Gamer’s Notebook, April 2007
What follows is a round up of the games played at three conventions that saw me occupied for no less than eighteen days of twenty five in March and early April. These were in Eastbourne, at The Gathering and the Cambridge Boardgame Club. Encouragingly, I am not in the least gamed out and will be back for more in two days time. There are however so many games to cover, that this report is going to be a two parter. Look for the balance in a couple of weeks.
For some reason, the Nuremberg releases were both few and delayed this year. Retailers could not satisfy our cravings at our mid-March mini-con in Eastbourne. The only ‘new’ game we had was Pillars of the Earth (Mayfair’s English version – identical otherwise) which I had managed to secure pretty much off the boat – accordingly, my copy got a lot of play and was, I believe, enjoyed by all. In a way, the delivery delay was a positive outcome. We simply worked our way through the more obscure or replayable Essen titles and, in a trend that would continue in Columbus, there were an awful lot of prototypes played. More on that development later.
Days of Wonder games are nothing if not big. Cleopatra was quite daunting last year, spread across two tables, and this looked no less impressive with a large board and lots of stylish bits. Cleopatra was okay, but we had seen most of it before and the whole thing was over-produced and under-developed, but we can debate that if you feel strongly. Colosseum is a different beast.
With a couple of exceptions, it feels as if the designers have applied themselves, the developers have done their work, and that this is a rounded, functioning product. The slip was in making some routes to victory somewhat channelled (try the trireme ploy one day) and in having just about everything left in, system wise – roll & move, auctions, trading, building, money, bonuses, VPs – it’s got the lot! The result can be a slow game with four or five – if you have the temerity to chat to your friends, you may be looking at two hours, which is 30 minutes too long. It also makes Princes of Florence, which achieves much the same net result, look lean and mean.
The basic game will be broadly familiar to any players of Princes, Leonardo, Show Manager, Moviemaker or (cough, cough) Shakespeare: The Bard Game. It’s all about productions. You are tasked with putting on shows in the Roman arenas. This means acquiring resources and matching them to spectaculars that emphasise your horses, chariots, gladiators or lions. There are bonuses for holding a controlling interest in some resource types, and there are bit players too. Sadly, you often can’t get hold of the resources you need. As I said, nothing much left out.
As the game progresses, your productions become more and more impressive, and – this is the unusual part – your final VP score is the best production you manage, not a cumulative total as you might expect. So your early shows may stink, but as long as you are building towards a season finale to make the emperor weep with joy, you are in good shape. This also gives rise to a Princes style income system, and some interesting timing decisions.
The one word summary? Overwrought. But it works well enough, and it feels finished and playable. You just need to keep a move on, it has some luck, and, honestly, I didn’t find it a great deal of fun – something of a serious omission for a Roman impresario.
Lord of the Rings: Battlefields
A major highlight of The Gathering was a four hour Lord of the Rings game with all available guns firing for Sauron – including the brand new Battlefields expansion. I was Fatty Bolger, the full array of hobbits was present, and we even had a human Sauron, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Everything started really badly and got much worse. In Bree we drew a dozen consecutive bad events. By Moria, Sauron was skipping gaily down the track, whistling, and we were starting to die. It was all up for the goodies in Helm’s Deep. The shadow lay dark across the lands of Middle-Earth, and we went off for a well earned milk shake.
All of which is to say that the game is now rather difficult for the Free Peoples. Not impossible though. Later in the week, while I was struggling in the Friday Night quiz, the hobbits made it to Mt. Doom by one card. One card! That is what I call a balanced game.
When I returned to England, and described this epic event (I can see it becoming an annual fixture for me), there was a general sense of, “Oh, are you still playing that old thing?”. To that I mentally answer yes, and even all these years on I still find the group experience of LOTR valid, enjoyable, fun and so, so different. It remains a wonderful piece of design, and group play, and to be honest I don’t see anything coming along to replace it.
Anyway. Battlefields. I liked the effects and ideas a lot, and it adds some extra flavour along with the difficulty. There is however a real sense of the add-on taking out more cards than it offers, but that may be illusory. What I didn’t really care for was the actual process of minions and heroes following arrows around abstract boards – Lord of the Rings: The Flowchart. On its own, with the main game, I guess it would be fine, but where is the fun in that? As players of Alhambra and Carcassonne know, if you have 38 expansions, you want to use them all.
Die Kutschfahrt zur Teufelsburg
A game that almost certainly needs a new name, as no one apart from German speakers can pronounce it without laughing.
