KublaCon Day 2 – German Games

KublaCon runs a “Kniziathon” tournament which is best described as “all Knizia, all the time”. You get points for winning games, with bigger games getting more points. It’s a kind of neat idea, although I think the format puts too much emphasis on his little games and doesn’t reward winning stuff like Ra or Modern Art enough. As much as I love his big-box stuff generally, his card games often seem to me uninspired, regardless of how well-executed they are. Korsar certainly fell into this category. The idea is to take “tricks” of treasure ships, where each trick is evaluated on your turn – if you have the highest total of cards, you take it, otherwise it stays out, Taj Mahal-style. You don’t have to drop if you can’t raise, so a tied trick can stay available indefinitely, and the number of tricks out there can fluctuate (you can play to any available one). This actually is reasonably clever, but the version we played was a 6-player partnership, in which two adjacent players are partners and can look at each other’s hands and discuss play. This took what should have been a light, fast-playing game and bogged it down hopelessly and needlessly as partners endlessly discuss minor points of play. I would be tempted to try the 3-5 player version sometime, but would not play the partnership version again.

Ticket to Ride should be familiar to most readers at this point, and I do enjoy it. I’ve decided I’ll buy a copy, as a solid second-tier type game. Which ticket cards you draw does seem to have a needlessly random effect on the game, since the tickets are not terribly well-balanced (the payoff on short tickets is too low), but it’s still simple and entertaining if you don’t mind games of the less-interactive variety. For a simple, accessible game, it seems to lack the elusive “fun factor” that would give me confidence in selling it to non-gamer family or coworkers, but still very good for the gamer crowd, and the length is right for the content.

Power Grid – still good. We played with 6, on the US map. Still a possible balance problem, as the player who started out west felt kinda hosed by the high connection costs, even without much competition as 4 of us started in the east and we eliminated the New England region. But it was fun, and even with 6 players moved quite briskly and the whole thing didn’t take more than 2.5 hours. It looks like another good game to add to the list of good 6-player games, always welcome.

Favoriten is a game from 1989 by Walter Müller that can be best described as Royal Turf without the quality. Bidding is intermixed with racing, but instead of everyone rolling a die in turn, the first player rolls the dice 5 times and moves all the horses one at a time before rotating the start player and doing another betting round. Little control, and the player going first has an immense advantage – but there are no rules on how to rotate the start player between races. Royal Turf takes this basic concept and make a game out of it, but Favoriten is just not there. Perhaps not bad for younger kids who might not get and/or be frustrated by the subtleties of Royal Turf, but for the 10 and up crowd, one to avoid.

Finstere Flure is a game I actually kinda liked, but it’s a design that seems deeply conflicted. The players have teams of individuals who are trying to navigate a monster’s lair without getting killed. The monster moves in a programatic way, going after the closest target he can see, and there are a variety of obstacles and special movement rules for various terrain types. On the one hand, this wants to be a fun, light monster game, and Friedmann Friese’s propensity for comic gore is good for a laugh. On the other hand, there is very little luck in the game and playing well requires visualizing a large number of possibilities and moves and counter-moves, so once people start playing to win things can bog down into lengthy analysis. While I admit I enjoyed playing this one, I almost found myself wishing for more constrained play and more chaos, so that it could better fulfill its obvious destiny as a lighter, amusing game.

Last was Age of Steam. I do like this game. In fact, I might like it quite a bit; but it’s also a somewhat frustrating game. It’s frustrating because even though it’s good, it’s got those obvious, nagging little issues that mean it will never be a real classic. For example, the Producer role – this role is far, far too weak compared to the others, almost useless; yet it appears that the designer anticipated people taking it, because if you don’t the endgame gets a bit dull as few goods cubes are available and player rankings are very unlikely to change over the last turn or two. Or the final scoring of 1 point per track tile (vs. nothing for remaining cash), which is incredibly tedious to count up and encourages gratuitous and annoying track-building at the end of the game – yet has basically zero impact on final scores. I think the final significant criticism one might make of the game is that it has a bit of the whack-the-leader problem, since one often has an arbitrary choice of one of a couple of players’ track to use when making a delivery. In extreme cases, this could lead to some nasty endgame problems. While I don’t think it’s a huge issue, certainly the better, longer multi-player games (1830, Power Grid, even basic Civilization) seem to manage to avoid such basically arbitrary choices. It’s easy to wish it were a little more robust. Now, all this said, I still like Age of Steam and might buy it. It’s certainly the best Martin Wallace game I’ve played. But it’s not hard to visualize a very good game with these little problems fixed up.

