleaned up on camels, more caravans, status and palace extensions (I told you it was a running gag). But could I pull a princess? No.

There is a deep and wondrous secret in Emira. Some while after starting you sit there and see the truth. It is as if the harem attendant has jumped into the pool and her previously opaque, dowdy clothes have become alluringly transparent. You see the true game hidden under all the padding. At heart, it is this. There are four categories that will appeal to the princesses – wealth, appearance, status and palace size. The game and cash flow are structured so that you will probably have to concentrate on being the best in one of these categories, perhaps two if you are the lucky rich blokes with dibs in the caravan oligopoly.

So what happens? Princess Diazepam appears and she likes to see a decent chunk of Status and, as a tie breaker, Physical Appearance will win her every time. There is a clear leader in Status, because he knowingly bought a status card, usually jewels, earlier in the same turn. But not because he has the most camels, which you would think would be a factor. Fine. No tension, but okay. You simply look at the undecided princess, try to manoeuvre yourself to be top dog in that category, and either fail or succeed. Alternatively you choose to ignore her charms, and improve your position for the next, hopefully more perceptive, candidate.

It quickly becomes clear that all you are doing is holding onto your lead in one or just possibly two categories, while trying to usurp the lead in another, and hoping that the right princess comes along at the right time. As this is a simple card draw, it comes down to pure luck. It might happen that the first four princesses turned are shallow, and go for looks and money. The guy endowed with the massive palace gets nothing. One would also assume, in the spirit of fairness, that there is an equal spread of princesses. There isn’t. Nine each go for looks and status, six for palace credentials, and just three for good old money (stop mumbling at the back there). So conceivably, you could attract no princesses at all before someone won. As a defence you play the odds, try your hardest to get into looks and status, and hope the princess deck is kind. Harem building by poker draw. You quickly sense that rolling a die and deciding a winner that way would be at least a lot quicker.

Finally, and probably terminally in my view, the game is way too long. The box says 75+ minutes. That plus sign hides an awful lot of spare capacity. We played over two hours and were only half way towards our targets. There was no real expectation of it speeding up, because loopers don’t usually do that, and there was not much desire to carry on as we had seen all the game had to offer. Each of the issues above adds a little to the time used. I would go as far as saying that there is no way this game could be played in anything close to 75 minutes, except possibly with three and a very lucky quick win. The good news is that all of us felt that getting, say, four princesses instead of seven would have been quite enough exposure to the game, and a perfectly good compromise. Or even set a time limit – one hour plus three turns each. It needs to come in at 90 minutes max, and that would still be toppish.

Deep breath, Mike.

So, Watson, what do we have here? Surely you can see the evidence laid before you? Emira has all the signs of a game that has not been sufficiently developed. Why else would the upkeep phase be where it is, and not netted against income? Why was that interminable auction phase allowed to survive? Why are we bothering with all this cash accounting? Why don’t camels count towards status?

I can see why Emira would win Hippodice, partly because there is historically quite a low standard there, and because the theme and the system appeal are first rate. Really, really good. True potential. The components are lovely as well. The rules are long, but well written. You want to like it like few other games in recent years, and I congratulate the designers on coming up with the idea, the mechanisms and the humour to make it work. All big plusses. But they didn’t know when to stop. Was there a fear that this would be their first and last game? In which case let’s put everything in we have ever thought of.

I would love to have seen the Hippodice version. I am hazarding a guess that it was pretty similar to what we are buying. In my humble view this is a game that needs large lumps lopped off of it, then downsized, lopped some more and then streamlined down to 60 minutes. Do we strictly need a spice caravan sub-game? Surely that is another game in itself? Cut it loose, let it thrive elsewhere. Simplify, reduce, improve. We desire elegance, speed and appropriate systems, not a box bulging with unfinished and ill fitting ideas. There is, overall, just too much of Emira to go round.

