Bay Area Games Day XXXII

A long day of gaming at GamesDay XXXII.

First up was Age of Steam. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while for two reasons: firstly, I didn’t enjoy Volldampf much, and secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever played a Martin Wallace game that really worked. Way out West, Empires of the Ancient World, Weiße Lotus, Tyros … all games with interesting ideas that revealed fairly serious systemic imbalances after only a few plays. Or Liberté, a game that was overwrought for the level of control. Volldampf was the best of the lot, but I found it extremely dry, and had an irritating “hidden trick” – you have to go for the routes down the middle of the board. Like in EuroRails, if you try to develop the peripheries, you’re screwed.

So I hadn’t been feeling inclined to try Age of Steam. But my friend Matt liked it, and given the applause it’s received, I was willing to try at least once. I’m willing to try almost anything once. Almost.

And what do you know, I rather liked it. To me, it felt Funkenschlag-esque – built out of tried and true bits, nothing that seems innovating or new and different, and yet solidly constructed. The chart which allows you to predict which bits are going to show up where is a very nice touch over Volldampf, and gives you some ability to plan. Opening up the route-building to 1830-style hex tiles is also a big improvement; the restricted track-laying in Volldampf was not a big winner for me. The Citadelles-style roles seem a touch sketchy, but are nice for flavor.

Our game finished in 2 hours, and at that length, this seems a very nice, more substantial euro-style game in the mold of Funkenschlag or even Die Macher. Given the prior history with the designer, though, it makes me nervous – I quite liked it, but I feel like I’m looking over my shoulder, waiting for the design flaw to jump me. It might be the Urbanization role, which seems significantly more powerful than the rest while there are still cities left; or the whole geographical thing a la EuroRails or Volldampf, with one area of the board much more important that the others, thus leading to a lack of different viable strategies; or a significant runaway leader problem; or that if you play with the analysis paralysis folks, it’ll take 3+ hours and at that length it might well not be entertaining anymore. Still, as I say I did quite like it – sort a distant cousin to the classic 1830 (1830 was great because it melded railway operations with the stock market, while Age of Steam just does the operations side – although in more detail than 1830. Both are more flavored abstract games than railway games, though). I’m ready to play it again sometime, and might even pick up a copy myself – especially if I can finally liquidate my copy of Way out West.

Next up was the same pair of Die Sieben Siegel and San Juan that I played last night. I still like ’em both quite a bit. San Juan got a good reception in our group, and was played a lot at GamesDay. We got into these odd loops – for this game, someone had borrowed my copy without asking, so I had to borrow someone else’s copy to play; this also happened to one of my friends, and he had to borrow my copy. I find this stealth-borrowing slightly irksome, and in future I’ll have to keep my games right next to me so I can keep an eye on them. It worked out OK this time, but it was close.

Matt then had only about 45 minutes before he had to head out, so we played a quick round of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. This is a very good game, one that keeps revealing subtleties. This time I was starting to get better at identifying where cards were based on who people asked to play for them. Weird, but a very good game.

With the recent release of Oasis, it seems that Alan Moon’s Union Pacific has been getting some exposure recently, which is a good thing. One of its best features is that it works extremely well with 6, maybe best at that number in fact, so when you’ve got 6 who want a slightly more substantial euro-style game, it’s an obvious choice. I must admit I found this particular game slightly frustrating, because for the last half to third of the game the stock market got gummed up and everyone was drafting blind from the deck. It was a slightly unfortunate situation in that the two stock types available were only of value to one or two players, but they steadfastly refused to take them, leaving the rest of us with just the crap shoot of drawing off the deck. Not entirely satisfying, I must admit, but many of the best games still have the occasional klunker due to odd card/tile/whatever distribution (Tigris & Euphrates comes immediately to mind here).

Last game of the day was Pizzaro & Co (also known as Magellan), the bidding game from Hans im Glück and Tom Lehmann. This is a game that also works well with 6. I’ve always been rather fond of this one, but it didn’t seem to go over very well when it first came out for some reason. I think it’s rather clever. The tension between spending now and needing to save for later rounds is intense. The explorers you are bidding on are diverse, and the rewards for winning auctions are subtle. After playing it again for the first time since 2002 (when it came out), I was inspired to try to remember to break it out next time we have 6. Somehow, it has a place in my mind next to Titan: The Arena. Anyway, perhaps not quite as crisp or tight as Knizia’s best auction games, but nicely flavorful and more subtle than it appears.

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