KublaCon Day 1 – Wargames

KublaCon (great name) is a large-ish yearly con in the San Francisco Bay Area which I had somehow never made it to before; usually Memorial Day weekend we’re on vacation, or have family or guests in town, or I’ve been going to MonsterCon in Arizona. This year, though, we were around and I went.

My friend Paul was running a Europe Engulfed game, so I did that first. We played the Tournament scenario. I would now like to make an attempt to disabuse people of a few things:

Firstly, I’m glad Europe Engulfed has been successful, but its high profile for a wargame seems to be drawing people who are sort of poking at it rather than taking it seriously. We saw a bit of this with Paths of Glory; many people heard it was great and wanted to try it, but weren’t willing to learn the rules or put in the non-trivial effort necessary to learn what is a fairly serious and challenging game. We had several people show up for this event wanting to play, but never having even looked at the rules. This is not the way to go. Europe Engulfed is an absolutely great game, so I recommend that if you want to play, read the rules ahead of time (they’re online) and take it seriously. You won’t regret it; as I say, it’s a fantastic game, and really just not that hard to learn in the main. But you’ll get a heck of a lot more out of it by being prepared.

Secondly, I’d also like to desperately try to convince people that the way to learn the game is to start in 1942. People want to start in 1939 their first game, but the drama here is in 1942 when the heavily armed major powers are locked in total war, not when the veteran German army is blasting through outclassed and outnumbered opponents in a race to get the most factors on the Soviet border, or bring an unprepared Great Britain to her knees. The early war provides interesting options for players who know what they are doing, but in order to get there, you’re going to need to learn to play 1942 first so you know where you’re headed and how all the bits of the game interact. Europe Engulfed is a game first and foremost (a good thing, by the way), and it has sufficient subtlety that you need to tackle something reasonably constrained first.

I played the Soviets in this game, which was kind of cool because I somehow have managed to never play them before. The German player became obsessed with Stalingrad to a level that might have driven even Hitler to say “you know, you might want to back off a bit”. He was still shipping troops to the shore of the Caspian Sea well after a gigantic hole was ripped in his line near Tula. This resulted in 80% of the entire German Army (every unit in Russia) being eliminated OOS in early 43. Mildly amusing, but probably not worth the effort.

A final rant, my last I promise, I know the uncertainty of the blocks also drives some players to take a “risk it all now” approach to the game. “I don’t know if I’m going to win or lose, but I’m going to wager it all on one throw while I still have the initiative”. I see this occasionally, and I think it’s somewhat unsportsmanlike – it leads to a not very interesting game, as it ends before the initiative passes – but I also think it’s bad play. In most games between competent opponents, you’re playing for the marginal levels of victory, and going with a decisive-or-nothing push is not going to be a winner. Block games are games of player morale, and you have to keep your cool. The horde or Soviet units in Europe Engulfed can be particularly imposing.

Despite a slightly troubled game, my opinion of Europe Engulfed has not slipped.

Continuing on …

Next game up was Up Front, in the hour or so I had left before the flea market. We played Germans vs. British, A Meeting of Patrols (scenario A). If you follow my posts on BoardgameGeek, you know that while I used to be a huge fan of this game, I’ve been trying to lean against the high average ratings it gets, as I’m of the opinion that it was great in its day but now rather dated. After this game, I admit I wondered what I ever saw in it. Two games, both less than 15 minutes, saw my squad basically erased on the start line as I rarely drew any cards that enabled me to do anything at all, and every time I did try to do something I ended up in a stream or under wire (and I’m no Up Front slouch; I’ve played hundreds of games and was always pretty good, I know how to cycle and count cards). Them’s the breaks, it’s a chaotic game, you might say; and when I first played Up Front 20 years ago, when abstraction like this was a novel idea, I might have said you were right. Today, though, I’m not so sure. Up Front is a non-trivially complicated game, and it has a lot of fiddly little rules details (malfunctions, retrograde movement, many things associated with vehicles, etc.), and it does often take more time than you might expect to play. In fact, the reason that my Up Front play originally tailed off quite a bit was that scenarios were starting to take over an hour, while I think Up Front really wants to be a 20-30 minute game. And half as complex as it currently is. So I dunno. I really loved the game in its time, but playing again made me want to go back to play some more Battlelines, which in comparison may be better than I give it credit for. This experience certainly inspired me to get my copy of Desert War (Up Front French & Italians, nationalities that are monumentally non-entertaining to play) onto eBay.

