Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Games I'm Looking Forward To (or instantly dated post)

There are tons of games that I am looking forward to in 2008, but in the interests of brevity (and blogger's 200 character label limit), I'll be talking about two in this post. Others might follow later, depending on comments and what else is going on.

As I've written earlier, I'm a fan of Marvel Heroes, but War of the Ring isn't enjoyable for me. I mentioned that the theme turned me off War of the Ring, but there are a few more quibbles with the game. The action dice serve to limit your choices and strategy. A lot of the game is spent working against the dice (and the dice have no direct link to Tolkien's prose).

I am not the biggest fan of Robert E. Howard, in general, and Conan stories in particular, but I am anticipating Nexus's new "Age of Conan" game with the ill-patience reserved for great games. Age of Conan sounds like a re-tooling of War of the Ring. So why am I so enthused given the theme and mechanics?

Because it sounds like the fantasy war game. It is really multiplayer (unlike War of the Ring which has a fixed 2 sides there are 4 countries players can be). The action dice are back but this time in a common pool. So if I take an action it means that others might not be able to do it, too. This sounds like it will add tactical decisions instead of taking away options (as the dice is War of the Ring could do).

There is also a diplomacy mechanic so war isn't the only path to victory (I enjoy multiple viable victory paths). And Conan is in the game. Auctions to steer the "force of nature" that is Conan might be the best implementation of Conan in board game form that I've heard. It does sound a bit like the Groo game, but the level of detail on Conan's activities, decks for each player nation, cards for events in neutral countries, and so on sounds like it will bring an immersive fantasy world to the table in a way not seen.

Age of Conan is very high on my radar. Here's hoping it is a great big sprawling epic game.

The other game, I'm interested in is actually an English reprint of a game already available in German: Agricola. It is about being a farmer in Europe. The fun in this game would be the same fun in economic games (see comments on Brass, 1825 and Industrial Waste for my love of economic games): building a profitable enterprise.

It also shares limited actions that make a lot of eurogames fun for me. With only 14 turns, it appears that figuring out what needs to be done now and what can wait until later will provide a delicious tension. Blocking other players actions sounds unthematic and just a way to interject interaction into the game, but since when have euros been judged on their thematic strengths?

But wait there's more (just like the infomercials say). You also get the first few planned expansions in the box. That's something like 350 cards. The cards do seem to have combinations, but simply being dealt a good hand doesn't hand the game to you on a silver platter. You have to take an action to play cards, and who knows what the opponents will do with their action advantage over you.

There doesn't appear to be any catch-up mechanism. So if you mess up then that's that. Player elimination is fine in games. It sounds like a tough game that doesn't cut much slack (other than allowing your family members to beg for food instead of staving, but even that comes with a big cost -3 points for each mouth you can't feed).

Looking over this post there doesn't seem to be much in common between the two games I'm anticipating. But that's probably good. If every game were exactly the same as every other one, then there'd be no reason to play different games. I guess variety is the spice of life.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Brass (not a review)

Martin Wallace's game Brass is one of the games I will play almost any time. I really enjoy it, but it hits the points that I enjoy in a game. One of my gripes about Industrial Waste is the need to get orders to get income form your developed factory. I enjoy building up my super factory, but the day-to-day drag of actually getting orders isn't as fun.

Brass gives you all the fun of running several industries, but once you have a market for your goods, you never have to go through the bother of selling from that factory again. You keep selling from that factory (since your income is permanently increased), but you don't need to concern yourself with such low-level details.

The most important action (in my opinion) that you can take in this game is development. And that is implemented in a staggeringly unintuitive manner (flipping tiles off of stacks). The best payoffs (in points) come with the more developed industries, but they tend to give the worst income boost. It seems hard to evaluate, but I guess that's a good thing. Few businesses in the real world know exactly what the pay off for R&D investment will be.

The tension of this game lies in its limited actions and money. If you go for a cash strong approach to the game, then you should hope that shipyards are open when you need them (shipyards are a very good way to convert cash into points). You can almost always go for loans (and if you are feeling short on cash that is usually a good move).

Brass is a hard game to learn, but I think that's mainly because a lot of the mechanics are new. Also the components lead people to think coal and iron are the same. They aren't, and the rules treat them differently. Although calling iron, "iron" is somewhat misleading since it represents iron works building steam engines and such.

