Now, what you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure – my opinions on some new games.
First up was Sunken City, the new Kramer/Kiesling (of Tikal fame) from Überplay and Clementoni. My last exposure to Clementoni was Wildlife, which was an OK design from a great designer (Kramer).In Sunken City, players play treasure hunters, trying to retrieve treasures from a city which appears and disappears beneath the ocean. Every turn you have to play cards which give you certain action point allotments, either for raising buildings/pathways from the ocean, or for moving your explorer. As expected, cards give you decent numbers for either one or the other, but if you get both the numbers will be low. Neptune (god of the Sea) also wanders around, sinking stuff back into the sea and whacking the other players. My first impression of the game was somewhat indifferent – it’s got a little nice planning, some tension in the card choices, but it’s very chaotic, and mostly about who gets whacked by Neptune. Then, though, I looked at the side of the box and realized this is a game rated for ages 8+, and my opinion improved a great deal. I think for the target audience of pre-teens, this is a great little game. They’ll like the overproduced bits. The limited planning is nice. The whack-your-neighbor of the Neptune token keeps things in check and more chaos is probably good for that age group, especially when playing with adults. I think gamers tend to “up-sell” their bright, younger kids to stuff like Settlers (I’d probably do the same thing), but my instinct is they might be happier with fun, lighter, non-threatening games like this, plus Sunken City still has some identifiable “quality game” elements. So, one I’d be happy to play again if I was playing with kids in the 8-12 range, but not one I’d play again with adults.
Next up was RailRoad Dice, a game that’s been getting some hype, but after downloading the rules and some more negative recent experiences with small-press games, I felt it was in the try-before-you-buy category. But, I was quite anxious to try it. The basic idea is that each player is a railroad speculator, and dice are used as currency. Each turn, you can roll some/all of your dice and do what they say, which includes building track (4 of 6 sides) or buying stock (1 side) plus there is also a wild card side. There is a single line of track shared by all companies which snakes across a somewhat abstract board, and the companies can buy stations on this line, which increase revenue. Then each turn, you score VPs, which are (roughly) equivalent to the number of stations on the railroads which you control. Control of the companies is dictated by who controls the most stock.
I think as a game, RailRoad Dice can basically be dismissed out of hand. It’s too long and fairly repetitive. There is a “rich get richer” problem – the winner in our game was written in stone before the game was half over, and the other game being played was thrown in before the end with a runaway leader. The stock market basically doesn’t work, as there are no advantages to minority shareholders, so if you invest big in a railroad it’ll be either worth a huge amount (if you control it) or zero (if you lose control by even one share), and this is determined by the luck of the dice. Think 1830, or Acquire, if only the majority shareholder got payouts and your ability to buy shares was random. Like most of these self-published games, it’s just not finished – it needed another several rounds of development and tightening to take it from the “couple of cool ideas” point to the “functioning game” level. And yet … the ideas in here are really cool, and I think it is worth playing once or even a couple times to see what they’ve come up with. The “dice-as-actions” has been done better before, not least by Kris Burm’s (of GIPF fame) fascinating but unsuccessful Dicemaster. But the combination of a light-ish economic game, the dice, and the abstract tile-laying is interesting. Worth checking out for the interesting ideas, but it’s pricey for a game I’d expect to get only a couple plays out of. If it worked out well, I would have bought a copy, but given the price I think a pass.
Santiago is a game I’ve played before, and had modestly good memories of as a game I’d play but not buy. It’s got some neat stuff, and I still think it’s a decent enough game, which I enjoyed playing. The only real flaw is that endgame becomes hideously calculational, as to really play intelligently you need to do tons of math in your head to figure out the plusses and minuses of each move later on. As a “develop adjacent plots” game it’s certainly got nothing on Chinatown, which is probably the game’s biggest single problem. Still, not a bad game, and unique enough with the bidding and bribing to be worth playing a couple times.
This was followed by another round of San Juan, a game I’ve decided I like quite a bit. We played with 3 this time. The game was won by a Guild Hall/lots of Indigo plants strategy. I had the Triumphal Arch again, but could not find the Victory Column I needed late in the game to complete the trifecta. It ended up being quite close. I actually think San Juan develops along a slightly more sensible “power curve” than Puerto Rico. That is to say, investments in infrastructure will have a little longer to payoff and more involved strategies and card combinations have a better chance of being worthwhile – there isn’t the same sense of always being pushed from behind as in Puerto Rico.
Last game of the day was Princes of the Renaissance. You know, I understand why people really want to like Martin Wallace/Warfrog games. Kim & I share the occasional frustration with lightweight, themeless eurogames, and have some nostalgia for the old days of Civilization and Dune and 1830, and would love a euro-style game that could bridge this gap. Part of this is why we’ve branched out into RPGs. But Martin Wallace games always seem to be short about 2 rounds of development and 6 rounds of playtesting. I think a big frustration with Princes of the Renaissance is that you get such a large percentage of your total assets up front (40 gold, and the total spendable gold you’re likely to earn throughout the game is only going to be about that much), so the first bidding round is utterly critical, to the point you’ll be out of the game if you make any mistakes. Throw in a game littered with unbalanced tiles – too many are absolutely never going to be worth buying, family abilities that are worthless (the “hold 3 treachery tiles” ones), a very limited number of viable choices of strategies, and a result that in the end is hugely random due to the combats, and this is no Puerto Rico or Amun-Re, that’s for sure. Or Dune. Once again, it’s kind of an interesting game for a couple plays, especially for the nice theme, but like every Martin Wallace game I’ve played, it’s short on development and so rather low-ceiling.
So that was my day of gaming. One very good game (San Juan), one game that I think is good but I am not in the target market for (Sunken City), and three that were OK and I enjoyed once through but would probably only play again if someone else really wanted to (Santiago, RailRoad Dice, Princes of the Renaissance). Still, I had a very good time all told, and it’s good to play new stuff even when not all of it works out in the end.