A quick trip to the flea market netted a backup copy of Rommel in the Desert at a very nice price, and a copy of Desert Steel. At these smaller local cons, always check out the flea market. There is usually one real deal to be had (a cheap copy of Hannibal, or Rommel, or Civilization or something) if you are fast enough, although for me they are otherwise usually pretty thin.

Last was Memoir ’44, the new Battle Cry derivative game from Days of Wonder. They had demos at KublaCon, although copies are not available for a week or so yet. Fans of Battle Cry are going to love this one, because it fixes a few of the issues with the card deck (like the All-Out Offensive card, and the general card imbalance), is significantly more varied in the scenarios and game texture, is generally better-balanced, and comes in a more sensible package size while still being well-produced. All that said, it’s still Battle Cry – if you don’t get the cards, you’ll lose and the game will be boring, and while short, probably not short enough. It still has the flaw of being unable to cycle cards except by playing them, so generally your hand shrinks and shrinks as you accumulate more unusable or only marginally useful cards, until your options become minimal. This is a game with a good fun factor, but it’s hard not to wish that it had just one more touch, the one more idea to make it really good. Some way to cycle cards would be very helpful, I think, or some trade-off involved with the better cards. This problem here is that the cards are still strictly hierarchical – i.e., the “move 3 units on the right flank” cards are just better than the “move 2 units on the right flank” cards – and it would be nice if there were more tradeoffs. There are still cards that are totally useless. Still, all told, I liked this significantly better than Battle Cry, and I think this will be a buy for me as I keep looking for decent light wargames. But it’s a close call.

D&D: Sidrea

Fortunately, Dan (our DM) has started up his own blog with a summary of the events of relevance in Sidrea, so I will refer you to that for the blow-by-blow of our party’s adventures, and stick with some general overview and analysis.

This adventure ran much more smoothly for me than the last one. Kim pointed out to me that the stereotypical D&D adventure went through phases of being “in town”, i.e., gathering information, recovering, buying equipment, generally being “safe”, and then in the wild, actually adventuring (she brought this up because the bounty hunter tracking us last time made a point of confronting us outside the town, rather than in, say, a bar, which seemed to emphasize the pattern). I felt that we as a party struggled with the town portion last time, spending too much time on less-interesting activities. But things picked up quickly this time, as we actually found the tomb containing the lost artifact, bypassed the security system, battled hordes of various Undead, and escaped with zombies on our tail.

The artifact we recovered now causes some further problems. It is obviously of exceptional power, probably dating from a mythic time when gods roamed the earth. So do we hand it over to the archeologist, or keep it? We made a deal to turn it over, but we had no idea it was so powerful at the time. We are unsure of the archeologist’s motives, although we feel she is sincere. It’s almost certainly too powerful for low-level characters like us to be toting around. An interesting quandary, and one we had not yet resolved when the session broke up.

Our characters went up from 4th to 5th level after this session, which was good – 5th level is a big breakpoint for my Wizard, as he gets a big, area affect spell (Fireball) for the first time. It also reminded me just how broken certain elements of D&D are … for background reasons, my character is an Abjurer (Elves are somewhat oppressed by Humans in this world, so he wants to gain the power to protect himself and his people – think Melian or Galadriel). Unfortunately, from a gameplay perspective, most specialties other than Diviner or Evoker are designed for morons. Specializing has some restrictions as well as benefits, and the costs are the same whether you specialize in Abjurer (a comparatively weak school with only a few generally useful spells) or Evoker (the overwhelming majority of the combat spells). In D&D 3.0, specializing in powerful schools like Evoker was much more expensive in terms of what you had to give up – but now they’re all the same. Fairly odd that WotC would have gotten in right in 3.0, then broken things rather badly in 3.5. Unless you are playing in an unusual D&D campaign in which combat situations are the exception, any Wizard who doesn’t specialize in Evoker (or Diviner, which is the only school to have a slightly reduced cost associated with it) is an idiot.