I've played the game about ten times. The first few games were learning about how cards worked and where you could build (transporting coal/iron). The next few were learning the importance of loans. Then there was learning how important development was. The last few games have focused on transportation links.

There is a lot to this game, and even after all the times I've played it, I don't feel like I know it well enough to give a fair review. The best I can do is say that I've enjoyed every game win or lose (which is admittedly highly subjective).

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Confession Time: I Hate Puerto Rico

According to wikipedia Puerto Rico has won the following awards:

I understand that a lot of people must like this game for it to win all those awards. I have heard people try to claim that "objectively" it is a good game, but I haven't seen an objective review for this game, but maybe that's because I played before finding out about the hype.

An objective review isn't something that sets up a list of ideals that a game must have, and then tells you that you must like or dislike a game because of how much it conforms to said list. Roger Ebert writes opinions instead of reviews. An objective review should let you know if you'd like what's being reviewed not just if the reviewer liked it.

I dislike Puerto Rico for a lot of reasons, but my number one gripe is that there is no long term planning. If long term planning isn't important to you in a game then you might like Puerto Rico. A long term plan for me is something that you can work toward all game. It is something that you can position yourself for (making small moves which eventually lead to your end goal).

I've heard Puerto Rico fan praise the strategic depth of the game. The difficult choices of role selection. Anticipating the next players's moves. Blocking them from shipping their goods. All these choices exist on a turn to turn basis.

There aren't gradual game shaping choices. If I have a lot of plantations, I'm going for a shipping strategy. No ambiguity there. I might as well pass a note to the player sitting to my left saying, "take Captain, when you can, to block my shipping". I in turn must look at what the players around me are doing and take roles mainly to hinder them.

There are only seven roles in the game. So on your turn you pick one of the remaining roles and that's it. Small decision tree with easy to understand consequences. Also has very little luck (which leads to even easier to predict results).

Puerto Rico reminds me of a Cheapass game included in Change!: Diminishing Returns, but with better components. Diminishing Returns doesn't have 2 major strategies; there's just one. It does play quicker than Puerto Rico though. Same feeling to the decisions: if I play this amount, the players to my left will play this amount, and so on.

You may have noticed that I haven't posted any "reviews" in this blog. I don't pay attention to components or rule clarity when playing, and I know that some people care a lot about those elements. I hope this semi-objective rant let you know why you should avoid Puerto Rico or why you should check out Change!

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Scalable Train Games: 1825 and On the Underground

Most train games are good for a fairly small range of players. By looking at two games which do seem to scale well we can see what mechanism help scalability (but it's really just an excuse to gush over 2 games I really like). On the Underground player 2-5 and 1825 plays 2-9 (although I've only played up to 5).

There are many way to get victory points in On the Underground: loops, passenger, National Rail stations, connecting two matching stations, and terminus stations. That's an awful lot of different "paths to victory" available. If someone is blocking one VP source then there are so many others to choose from. This game gets its tension from providing an environment where you want to do 5 or 6 things each turn, but can only do 4.

The game plays in semi-random number of player turns (there is a deck from which 1 or 2 cards are drawn each turn and when exhausted it's the final round). This keeps games at a similar length regardless of how many players are in the game. There is more downtime with more players, but since so much of the game is trying to connect lines without being blocked and blocking others, I am involved all the time.

The other scalability mechanism is giving out different amounts of track lengths depending on the number of players. Even the number of different colours you have available changes (and since you can only add to ends of existing lines, number of colours does change the opportunities available on the board).

It does feel like the same game with 2, 4, and 5 players (I have not played the 3 player version, yet). I think this is, in part, due to the passenger movement. There is always something out of your control each turn so adding chaos from other player's moves doesn't seem like a major shift.

1825 on the other hand, only has "one" way to get "points": money in hand at the end of the game. It scales, in part, because there are more companies than players. You can (and I usually do) run 2 or 3 companies in the game.

Another huge scaling factor in 1825 is the modularity of the board. You play on different parts of Britain depending on how many players. This keeps the number of companies per player manageable, and keeps track building competition intense.

The joy of 1825 comes from setting up a long term business plan for your companies and watching them fail. Also watching the stock market for undervalued stock is a must. 1825 is short enough (with 2-5 players) to play in an evening, and with the linear stock market is less overtly cutthroat than the 1830 branch of 18xx.