A number of 18th century type people sit in a coach. Each belongs to one of two secret societies, but which one? Your job is to find out, and to decide who is carrying the society’s three symbols. Investigation is straightforward – question a fellow traveller, and obtain support from the others to make sure he answers. He then tells you his allegiance, for your eyes only. If you lose, with the support favouring the questionee, you will instead find yourself revealing your allegiance or items to him.
Each player has a power, one of which in particular seems somewhat over-generous, and a range of interesting artifacts move around the table, and ownership, by various means. Once you are sure of your facts, you make a game ending statement naming your co-conspirators, including who is holding the symbols. Not easy.
This game will not appeal to everyone, as it is an exercise in deduction and in reading people, at which skill some gamers are preternaturally disposed. Or undisposed in my case. But if this sort of thing appeals, I can recommend this one. It is also that most appealing of games: the Adlung title that works, so it will also be cheap. How can you lose? Well, you won’t want to be playing it with eight or more, as it slows to a boring grind. With six, and the right people, it was a little gem.
A two player game set in Jack the Ripper’s London. Hmmm, you say. Not the most heart warming of themes, and many will just stay away because of it. But trust squeamish Uncle Mike on this one; the gore and victims are non-existent. Instead, this is a light, fun, quick, attractive (indeed stylish) game of deduction that could assume a new, less off-putting, theme quite happily. Be warned though that if you are a closet Poirot or Jessica Fletcher, and are naturally talented at deduction, this may be far too easy for you. Join the police force.
One player is the detective, the other Jack. By movement, logic and some darn clever exposition rules and character powers, the detective must identify the villain from a list of suspects. Jack simply has to escape before he is found out, using sewer movement if necessary (and isn’t that almost required?). The whole game feels fresh, it rolls along like a Swiss watch and the design is clever. Yes, even elegant.
The situation may well also be finely balanced, but I doubt it – I think the chips are stacked against Jack. So you should probably play back to back games, swapping sides. It is quick enough that this should not be an issue – 20 to 30 minutes, tops. Mary Prasad smacked my botty on this one, and politely handed it back. I believe that is the modern terminology for my losing like an idiot. But I almost got away, and I shall return. I liked Mr. Jack a lot, and would like to source a copy if such a thing is still possible in this feeding frenzy we call gaming.
I have rated Stefan Feld since he put the excellent Roma on my table, and so quite happily follow his progress. It is not bad to slot your second and third releases into Alea boxes is it?
So what do we have here? Nominally, it is a game about medieval Paris in which you are trying to build the eponymous cathedral, while avoiding rat infestation in your arrondissement. In practice, you have a personal board with several areas. Each area contains a power that is triggered by cubes being placed on it. A cumulative growth of cubes usually bestows greater benefits. Every now and then, rats turn up and need to be dealt with. Content is mixed: resource balancing and redeployment (cubes and money are limited), timing, opportunism, flexible strategies and reacting to rival’s efforts.
The most interesting part of the game is the card drafting driver, which has finally made its way over from Magic, by way of Fairy Tale. The cards determine where you may place cubes, and so trigger the corresponding actions, in a given turn. Some of the gamers I spoke to felt that this conferred too little control – you essentially did what you could with the cards on offer, but never quite seemed to have the one you wanted. This is of course pure chaos, balanced by the fact that you can sometimes mitigate by planning (getting, and choosing to hold the right three actions) and good fortune (inbound cards). If it all goes to pot, having money on hand will let you get varying levels of help from wandering professionals at the end of each turn.
I can recommend Notre Dame. I don’t rate it as one of the best, and it certainly isn’t deep, but I do see it very much in the same category as Yspahan – a game that will entertain, plays quickly (an hour or less) and yet allows a degree of thought and exploration of various strategies. It has that low turn density thing going on, and it rattles along. Also in common with Yspahan, while we have seen most of it before, it appears fresh, and this is an increasingly difficult achievement these days – another reason I am drawn to Herr Feld’s designs. Against all this, the game is strangely low on interaction.
By my reckoning, Notre Dame was probably the hit of The Gathering, ignoring certain unnameable prototypes and Caylus Magna Carta, which I have yet to play. I am positive on Notre Dame, I played it four times, and will buy it when available in English, but I am not going mad for it. Those deploying the ‘great’ word may well have had a sheltered upbringing. One to add to the wants list.
Through the Ages
It is not often I get stumped by a game. Usually, after playing a couple of times, I have a rating in mind, a view and a desire (or lack of same) to play again. TtA throws me. To try to find out why, I played for a third time at The Gathering. Four of us went to the quiet room, knowing that we would do the whole advanced game thing, and not move or eat until we had finished. Six hours later I emerged. None the wiser. So it remains an uncertain 6/10.
