Game Night

Just a quick night for Kim & I, as I’ve been struggling with spring allergies and some sort of bug.

Chris had brought his son Tristan, so we were looking for something we could play with the kids. Clash of the Gladiators scores with me in this area, so we played that first. Yeah, it’s a dice-fest, no question about that, but there are some simple and some not-so-simple details that you can manage in order to play well, in addition to making sure you roll lots of red hits. I like this game as a fun filler, and I think it’s a great game to play with younger kids because it’s pretty easy to grasp the basics and play competently, but there are enough subtleties to engage the adults (although I think Milton would disagree with me on that last comment).

Next up was Zankapfel, a game from 1993 which Mike Siggins reviewed here. Time has not been kind to Zankapfel, I guess. This was much too chaotic for my tastes, and seemed kinda klunky. From where I was sitting, too often I was in a situation where every play was very painful, and there was little I could do about it. To me, not terribly elegant, the selling procedures for apples doesn’t quite work, and all in all I have no idea why you wouldn’t play Adel Verpflichtet or Basari instead these days. Rated for ages 8+, but I can’t even see it having much appeal to that age group. At least it’s (reasonably) quick, but on the other hand due to the way apples are sold (high bidder sells their apple for money, low bidders also lose their bids and apples but get nothing) once you’re behind you’re totally screwed.

Last for the night was San Juan, which Milton had not played yet. Kim (Guild Hall) and Milton (City Hall) tied at 29, and Milton won on the tie-breaker. I seem to have repressed the game already, so I can’t tell you which strategy of mine didn’t work. San Juan is still going quite happily, and so I think rates as the first really good game of 2004.

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New Games!

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.

Game Night

First up was a 4-player Flaschenteufel. I won by a big margin, largely because as usual the new players (Jeff and Roger) took a couple rounds to really get the hang of the game. I don’t know how many hands it takes, but this game is so unusual it’s going to take anyone a few to have any idea at all what’s going on. I am still unsure on the debate as to whether this is better with 3 or 4; I like 4 personally, but I am sympathetic to the 3 argument. It’s a game that is quite different based on the number playing.

We played some 4-player San Juan. I finally managed to win one, this time on the strength of a Silver Smelter for my first build plus all three monuments plus a City Hall (I couldn’t find a Triumphal Arch in time). Carl went with the Guild Hall strategy which did well but couldn’t pull it out. Those monuments are very good value for money later in the game. Again, I think the 3 and 4-player version of the game are actually quite different. I like the 4-player version a little better, although they are both good.

Roger had brought a homemade version of Code 777 he was wanting to play, so we gave it a try. Each player has a 3-digit number, each of which is in a particular color, which all the other players can see but he or she cannot. Then each player draws a card which asks various question (can you see more red or orange numbers? How many players have a duplicate number?). This is a really brutal deduction game, but unlike Swartzarbeit, I’m not sure it’s an actual game. You need to devise the rules and patterns for how to eliminate possibilities, but I’m not sure there is any actual decision-making element to it at any level. Neat and challenging, I wouldn’t mind playing again, but Ricochet Robot is more my speed.

Roger was still here after everyone else had to leave, so we played a game of YINSH. This is an interesting but very tough game – I thought the post-GIPF games in this series were supposed to be quick so they could be played as side games to GIPF itself! YINSH is very chaotic, with a lot of available moves and each player able to affect large portions of the board. I’m starting to see the patterns, so I did enjoy this game, but it’s the first in the GIPF series that hasn’t had a huge “wow, that’s neat” kind of reaction, and I do wish it were a bit shorter, like the compact ZERTZ, TAMSK, and DVONN.

Return of the King: Minas Tirith

So which really is better, Gandalf the White (200 points) or the Witch-King on a Fell Beast (also 200 points)? On paper, it looks like a no-brainer – the Witch-King has 20 will, 3 might, a higher defense, good spells, and that fell beast which gives him 3 attacks and a flying movement rate of 12″. All Gandalf gets is 6 will and his free will per turn.

That free will per turn, though, is a big deal. And Gandalf’s spells, especially the Ultimate Sorcerous Blast and Effortlessly Immobilise, are quite potent. After the Witch King had spend half a dozen will points draining all Gandalf’s will, that free will still allows Gandalf to cast spells almost every turn. And his 3 wounds and 3 fate makes him tough to eliminate, even by the Mordor Troll.

So this matchup is very interesting. Unlike, say, in The Queen’s Gambit where the Jedi and Sith just roll lots of dice until one survivor joins the rest of the battle and starts ripping through the line troops, there are a lot more interesting choices here, and Gandalf has to choose between dealing with the Witch-King and the also extremely deadly Mordor Troll.

The real difficulty with the big models is getting them to eliminate more than one enemy model per turn as the enemy just feeds him a sacrificial unit each turn. Not bad, but you expect a bit more for your 200 point investment. Our Witch-King was perpetually tied down by a single Fountain Court Guard, and we had bad luck with our Heroic Combat results (I think the Witch-King lost every single one of his follow-on combats).