Game Night

Power Grid just came out last week, and the fact that the new games have been at best a trickle showed through in that this was apparently “all Power Grid, all the time” night with no less than 3 games going by 7:15. We played on the US map after I had a few mild concerns about the Germany map last time I played. We played with 4, so we eliminated the western-most areas which left mostly cheaper connections, and lead to a shorter game (under two hours, actually) and a slightly easier game for the new players. This map seemed to play a little more cleanly with 4 players than the German map with the “continental divide” down the middle. The under-two-hours playing time was also a huge relief after the 4-hour marathon my first game was; two hours or so is where this wants to be, I think. All in all, I remain impressed by Power Grid and feel it’s an improvement over the original. There is still can be a touch of arbitrary hoseage – one of our players got hammered when the remaining decent plants refused to come out in late phase 2 – but not enough to derail the game for me, especially now with the shorter playing time.

Traders of Genoa is one of the absolute great negotiation games in my opinion, and after playing again after a bit of a hiatus I may have to go over to BoardGameGeek and up my rating to a 10. If there is a German-style game that is a more intense, constantly engaging way to spend 90-120 minutes, I don’t know what it is. This is a game that forces you to keep thinking and adjusting literally constantly. It’s a wonderful economic/risk management game, and I actually think it manages to capture the spirit of its theme remarkably well, the many unknowns of the renaissance trading market. That said, this playing frustrated me a little bit. Early on, competition for Goods was intense, with actions at those buildings being bid up to 20 Florins and over – so I got out and went after the privileges. This started out well – but after I had quickly wrapped up all but 4, I was still left with 4 disjoint groups and a rather weak position. At this point, the rest of the table started over-valuing the privileges and not being willing to work any sort of deal with me for the remaining privileges. This was frustrating because I knew at that point I was sitting on a last-place position, but it was one that appeared stronger than it should have (the odds of having a killer group of privileges when there are still 4-5 out there is still pretty small). One thing I definitely neglected, if you’re going to go the privilege route, you need to accelerate the game by using the “any start space” tile to start in the center as often as possible. They just peak too early compared to the large contracts. Also, I just became too focussed on acquiring those last couple privileges – once it was clear nobody was selling at any price, I should have been diversifying much more aggressively than I was. This is a game that, while a definite strategic focus is required to win, brutally punishes tunnel vision. A great game.

Vacation Gaming

I had originally intended to go to MonsterCon 4.0 this year, but I was a late scratch due to the significantly increased cost and the fact that the “open gaming” signups were a bit thin. I’d done big OCS games (GBII, Sicily) the last two times I went, and I’ve decided that while it was fun to try, there are practical difficulties with the biggest games which seriously limit how much I can enjoy them at cons.

So I didn’t go. Kim & I went to Seattle to visit our friend Doug, and hit Mt. Rainier (absolutely stunning) and Victoria, BC (a little touristy for me, but nice). If you are a member of the Thursday night gaming group that meets in the game shop in downtown Victoria, sorry I missed you. I stopped in briefly but couldn’t stay, as Kim was not feeling well.

Anyway, all this hardly means we didn’t play any games. San Juan came out a few times, and we played a couple more games of Scrabble. I also got to play Bridges of Shangri-La and the new Power Grid.

Bridges of Shangri-La I actually kinda liked. Leo Colovini has to be one of the more overexposed game designers in Germany these days – after his very good debut game (Carolus Magnus), he’s had a big run of pretty uninspired stuff, to the point that I avoid him anymore for the most part. But Bridges was pretty solid. It’s ludicrously dry, as all of his games are, but it makes it up a bit by being simple and limited enough not to devolve into endless pure calculation. Again, like most of his games, it has a serious endgame problem since all the scores are open and usually close, so players not doing so well can still feel like they’re picking the victor with an arbitrary play late. So there are some issues, and thus I’m not sure it’s worth the $25-ish and the chunk of shelf space it would require, but I enjoyed it well enough.