Don’t get me wrong. Emira is not all disappointment. In fact there is much that is positive. The whole game shows a welcome freshness of approach. There are interesting choices between actions to be made once you have a turn, and there is tactical fencing for the category leads. The caravans are neat. The way you build up your appearance and gain synergistic benefit is very neat. The flavour is solid, and we can all immediately identify with the aim of the game. The princesses’ desires and skills are well handled, so that they have a smidge of personality as they move into the palace – sometimes they are a mixed blessing, sometimes you really don’t want them at all. And despite all the obstacles left in our path, it is, as I said, great fun to play.

I suppose I should mention the theme here, as it is causing some people to raise eyebrows or even say they couldn’t play it with certain people, especially younger ones. That I understand, and as ever you as parent or host make the call. Not playing it won’t make the existence of harems go away, but it will hide them for a bit longer. In its defence, much as one can enjoy Austin Powers or Men Behaving Badly, it is an escape, a fantasy, not an endorsement of historical mis-treatment of, or attitudes towards, women. Had Phalanx come to me, I might have suggested the dating agency idea, or turning it on its head completely by having the men come along for selection by a powerful Queen, and set it all on a fictitious Desert Island. But they didn’t, so you get both a harem and to make your own moral choices.

Can I recommend Emira? Oddly, yes. But only if you are going to play someone else’s copy, have someone teach you, agree to a time limit and know what you are getting into. While it is a 50/50 game for me, I am by my own admission hard to please, so you could be looking at a 6 or better. Either way I still think it is worth the experience, if you can get over the learning curve, and the painful auction sequences, and the runaway leader, there are actually the signs of a good game in there. I had fun, I enjoyed more of Emira than I disliked, and I certainly don’t think it is broken. It just needs a lot of work. Even with its faults it is better than some of the games I have played this year – California, Nottingham and Aquadukt for starters. And just to prove my point, I am still going to give it two and a half stars. But not, predictably, Game of the Month.

Canal Mania

I like canals. There is definitely something special about them. I first became aware of them at school, when we studied the period and played an educational game from Longman, also called Canal Mania. My earliest recollections are of days in Little Venice in London – I am still hoping to get to Venice proper some day – with my parents, walking along the Regents Canal. From an aesthetic viewpoint it was compounded in Birmingham one day twenty years ago when, surrounded by grimy buildings and urban decay, I looked over a wall to see the Birmigham Canal Navigation (or perhaps the Worcester and Birmingham). It looked untouched, forgotten, out of place; obviously man-made yet still impressive, cutting through the city at low level, almost hidden from the roads and buildings all around. So, bolstered by Joe Huber’s enthusiastic review, the buying choice was easy.

Somebody picked up the Canal Mania box while we were playing and expressed surprise that it was by the Ragnar Brothers. As far as they were concerned, the fearsome siblings* hadn’t done anything since History of the World. I sort of know what he meant, as although they have put out many good games – Viking Fury and Angola being two of my favourites – they have maintained quite a low profile. Many argue that this is due to their penchant for homespun components, which I rather like, but I suspect marketing, subject choice, having a five year break, and being British all come into play.

*They are anything but fearsome really. And only two of them are brothers. But, as they always tell me, it makes the bank cashier laugh when they pay in their cheques.

I am going to come right out with it. After two plays I think Canal Mania is their best game since History of the World, and it easily qualifies for Game of the Month. While it will undoubtedly make you think of many other titles – Ticket to Ride, Age of Steam, Railway Rivals, Stephenson’s Rocket, even Empire Builder – it sets out its stall as a canal design, and thanks to some clever tweaks, loving care and good development, it stands as its own game.

Canal Mania works simply enough. You accept government contracts to build canals between specified city locations on a map of England. This must be done without too much meandering, but you may connect other towns en route if you can. Unlike most rail games it does not require linked networks – a canal can be at the other end of the map to your previous completion – but you may not re-use existing canal to construct a later contract. In your turn you have some decision making – the key one being to build canal tiles now, or to acquire the cards that will let you build later. The twist is that you must alternate tiles along the route  – straights then locks. As you complete a contract, victory points are awarded, and then you can deliver goods to make yet more money. You have access to engineers that can help your builds, and there are various types of tile to get your canals through hills. Winning is a straight race towards a VP rubicon, which triggers an end game phase. All this constitutes a very tight system, albeit with some down time if you dawdle.

