Gamer’s Notebook August 2007
Before the Wind
Because I haven’t yet got a copy of this game (where are they?!), I can’t do the full review I would like to. But I have played twice, and I thought I’d give you the heads up. In short, this has all the signs of an interesting game and I am in no doubt that this is the best that Phalanx have so far produced. It is going to annoy some, because we have seen the theme before – buying goods to load onto ships. Personally, I will take ten games on this same theme if they each give me a clever new mechanism or two (check), nice graphics (check) and a solid game (check). Inevitably, comparisons with Medici will be made, but it really is a different beast. Drawbacks? There is an auction element, but this is interesting and different. The game is not too efficient. You seem to make very few actions, but something takes a lot of time down in the churning gears of the engine room, so the game ends up being too long. We also found that the last turn can effectively decide the game between competent players, which makes the lengthy preamble less palatable. So, pacing issues which are probably fixable, but otherwise looking good.
Null & Nichtig
I rather like the idea of this little card game, but try as I might, I can’t get away from the notion that it is largely random and lacking control. There is certainly a strong case for not leading, while losing the lead is arcane knowledge. The key mechanism is very clever, but of course that is the basic requirement for card games that are going to join that overflowing, and unmanageable, pile of small boxes. I have purchased the game, and will play some more. At the moment I am going to file this in with 6 Nimmt as a game that is fun, frustrating but largely an exercise in fate that passes the time. A true filler!
Lots of interest in this one recently, mainly generated by the lucky few locals who have managed to secure a copy from Poland, and Frank Branham’s excellent column at BGN. I was fortunate to get to play a game, but because it was in high demand we made the error of taking the four player route. I think this was unwise, and that the game will shine with two. Still, it wasn’t at all bad as it stood.
Each player has a faction with many types of futuristic combat units. Overall your cadre is similar to your opponent, but with specialist tweaks, subtle differentiation and also unique skills for each side. For instance one side will have mine tiles or long range snipers, while another might have airstrikes or combat nets. Some tiles generate events, while others are support units that confer skills to adjacent and linked units.
The units are placed onto a hex grid. There is a randomising phase where you draw and discard, and (I think) you can also hold back units and events for the ‘right’ time. In some situations units may move, or be pushed around, but generally they stay put with players trying to set up powerful ‘chains’ of tiles, cross supported yet still able to attack. Eventually the grid is filled and this triggers a combat round. The highest initiative units go first, either firing or meleeing. Damage is applied and dead units are removed. The next level of initiative now triggers, and so on. After all combat is finished, and there is usually a high level of carnage resulting in many holes in the hex grid, the game continues until your HQ is destroyed.
The aspect I liked least was that the board feels very cramped. One got the sense that another outer row or two of hexes would have made for a very different game, and allowed some of the unit skills (especially ranged fire) to come into their own. This may have been a function of the vicious four player melee we endured, or perhaps it is exactly what is intended. Perhaps it is just the miniatures gamer in me, looking for room to flank.
Neuroshima Hex is at heart an abstract game, requiring one to deploy fixed ability units, and line up and assess chains of events, combat and sometimes moves. Strangely, that is an enjoyable task and often draws opponents and onlookers into co-operative analysis of likely interactions, outcomes and winners. It can be a little dry, and while the units all have evocative, warlike names, ultimately they are chess-like pieces, and usually inert. The kicker is the ability to form command chains, and to set up traps, pins and many other tactical ploys. Still, I liked it a lot. Definitely one to return to and I understand the company will be at Essen with unlimited supplies!
Caylus Magna Carta
Leaving aside Caylus, about which I have written more than enough, for me Magna Carta is a clear improvement on the basic game. So much so that I have pushed it up a full point, and thought it good enough to buy. The feel of the game has changed considerably; it is leaner and no less mean. It is also a lot faster. By the simple expedient of streamlining, much of the real decision making of the game is preserved while a lot of fat, and half the time required, is trimmed off. I don’t believe it has been done perfectly – I am concerned about the infrequent use of the card deck – but it really has been boiled down to the best bits of the system. I greatly enjoyed my games, and while it is still not identifiably ‘fun’, it is definitely a title I will return to. And just as an afterthought, Ystari really need to divert some of their success into decent artwork – hard to believe they are still producing ugly covers.
It is always good to see an excited buzz form around an unknown game, from an unlikely and ‘non gamer’ source. This is one of those word of mouth games, where someone buys a copy on spec, plays it, likes it and then spreads the news. In a nutshell, it can be described as a bit like Set, Ingenious, Rummikub or (most commonly) Scrabble with symbols. It is very interesting to play, even quite challenging, and like all the best ideas you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Recommended.
Atlas Games do take some interesting risks, and I cut them a lot of slack for publishing the excellent Ars Magica. Balancing this, one is always wary because of Lunch Money and the dubious decisions behind publishing such a game. This time, they apparently forgot to blind playtest. Why do we suspect this? Because the rules make little or no sense (especially on turn structure) and we had to come up with on the spot design fixes to even get the thing working.
It also seems strongly geared to four players, yet the box assures us three to five is okay. We played with three, and it really wasn’t okay – something very odd was going on with the scoring, the game pieces and card values. Its final sin is that it uses dumb made-up words in the rules, so one ends up translating back to English throughout. I think we all know a game or two like that.
