Fifth Avenue Review

Fifth Avenue is the latest in the alea line, perhaps the most reliable brand of games for the serious gamer. Admittedly, their last big-box game (Eiszeit/Mammoth Hunters) wasn’t quite up to the standards of previous games like Ra, Taj Mahal, Puerto Rico, and Adel Verpflichtet; although I liked it, it was the first in the line to have some minor issues. So the question is, was Mammoth Hunters a momentary blip, or evidence of a trend?

In Fifth Avenue, the players play the role of property developers. The idea is to build skyscrapers in attractive locations – in this case, attractive means nearby to retail shops (Perfume, Handbags, Jewelry, and Art – but to the wargamer in me, the tiny Art icon on the chits looks suspiciously like a T-34, so they might be Tank shops). Each property development district has 5 lots arranged in a circular pattern, each lot adjacent to two others, in 5 different colors. Each lot can support either one or two retail shops (which are neutral, not player-owned) or skyscrapers from one player. The skyscrapers on each lot are valued based on the number of different businesses they are adjacent to, starting at 1 point for being adjacent to none, up to 8 points for being adjacent to 4 different shops, the maximum and quite a lot of points.

Skyscrapers are placed in a rather interesting auction. Players accumulate bidding cards each turn, which come in 5 colors (matching the colors of the lots) and jokers. When a district comes up for auction, players bid with these bidding cards, which are valued 4-6. The color you bid indicates which lot you are bidding for – but since you can only own one lot, and since only one player can build on any lot, your choices will quickly become constrained for any given auction. High bidder wins, and how many skyscrapers you can build or add depends on the values of the cards you bid. If the highest card you bid was a 4, you can build 3, a 5, you can build 2, or a 6, and you can only build 1. This sounds straightforward, but it’s surprisingly clever in execution. Dropping 3 skyscrapers on a key lot is hugely valuable, so 4s are powerful … but it’s very difficult to make a high bid using only 4s. Do you “contaminate” a bid by throwing in a higher number, or do you hold back in hopes of winning a later auction instead? When drafting cards during the game, how valuable is it to pick up a 6 in a color in which you have a number of 4s? There are quite a few little trade-offs that add up to very nice bidding tension.

The rest of the game is about acquiring those bidding cards, figuring out which regions get auctioned, and such. There are a number of high-level similarities to El Grande – two Commissioners stand in for the King, and march across the board allowing you to score the districts they are in and eventually putting up for auction districts they have visited. You have a “supply” and “reserve” of skyscrapers that functions the same way as the provinces and court in El Grande – you can only place to the board from your supply, and have to periodically pause from productive activity to refresh your supply.

Each turn you have a choice of one of 4 “primary” actions – placing a new retail shop anywhere in the city, refreshing your supply of skyscrapers, drawing a “wild” bidding card (incidentally moving one commissioner), and scoring a district. Your primary action then dictates a “secondary” action – in the case of scoring, this means drawing two wild bidding cards, in every other case, it means drafting two colored bidding cards (which are face-up in piles, sorted by color). As a final action, you must always move a commissioner.

The great equalizer in the game is what they’ve called the “building stop”. Once a district is filled up (all the lots have something built on them), any player locked out of the area can get back in the bidding with any colors that are not player-occupied, i.e., are occupied by retail shops. Then, any winner may, instead of placing skyscrapers, instead opt to close out the area. This results in scoring the area, at reduced points, and eliminating it (and everything in it) from the game. This results in a nice brake on players piling too many eggs into one basket, as the more skyscrapers you put in a region the more bitterly you have to defend it from people who want to shut you down. This is a losing battle in the end (you have only one color to bid – the color you occupy – so each defense drains you while your next opponent revs up for his or her shot), so you want to tread a fine line – invest enough in a region to score big points, but not so much that your efforts will be rewarded with a giant target on your head.

Now, having read all this, you probably still have little idea how this game plays. For me, Fifth Avenue is a typical alea game in that it has a number of systems that, while none are complex, they interact in complex ways that makes the game hard to explain.

The easiest conceptual comparison for me is to El Grande. El Grande is a game of second places – that is to say, the game will be won or lost not on the brute force of taking control of regions, but in how well each player can take advantage of other players’ actions, the extent to which you can convince the other players to do your work for you. In El Grande, if you score at least some points every time another player chooses to score a region, you’ll win – by a lot. While this isn’t the case to the same degree in Fifth Avenue, the concept remains similar. The big points are available when someone chooses to either score a district or to place a business, and both of these are very, very hard to do without benefiting someone else at least a little, either in the short-term (because you increase the value of someone else’s building directly, or by actually scoring) or because you add value to a vacant lot which you are prohibited from building on (an aside: an occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the game becomes degerate if everyone simply places businesses all the time. This is true of course; but any game will break down under consistant suboptimal play. No game group I’ve played Fifth Avenue with has seriously persued this strategy, such as it is).

On the other hand, Fifth Avenue is definitely a sharper game than El Grande. In El Grande changes in board state tend to be fairly incremental, and it’s something of a zero-sum game – your moves help yourself and hurt other players in roughly equal proportions. Taking over first from an opponent necessarily involves pushing that opponent down into second. Additionally, all the players are going to end up moving roughly the same number of cabelleros onto the board, so it’s more a matter of using them more efficiently.

Neither of these things are the case in Fifth Avenue. Skyscrapers are placed by auction, and these auctions are definitely high-stakes in some cases. It’s certainly possible through clever and efficient bidding to get more and better skyscrapers placed than your opponents. It’s also possible to get almost completely shut out of the good districts if you botch it. The auctions actually have some shades of Taj Mahal – you have to have a sense of which auctions you can win, and of picking the important fights and winning them, while not getting sucked into stuff that isn’t important to you – while retaining a sense of what is being overvalued and what is undervalued.