There are many things that are good in this game, and many things I don’t like, some of them jarring. There is, logically, a lot going on. The basic Show Manager card system is sound, and there is a real sense of building a civilisation. But there is also a lot of fiddling and effort to get there.
My main gripe is the powerful cards, of which there are not many, but enough to notice. If you get the right card at the right time, you are all set, usually as a VP generator many times more powerful than your rivals’. There are also some heavy event cards that can kick in during the ‘post game/future’ phase that I am not too keen on. Once card carried a 50 point swing from me to a rival. Too much?
I also got two cards that were spot on for my do-nothing ‘Afghanistan’ strategy – stay as a very low tech dictatorship and unmilitarised for as long as possible, fighting the many attacking tanks with spears, but crank out happy citizens and culture like they are going out of fashion. By the end of the game I still had lots of seed cards in play, and no science whatsoever – he was busily working on a farm. Who needs defence when you can have opera?
The strategy included the ‘pace maker’ option, by which you just run ahead using an unsustainable civ, building a lead, in the knowledge that the advanced behemoths won’t get up to speed for a while. In the end I took a fair bit of catching, and had I got Ghandi at the start of Epoch 3 rather than at the end, I feel I may well have won. Is that right that I should have had the chance? As it was, I got hit late on by one of the big war cards (Crusade?) and my country fell apart. My other main gripe is the time it takes overall, and that includes a lot of downtime.
As it stands I would probably, arm twisted slightly, play it once a year. Probably. Apart from the odd powerful card, what is clear is that Mr Chvatil has tested this game, and one can only imagine the hundreds of hours this must have taken him and his team. For now, it gets to stay on the shelf unsold.
This is the big early year release from Hans im Glueck, and I am left with mixed feelings. I played it three times, twice as the basic game and once the advanced. I really liked parts of the system, but others left me cold. The overall impression, of a loosely themed game that was missing the magic cohesive ingredient, was not favourable either.
The theme could and should be tempting. You are (I think) Saxons or similar, setting up your peaceful Dark Age colony on coastal islands. Sadly, you have chosen the Viking era to do this, so you can expect frequent looting by those pesky pillagers. Your aim is to acquire population and new islands while defending yourself from the raiding ships.
The good bit is the auction/market mechanism, which is both original and interesting in play. Twelve sets of island tiles and villagers are arrayed in a specified order around a rotating dial, which is numbered zero to eleven. On your turn, you can pay for any set at the price shown, or you can take the free set. As the lowest value sets are sold, the dial rotates and the entire market thus becomes less expensive. So you can get in early and pay top dollar, usually to secure an item in short supply, or you can wait and see if you get a bargain.
There are two twists. You can only take the free set if it is the last one of its type – clever, this. And lurking at the expensive end of the dial are Viking ships that, as we have established, are not good for business. So if you wait too long you will get a bad batch, and you may even have to pay for the privilege.
The problem with the game is that the theming is actually so poor that it annoys. Your population and islands are placed in an orthogonal matrix, and the Vikings attack individual columns… Incredibly, if they are in the wrong column, they fail to move to the one next door. Sheesh. Way to portray the period, guys.
Not only is the game abstract in feel, play and indeed looks, but it comes up with these really odd rules that break the mechanism-theme link completely. Who’d have thought that Viking ships could only raid in straight lines? The advanced game is little better, and seems to just add turn order bidding, some fiddling and special power tiles at the expense of playing time.
In the game’s defence, I may have missed some nuance (in rules or play) and it is a Hans im Glueck, which are always puzzling when they disappoint. Against that, Kiesling is not my favourite designer by a long chalk. Either way, I will return to this one to see if it improves.
In a nutshell, this is Coloretto with a game attached.
If you imagine the Coloretto mechanism re-purposed as a sub-system, whereby when you take the card batch they are placed onto a separate scoring board, you will have the feel of this game. Instead of cards, you are placing animal tiles. You want these for your zoo (which, in truth, looks more like a farm) As batches form, which can also include money and refreshment stands, you can choose to take them, always aiming to fill a field with one type of animal. This selection process should get you what you want, but also takes you out of the round.
Time passes, and your fields fill up slowly. Sometimes you secure a breeding pair, and a free baby animal appears. Sometimes they overflow, so you can sell a spare animal to a rival. There are some expansion options of the Bohnanza extra field variety, and you can swap animals around for a fee. At the end of the game, you add up your field points and that is that Simple, 45 minutes, and good fun.