Power Grid is, of course, the remake of Funkenschlag. Funkenschlag was one of the better releases of 2002 (admittedly not a terribly inspiring year), and one of Friedmann Friese’s best, but there were some minor issues. The game ran a bit too long, it was a little bit too uncomfortable being in the lead, and the power plant market was close but didn’t quite work (it could get badly gummed up and stop working properly late in the game). Power Grid has addressed both problems. On the length side, the least interesting element of the game – the drawing of track on the board – has been eliminated in favor of a much simpler set of pre-plotted routes a la Silverton or Medieval Merchant. The payouts have been made a bit richer, which both shortens the game somewhat and makes it less painful to be in the lead – in the original, once you cleared 12 cities or so powering additional cities made virtually no additional income, but you got reamed on everything from resource costs to building routes due to the turn order. Finally, the power plant deck has been thinned out a bit, which helps the plant market to work a lot better.

All this still adds up to a game which is little distinguishable from the original in play feel – it’s almost the same game. The play time is down substantially in general, although slow players can still kill you since it’s a fairly serial game. On the other hand, I feel the overall balance of the game is substantially superior – you spend more time managing the interesting stuff (managing your plants and resources) and less time trying to figure out how much it costs to connect two cities. The backlogged plant market problem appears to be solved. And it’s not so ridiculously painful to be first in the turn order, since you’re probably making more money. All in all, a very solid upgrade to an already very good game.

Shadow & Flame – The Eastgate

We had originally thought to do a game of The Pellanor Fields from The Return of the King, but when we ended up with only 3 people (Pellanor is pretty huge), we decided to go with this scenario from Shadow & Flame and save Pellanor for a later date.

Overall, I’ve quite liked the Shadow & Flame scenarios, but this one fell a little flat for me. An onboard detachment of Goblins has been loosly outflanked by the Dwarves, who are forcing their way into Moria. The Goblins have to fall back, delaying the Dwarves until reinforcements show up.

This is another scenario that is hugely dependant on reinforcement die rolls; it’s possible for the second detachment of Goblins never to enter, which would be a game-loser. If they do enter, it just becomes a scrum in the doorway, with large numbers of Dwarves and Goblins locked in a big, confined melee with minimal opportunity for maneuver.

With so many interesting scenarios still unplayed, and more very good scenarios awaiting second and third playings, it’ll be a while before I come back to this one.

Grande Armee – The Peninsular War

Milton was running a game of Grande Armee at the somewhat misleadingly-named South Bay Game Club (they only play miniatures), so I had the somewhat flukish chance to play two non-Lord of the Rings miniatures systems in one week.

As a system, Grande Armee is certainly reminiscent of many good, recent wargames in its attempt to limit the players’ ability to predict what’s going on. Players get variable command points to spend on activations (moving and firing units), turns consist of a variable number of impulses, leaders have command ratings, and can go off and do their own thing if not adequately controlled.

In general, I thought it was a pretty solid system, better and more interesting than Piquet probably, although that might have as much to do with the period or the specific battle. Like Piquet, though, it had that sense of being a bit rough around the edges. The mechanism for attaching artillery to a unit didn’t seem to work cleanly, units seemed to both rout and recover to easily (and recover too completely once routed), and turns that went short (just an impulse or two) felt decidedly odd. But these are comparatively minor quibbles, which might go away once I have a chance to read the rules myself – this was a teaching game for most of us.

All in all, while I enjoyed both Piquet and Grande Armee at some level, I must say I didn’t think either system had much on Lord of the Rings for interesting gameplay, despite both having a lot more rules. So while I would play either again, I don’t see myself branching out into painting any other figures anytime soon. I do look forward to the GW’s 10mm Battle of the Five Armies game apparently due out next year, though, especially as major Lord of the Rings figure releases should be done by then (I am currently slogging through painting Catapults and Trolls and Trebuchets and Bolt-Throwers for the Siege of Minas Tirith game, and I look forward to having it done – hopefully before we get Southrons and Oliphaunts this fall).