Canal Mania also scores highly for what isn’t there. No auctions of any sort, no fiddly money transactions, no sense of impending bankruptcy – whatever it adds to the challenge, this is not a fun gaming device – and no feeling that this is a game thrown together from diverse parts. For some reason the word in my head is ‘smooth’. It works well, the mechanisms mesh unobtrusively, it plays quickly (well under two hours), it feels fresh, the components are good quality, it offers a decent challenge, and the rules are clear as a bell. It even has Leighton Buzzard. If only all games could be like this.

It even feels like a canal game. It seems clear to me that the Ragnars started with the theme, as did Emira, and even though Canal Mania will get lumped in with the railway games by the ‘filers’ (all games will have a category imposed), we are definitiely dealing with water and not rail travel. One is building canals, and somehow they have managed to sell that notion superbly – I suspect because of the elegant requirement to lay lock tiles alternately, and the separate route rule.

Perhaps the whole idea is easier to buy into for natives of these islands, used to seeing canals in use – providing bike and walking paths – or at worst full of weeds and old shopping carts. There is actually a leisurely, historic feel to the whole thing that befits the 18th century setting. London and the West Country connect up, the Midlands develops the routes we all know, and the North West becomes quite chaotic with canals snaking from town to town, through the mountains. The modern looking map might have been enhanced by better period graphics and use of appropriate fonts (as elsewhere in the game), but that is a minor quibble.

Okay. All good so far. My only concerns would be on the luck quotient, and, importantly, the variable strengths of the canal networks you see in a typical game, and the slightly puzzling score mechanism. You can score in two ways; by having goods shipped over your canals (which works fine), and when you complete a canal build contract. The odd thing here is that you score for the number of locks, aqueducts and tunnels. So if, for the sake of argument, a clever engineer came along and built a perfectly routed canal, with no locks, he would score lower than one that built one with locks and major engineering works. I am not sure what is being depicted here, and it seems a bit back to front. I wonder if this is a nod towards income from locks? Perhaps I should read a book and find out. Either way it makes no difference to the gaming value.

The first problem is Reibach Syndrome, where everyone else always gets great cards to pick up but your turn seems to offer nothing but dross. And, of course, vice versa but it never seems that way. If you see three locks, or aquaducts, come up in one batch, rest assured they will not make their way round to you. Wildcard builds are great if you have them, painful if you miss out. Two or three turns of that, and a hand limit of seven, can set you back early on (he said, with feeling) and since this is a race of sorts, well it can hurt long term as well. In fairness, the easily accessible engineer cards can sometimes mitigate poor card draws, and you always have the option to ‘sweep’ the selection. Normally, you can at least do something.

A similar criticism can be made on the contracts. If the new batch is turned for the player on your left, or they finish one at the right time, again you can expect the good ones to go before you can grab them. However, because you can only hold two open contracts and there is a compensation system, this is sometimes not a biggie. Where your canals end up being built very definitely is a biggie, as we shall see later. Overall I am not going to make a huge fuss about the luck element, because this is not a brain burner type of game where people are going to get too bent out of shape by a bit of luck and increased flavour. What I think might happen is that the control freaks will, deep down, enjoy this game and actually want less luck… the game balance of the excellent Jenseits von Theben comes immediately to mind.

In the first game I went for the ‘many quick builds’ strategy, planting short canals all over the place, ending up completing seven contracts, more than anyone else. This achievement carries a victory point bonus, but not much of one. I think I got ten VPs, while even the last place builder got one. At the end of the game I needed a charge to make any inroads on the leader, who had built longer canals and had better connections, but ten was not enough.