Just to re-iterate, there is nothing heavy or especially clever going on here, it is just a good old fashioned German family game that works and kept this old hand amused. In the same way that I will always play Coloretto as a filler, I will now play this as a lightweight game. In many respects it reminded me of Ra, and I can see myself playing these interchangeably from now on.
In the end I played this one four times, and showed it to a fair number of people as well. If you like Coloretto, you are almost certainly going to like this one.
I don’t really need to repeat my comments of last year because all of them apply again. The Gathering is a remarkable event, and I enjoyed every moment. Thanks Alan. I played games with around thirty newly-met people, as well as many old friends. Having ticked off a game with Brian Bankler, I now I only need a Frank Branham, Matt Horn and a Patrick Korner for the set.
So it is, as ever, all about the people. On my first night of gaming, I was sitting opposite William Attia who was trying to mime Dashiell Hammett to me. We worked amazingly well as a team, considering my almost total lack of French. A couple of nights later, I had a great chat with Greg Aleknevicus, who I have never met before, and we put the gaming world to rights. These statements do of course enable me to drop quite considerable names and sum up The Gathering in one paragraph.
Normally I don’t play tournaments, ever, anywhere. But because my good friend Alan How wanted to play in the Puzzle Hunt, I made an exception. I have to say this was a sound decision. A team of us spent over three hours tackling what seemed to be an endless stream of puzzles, map tests, wordsearches, anagrams, logic games, auctions, quizzes and challenges, all forming clues and in turn leading to a single game title that would win the prize. Ties were split by the fastest correct answer. So no pressure then!
I doubt my brain has worked that hard since school. Some tasks I could do quite easily, others were very hard indeed – ‘brutal’, as the locals said. However, even though we failed to get an overall answer, had we known that the trivia question section related to Ohio towns, we could have been a contender. Hemlock, Ohio?
This fiendish challenge was set by Dale Yu and his hard working and, it must be said, worryingly sadistic team. As we slogged through, it became apparent how much work had gone into the myriad puzzles. A lot. Hearing it all explained just resulted in heads shaking, and wonder at how anyone got it right in the time available, but two teams did. Overall, I have to say the whole thing was awesome. And that is an English awesome, not a devalued American awesome. The final answer? Tikal. Which I suppose we could have guessed at!
My prize table picks were Sac Noir (woohoo!) and TV Wars. However, Tim Trant kindly gave me his pick of Pendragon (boxed 1st Edition – cor!), Alan How gave me Gouwan Strike, a Japanese baseball game, Jared Scarborough gave me Lords of the Renaissance, and John Palagyi gave me Beyond Balderdash. I was a very happy bunny. I also had to buy a new item of luggage.
And then, somehow, ten days of gaming was over. On the Monday, having theoretically caught up on some sleep, I like to go to the nearby Easton Mall. For someone who likes malls, this huge place cheers me up. With the Pound buying two Dollars, I am verging on delirious. But there was little to purchase until I reached Barnes & Noble, where I happily sat down with a couple of baseball books and the Swimsuit Issue.
So, relaxed and happy and not a little tired, I promptly fell asleep. This may have lasted for an hour or more, but so polite are the staff and customers, they left me to it. Eventually, I half-woke and was aware of lovely, soothing music. I sat there for a few tracks, and eventually I went to see what was playing. Alison Krauss. CD purchased, back catalogue being investigated. I am listening to this, The Kooks, The Killers, and Tracey Thorn’s new one as I write.
Can I identify any themes from this mad month of gaming? Yes. Some gamers are definitely getting fed up with the uniformity of German Games and are looking for… something else. What exactly, we don’t really know yet. The learned Mr Branham believes German Games are passé. We shall see. For me, the conclusion is that the overall standard of games seems to be higher, with smaller peaks and troughs on either side, if that makes sense? The key worry is the ongoing lack of truly outstanding games.
The other strange thing is that I have been playing some really good prototypes, which are frequently better than the games being released at the moment. I have said before that I don’t go out of my way to play prototypes (for the usually cited reasons) but I see some, not least through my design groups, and they bode well for the next year or so. Especially when you consider titles such as Caylus Magna Carta, Phoenicia, Race for the Galaxy, Friedemann Friese’s latest and Richard Breese’s new Key game. Again, we shall see.
The highlights, then? For me, Notre Dame, Zooloretto, Mr Jack, Kutschfahrt, Smarty Party, Electronic Catchphrase and, predictably, Lords of the Spanish Main. On a straw poll of other gamers, I would say Notre Dame won by a distance. I am sure I would have liked Caylus Magna Carta, but I didn’t get the chance to try it. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked Settlers: The Dice Game, and I didn’t want to try it.