Anyway. That was the bad stuff. Having played, we all enjoyed this game of constructing magical artifacts at a sort of Wizard’s Olympic Games, loosely attached to the rich background of Ars Magica. The graphics are attractive, the game play is interesting and sometimes challenging, and it certainly appeals. It is precisely the sort of game that would benefit from an expansion card set, and/or variant rules. Even with the problems described, all three of us gave it a 7/10 and we are pretty mean markers. That is saying something, if you think about it. Such generosity may prove to be mistaken, and of course is based partly on our design guesswork, so please tread carefully.
Apart from its latent play quality, I am also mentioning Grand Tribunal because it seemed to get lost in the flurry of new games last year, and it is not immediately apparent that it is a boardgame. So, I think this one deserves a wider audience; the theme is good, the implementation is solid and it does much that Colosseum does in a third of the time. I have kept the game, hoping that Atlas do the honourable thing and provide a new rule set, proper fixes and, in time, new cards for variety. Thus revamped, it could make a great Spells and Potions game for Harry Potter fans. Recommended, in a sort of reserved way.
I will not go on about this one for too long as it is by all accounts a promotional game and is not easily available, if at all. Unless perhaps you are a veterinarian buying a policy. Published by Swiss Re, the insurance company who built the gorgeous Gherkin in London, this is a decent card game about collecting animals. The colourful artwork is well done, if terminally cute, and the game is middling, or slightly better. For a promotional game, considering the norm, it is rather good. Worth a try, especially as family fare, but don’t hunt too hard or pay too much.
Glory to Rome
I assume this is the other, upstart, Cambridge, rather than the proper one where I work. If not, we need the designer to come round to visit one evening. Why? This post-Settlers building game has quite a learning curve. I have played twice, and watched or listened (you know how that works) twice. Veteran gamers struggle with the curve. It is the very definition of opaque. I don’t think it is the rules, but they might be tighter. I think it is more the multi-use cards and unintuitive terminology. I think. What is certain is that the outcome is the same. An hour or so saying, ‘What do I do again?’ or ‘How do I build this?’ It’s a shame because the game is very good, once you are up to speed, and it has a very clever turn/role driver. A mystery, and to cap it all, I will happily play again.
Lord of the Rings
There is an argument to say that the world has had enough of the Lord of the Rings in all its many forms. But the fans remain fans, and the books and games still sell, so it was with interest that I went along to the first week of the new theatrical production in London.
Soon, I am in my seat in the spectacular theatre, admiring the amazing stage and set. And the first signs of problems. I am in the front row of a section in the posh seats, so can stretch my legs out into the wide fire aisle. Result! Sadly, this aisle is to be used, frequently, for various ‘audience mingling’ events throughout the evening. Within minutes, a hobbit is trying to push a wheelbarrow along within inches of my feet. Now why is that a problem you ask? At the moment I have to wear open toed sandals because I have an ingrowing toenail. The thing is painful enough, without a solid hobbit barrow going over it. So I sit there with my legs drawn up under the chair.
That’s fine for twenty minutes, but this is a three hour production, and every now and then it happens again – someone or something suddenly appears from behind, or from the side. I become a nervous wreck, and very uncomfortable. Which is appropriate because at the two thirds mark, with me possibly dozing slightly, the orcs attack the audience…. There is a scream, I look round, and there is a snarling orc in a scary mask three inches from my face. Truly terrifying. I am not kidding, it was almost a change of underwear moment. For the next ten minutes, as my blood pressure subsides, these orcs run around like idiots, growling away, prodding the attractive women, and there I am virtually doubled up trying to keep my feet safe. I nearly walked out. Would have, but for fear of being ‘Boromired’.
Apart from that, and a strange development by which the Elves now use a form of sign language, it was actually good. The story went out the window, savagely cut down, but the key moments were there and the sets and imagery are great. Every so often there was a song*, and there was an ‘unusual’ dance routine in the Prancing Pony. By the end it all got a bit Elaine Paige, with some excellent singers belting it out, but I guess that is what filled the seats with foreign tourists.
Somehow they managed to make Bilbo fade and disappear (no idea how, I suppose he may have been a projection) and Gollum was, against all the odds, a brave and popular effort to match the definitive Andy Sirkis. There were two other stunning effects; the Balrog and Shelob. The Balrog is suggested at first, by sulphur scented smoke and bits of ‘ash’ flying around. And you think that it is. Then the bloody thing appears on stage. Very impressive, and Shelob was just as good.
If I had to describe it one sentence I would say it is LotR meets Cirque du Soleil. Lots of new age music, orcs on those bouncy leg extenders, stiltwork, cartwheels, and lots of lifting and lowering. It was fine. Well done. Entertaining. Different.
I will end by saying there were two very cute female hobbits (is that thought in any way wrong?) and that I still have some Balrog in my eye (and it is not often you say that).
The gaming link? I designed the boardgame for the show.
*In theory, I despise musicals. I really can’t stand that bit where they are chatting away and then all of a sudden they burst into song. On the other side of the coin, some of my favourite films are musicals – Wizard of Oz, Calamity Jane, even Oliver! on the right day. Go figure. On the third side of the coin I give you Moulin Rouge, which is easily in my ‘Top Ten Most Disappointing’ and it is the only DVD I have ever sold. On another level entirely, I am scarred for life by Barbara Streisand movies.
Next time, a look at Tropical’s much talked about Age of Empires III, more on Before the Wind, and, hopefully, JKLM’s Phoenicia.