In my unbiased view, I didn’t do anything really wrong. I was simply not getting the volume of goods shipped and my network was weaker, due to available contract card draws and speed out of the gate, so my income was consistently half that of the leader. Even a late run of steady business didn’t help much. So we may have a game that permits a player to establish a lead, and hold onto it. Why? Because, quite simply, some canals are more equal than others and because they will be built in varying sequence, or not built at all, they will have different strengths in each game. I think. The strength is based on canal length, location, whether they connect to each other and the big cities, whether they offer access to a range of markets, and, ultimately,  who else chooses to send goods along them.

Point one is that there is an early mover advantage. Being out there and able to shift goods in the opening turns, even on a short canal, will pick up money because there is no one else doing it and the goods replenishment system compounds this advantage. This may partly be because goods are generic, although I will have to think that through fully. I feel the allocation and delivery of goods is a slightly contrived system and inferior to that in Age of Steam, game wise, but works well enough here for historical feel and ease of play. This is a running trade off in Canal Mania.

Secondly, I think there is much to be said for a central position, or a good combination of canals, or perhaps just lucky draws on the goods contracts. By central I mean one where others’ goods will have to ship partly along your route to attain long distance, high revenue, deliveries. To an extent it seems as if goods are pulled into these well placed, powerful canal networks which may be owned because of the luck of the draw rather than skill, but I reserve judgement on that for now. However, much of one’s income is certainly reliant, as in Emira, on the sequence in which canal contracts, goods, and build cards appear. In one game Oxford to Coventry may be next to useless sitting there on its own, or completed late in the game, but as a link between Reading and Birmingham, it could make all the difference.

Thirdly, there is that dual edged gaming device, the card deck. If you know the deck, or decks in this case, you are going to be able to play the game much better – it is no use waiting on the Peterborough to Boston card, or the tenth aquaduct, if there isn’t one coming. For this reason, I would have expected a list of contract cards in the rulebook – we looked, and came up short. We only later realised that the rulebook centrefold is the completed map. Doh! Actually there is no Peterborough-Boston, as I found out to my cost. And even if the contract you want appears, but appears late or goes to a rival, the effect is much the same.

On the other hand, I always enjoy games where you don’t know what is coming, events wise, so one feels more at the whim of fate (or the government!), to which one reacts as best as one can to the situation presented – thus the process and the game tends towards the chaotic. In this sense, reverting to the luck element discussed above, Canal Mania can and does work well as an experience game on all levels. Just don’t expect to always win through good play.

The oddest part of Canal Mania is that it is like playing Railway Rivals in reverse. In RR, you build a speculative network and wait for the runs at the end of the game to determine profits, or network success.  Here, you know the routes at the start, get them built as quickly as you can and then hope that they get profitable goods traffic. I think that was essentially how Empire Builder worked wasn’t it? Seems a long time ago now. I liked that game a lot, but the rewards never quite seemed to match the network planning one put in.

What I hope, and won’t know until I have played a bit more, is that a canal that is good in one game, perhaps because it is linked to another, or manages to link key towns, may be weaker in the next because of rival routes and unbuilt contracts. If you get the synergy working, through luck and good play, then you have a shot at the win. If you don’t, you will need to enjoy the building process and I know a lot of gamers that won’t settle for this feature alone. Personally I am happy to play canal builder and see what the fates bring, money wise. To me this is an interesting unfolding of the game system over several games, and as we often say if that gets you through five plays, or even ten, we are all winners.

Although it is quite an expensive game, Canal Mania has a lot going for it and I can happily say it will be played for a while to come. The game has some neat decision points, a strong basic theme to which the system sticks hard, and everyone comes out of it smiling. It feels somehow very English. Canal Mania is an enjoyable, clean and flavoursome game in which you feel as if you have achieved something, even if actually dead last and contemplating those key turning points. For comparison, this is something I have never felt when playing Age of Steam or Railroad Tycoon – there is always too much frustration and lack of atmosphere to overcome. With the provisos on powerful networks and leader catch-up firmly in mind, Canal Mania comes recommended.

Mike Siggins