The turning point in this game was when the Mordor Troll was taken down after being surrounded by Warriors of Minas Tirith; in our admittedly small sample size of games, nobody had managed to even touch one of these guys before. While you’ve got to put these guys on the front line obviously and take your chances, I could have done a much better job of watching his flanks, because it was the double-strikes for being surrounded that were fatal.

This was a great scenario, I look forward to playing it again and highly recommend it.

Game Night

Just an abbreviated session tonight, after Carl didn’t get the message that the session was cancelled and showed up anyway. So we played a couple shorter, 3-player games.

First was San Juan. Kim tried building the Chapel as her very first building, and loading it up with a VP every turn, but even 12VPs this route wasn’t enough to win. Carl did well with the Guild Hall, and won. I’ve heard some speculation that the Guild Hall is too strong, and there is some possibility that might be true … but then again, Puerto Rico went through the same phases of this and that being perceived as overpowered, so no judgment from me on this yet.

I haven’t played Trias in a long time, and it was good to play this one again. It works quite well with 3, and is quite a nice game. A little on the analytical side, perhaps, and not quite as interesting as Urland – but the breaking up and migration of regions makes it nice and unique. Sort of Carolus Magnus in reverse, although in the end I think Trias is a better and more robust game than Carolus Magnus. This game was incredibly close, with Kim winning by one point and Carl and I tied for second. I used the 3-point optional drift action to score lots of intermediate-scoring points, and build up my own island, but Carl and Kim were eventually able to migrate to it and freeload on my good work. It’s really, really hard to get a valuable island of your own.

D&D: Sidrea Kickoff

This was the official kickoff session for Dan’s new campaign world, Sidrea. The party includes Berek, the spiked-chain wielding human Fighter raised by dwarves; Dalrick, the Ranger-Barbarian who has a thing against goblins; Soyoko, the Wild Elf Sorcerer; Haeythir, the Grey Elven Wizard of mysterious purpose; and Zerkestor, the Cleric of Mighty Zethunor, who gets nervous around bad weather.

We have all been gathered together, without explanation, to learn at a rather mysterious college at a hidden location that trains the best and brightest of Sidrea for future greatness. The studies don’t go on for too long, though, before Soyoko starts having unsettling dreams about dark tentacles emerging from the earth – which, quite frankly, is never a good sign. The various staff don’t seem terribly concerned about this, although there is a general sense of dark portents. And then, before you know it, wham – creatures being gated in from the abyss, weresnakes of some description, and general mayhem. Taking some time out for Berek to demonstrate his mastery of killing lots of things with a big honking spiked chain, the party decides to let the 16th level Wizard handle the giant killing machines while we make our escape, guided by a letter from the Dean and aided by his parrot familiar. The letter instructs us to rendezvous at a particular location at some later date.

After stepping through the escape-teleporter, we find ourselves in a cave. It’s cold. There’s lots of ice. We seem to have left our winter clothes back in the dorm, so this is not so good. We find an escaped slave named Amathyya Calanor hiding here, a half-elf. Haeythir has a mysterious insight that she isn’t dangerous, so we help her out, heal her up, and she joins our party. We sneak past a sleeping bear, and she then guides us into town – although not before we discover some frozen corpses of Dwarves and Men.

On arrival in town, we find that we are in the middle of a valley in the mountains, and the way out is blocked until spring. Plus, the innkeeper seems to have a thing about garlic. Oh, yeah, the vampires. There is also a woman who would like us to acquire a lost heirloom of her family for her, since 4 of her party were just recently killed off – some Dwarves and Men, apparently. Having not much to do until the passes clear, and since she offers a guide for a shortcut out under the mountains, we take it under consideration, to begin again next time.

This was a nice adventure, Dan has done a lot of work on this setting and it showed in both the details and in the confidence with which he could GM the session, which is always important. It was still the “pilot episode” in some sense, in that there was a lot of setup but the characters didn’t get to actively do as much as is usually the case. But still, both Kim and I are looking forward to the next session.

Can I offer a suggestion for gamemasters? Seriously consider banning or altering the Spiked Chain. While the thing doesn’t appear abusive on first inspection, when combined with various feats (Power Attack particularly in 3.5, and also Whirlwind Attack and Combat Reflexes) and spells like Enlarge, I’ve really come to the conclusion that this weapon is grossly out of line. It’s a reach weapon that can attack adjacent at no penalty, it’s two-handed so the new power attack feat (which doubles the bonus for two handed weapons) allows it to do massive damage, and with enlarge and whirlwhind attack it becomes staggeringly abusive. And it’s only 5 GP more than a Rapier. It’s better than any other exotic weapon in every respect except maybe it’s critical threat range. Sorry guys, but they just plain screwed up this one.

This was also my first chance in a while to mess around with PCGen, the free tool for generating d20 PCs. I’ve always just used pencil and paper because generating PCs for D&D and such is really just not that involved. I must say that PCGen didn’t do much to sell me. Rule number one of software development: if you have one overwhelmingly common use case (like, say, generating low-level standard D&D characters using classes and races in the Player’s Handbook) make sure that one is easy. Generating new characters in PCGen is not easy, neither is leveling them up. Sure, it tracks a lot of stuff for you to make sure you don’t make mistakes, which is good, but it also requires you to track a lot of stuff in your head because information is so hard to get at and you can’t see a significant portion of your character at one time – you’ve to flip between some 6 or 8 different screens. All in all, I found it took 2-3 times as long to generate a character in PCGen as it did the old fashioned way, so I stopped. All that, and it’s still pretty easy to make mistakes.

Gettysburg

After our last game, one thing I was slightly uneasy about was the relative mobility of artillery units. It seemed like artillery was too easy to use as short-range infantry gun type weapons, wheeling them right up to the front line to blast enemy positions, with no reason to use them as the long-range support that was their historical role. Fortunately, there is an optional rule for “column movement” that sounded like it should correct this minor issue, so Carl & I decided to use it this time. Since I had the Union last time, I got the Confederates this time.

As a word of advice to players playing this game for the first time, you really should play the game without this rule. I think it does help give the game a more historical feel, but it also changes the game dramatically and does make movement decisions a lot more complicated. Generally, it now is a lot harder to reposition troops. While in our first game the attacking Confederates could comparatively easily turn flanks and redeploy across the battlefield, it’s a much more painstaking and time-consuming process when they have to switch between line and column formations and can’t stack in column. Another big difference is that Buford’s cavalry has a much more meaningful chance to delay the Confederate onslaught long enough for the Union to set up strong defensive positions in Gettysburg itself.

Which is what happened in our game. The off-road terrain in the north-west corner of the battlefield is tough going, so Hill’s advance on Gettysburg can be rather slow if Buford opts to delay. Meanwhile, the Iron Brigade and others from the first batch of reinforcements were piling into Gettysburg, which is a strong position (due more to the streams & woods than to the city itself). Faced with the unappealing prospect of blasting through the city itself, and with reinforcements arriving later along the north board edge, I extended the flank to the east towards Benner Hill. This worked reasonably well in terms of extending the Union line, but in terms of winning the game, this is not the way to go. There is only one VP that can reasonably be taken to the East – Benner Hill – while in the South you’ve got the gimme at the Peach Orchard which I never took, plus then 3 more that you can threaten.

You need 5 VP to not lose the first day as the Confederates. This means you realistically need the Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg itself, plus either the Peach Orchard or Benner Hill and to inflict one more shattered unit than you lose. While Benner Hill is attractive, in the end I think the Peach Orchard is the better extra VP to go for since it has easy access to more VPs than Benner Hill. The column rules make it very tough, though. It’s a long march to the Peach Orchard, and the Union is much more likely to beat you to Gettysburg in force, requiring a massive assault to evict him.

The real strength of the Confederates, though, is their ability to do those massive assaults. Because of their monolithic command structure, they are more or less incapable of doing smaller, more scattered division-level offensives. I found this out when I detached a single division to move south; it’s attack stalled out almost immediately and the Corps commander (Hill) was too preoccupied with the situation at Gettysburg to get the attack restarted. The Union, with their much smaller Corps, are much better at these small actions. So if you’re going to attack as the Confederates, make it a big one.

The bottom line on why my Confederates came up short, though, was that I didn’t pay enough attention to keeping low-strength units out of the firing line and rebuilding them. As a result, I lost at least one extra shattered unit which was the difference. The 1VP for losing a unit is very, very big, as I said last time, and you have to be careful because these lost VPs realistically cannot be made up by taking more terrain. I might also complain about my final assault on Benner Hill which by rights really should have shattered at least two Union units, but came up appallingly short on the dice – but like most of these games, there are a lot of dice, and you win some and you lose some in that respect. Nothing I could have done about that, but I definitely lost at least one unit I shouldn’t have, and that was the margin. As the Confederates it seems you need to have that elusive, Montgomery-esque combination of aggressiveness and risk-aversion. The dice are going to go south occasionally, and you have to be careful not to put yourself in a position where that’s going to cost you a unit or two.

OK, last thing, and having played twice now my only gripe about the game is the graphics on the mapboard. We had a heck of a time figuring out when the woods are or are not supposed to be hexside terrain. When it goes right up to the hexside? When it’s clearly on both sides? The rules are mum on this point and there is significant ambiguity at times. I had originally gone with the “clearly on both sides” interpretation, but I think it retrospect that the “goes right up to the edge” is correct. Nothing players can’t work out, and it’s going to crop up at worst only occasionally – but this is a significant oversight in the rules and the board should be better.

So anyway, I quite enjoyed the game again, and still like it. Despite not being complicated, it’s still a big, substantial game and is going to take a while to play. Nice for a change from the the more modest-length stuff Columbia has been doing of late, but if you’re a Hammer fan bear in mind that this will take twice as long to play just the first day. It’s worth it though. I’ll be curious to see what the playing time settles down to on this one. We’ve been doing about 6 hours for one day, which is a bit on the high side I think, it would be nice to do one day in 2-3 hours. I’m not sure how practical that target is, though.