Somewhat unusually for a game that is fairly cutthroat, Fifth Avenue is also a constructive game. With the exception of the occasional building stop, you are never actually taking down opponents, but rather competing to build up. Still, when other people build in a district, it affects the scoring dynamics. At the end of the game, everything scores, but the mid-game elective scoring can be worth a significant number of points, but only if you can get in a situation in which it is in people’s interest to score. Building up a huge power block in one district may look good at the end of the game, but if two players can share a district more equally in the mid game, they will both have incentive to score it and it may end up working out better in the end. But both seem viable approaches to the game.

A final thing that bears mentioning is the incredible turn angst Fifth Avenue provides. Even on turns where one specific action is clearly the way to go (for example, the “augment supply” action when you are out of skyscrapers in your supply, expect auctions coming up imminently, and have a reasonable hand of cards), you are still likely to feel enough time pressure to begrudge the opportunity to do all the other actions. The game proceeds at a pretty good clip, and there is always a lot of pressure to do just about everything.

I have introduced Fifth Avenue to about a dozen people at this point, and the response to the game has been interesting. A handful of people have been blown away by the game, and found it fascinating. A couple people were impressed by the design, but not taken with actually playing it. One actively disliked it. But most have been pleased, although not willing to call it a top-tier game. I think that’s fairly close to my opinion, although I’ve liked it perhaps a little better. I’d say it’s an almost top tier game, one that scores for its subtlety and the unique blend of and spin on the traditional auction, resource management, and area placement genres, one that I can see coming off the shelf in years hence, but not one that goes over the top to get regular play over a long period; but still one that I will likely to consider one of the year’s best entries when all is said and done, and it has a shot at ultimately being the last of the heavier German-style games of 2004 (including Goa, Maharaja, and Power Grid) still standing in a year.

Still, I think the reason it doesn’t seem to go over the top, to be a truly top-shelf game, is in significant part the theme. For the great German-style games like Settlers, Puerto Rico, El Grande, Aladdin’s Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Starfarers of Catan, Samurai, and most of Knizia’s other bigger games, the theme may not run deep but the game is reasonably evocative, and can engage at some emotional level. The theme in Fifth Avenue is pretty flat. Not so flat the game feels tortured or fundamentally abstract like a Colovini or Schacht game, but nonetheless it doesn’t quite gel. I suspect this is the reason why some people don’t quite engage on the game. For me, it’s not a big deal, as the underlying game is quite clever, and the theme is adequate and certainly not dysfunctional – but for some people this is more important, so you’ve been warned.

All in all, Fifth Avenue is a very good game. If you like substantial auction or positioning games, it comes highly recommended. If you’re an El Grande fan, you should definitely check it out. It’s not up with the best of the alea games, but that’s an extraordinarily high bar. It’s better than Mammoth Hunters (even speaking as one who liked Mammoth Hunters), and rounds out the series quite nicely, bringing in a game with a very different feel from Chinatown, Princes of Florence, Traders of Genoa, or Adel Verpflichtet.

This review is also available on BoardGameGeek.

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Game Night

I played a couple games of San Juan at Tandem tonight. I had heard a tip on how the Crane, a building I’ve dismissed in the past, could be used to good effect, so when I got one in my initial draw I figured I give it a try; and it worked out very well, cruising me to an easy victory. I love it when stuff like that happens, a previously unexplored approach to a game is a smashing success (this last happened in Goa, when I won by running up the money track). San Juan has been running behind in the poll, which surprises me a little bit – I like San Juan a lot, and while Goa and Fifth Avenue might be a bit ahead for me just on my basic preference for more substantial games, I think the 2nd place it got in the DSP isn’t too far off. Saint Petersburg is a game in the same weight class that made a larger first impression (not being quite as derivative a game), but it has recently really hit a wall when it became increasingly clear just how unbalancing a first-turn Judge or Mistress of Ceremonies is. San Juan, on the other hand, has had a lot of endurance. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s got turn angst, but it’s chaotic so it both rewards flexibility (I like that kind of game) and isn’t the undertaking that Goa and Puerto Rico can be, which is good sometimes.

The second game I was again dealt a great starting hand if I wanted to play my game centered around the Crane again. But I wanted to try something different this time, so I did, and didn’t win (I was in second, but only by a point, on a Guild Hall/Production Buildings approach). Maybe I should listen when I say it’s important to stay flexible.

Last was a quick game of Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers with 3. The game is a little slow, but it’s a workmanlike and solid game with some interesting stuff. A little too long, but fun for a light game.

I think we got all this in, plus a game of Can’t Stop, while the other guys were playing Giganten. My impression from the whining going on was that it was not very well received. One player commented that he could leave his copy in the shrinkwrap now. My impression of the game when I played it was not that poor; I enjoyed it for a few games, but it crashed really, really hard after that. After playing for the 5th time, I never wanted to see the bloody thing again. Not sure what makes a game that is interesting the first time or two crash quite so hard without being broken or horribly unbalanced (neither of which was the case with Giganten); maybe it was just inexperience with eurogames in general.

Wallenstein

I like Wallenstein well enough, but I’ve never been a huge fan I admit. I played it a number of times when it first came out, and while it’s a decently fun little game, it never grabbed me. I think there are a few reasons for this.

Firstly, it seems like a game that is all middle. Most games have a vector of some kind, they go through opening, middle-game, and endgame phases, as you build up resources or board position or whatever, and the nature of the game changes. Wallenstein seems more like a blob, you start with some pieces on the board, you push them around, but you don’t really build up or jockey for position much. For me, this makes the game hard to get in to.

Secondly, this has always seemed to me like a game of glorified Risk. There is some fiddly stuff with taxes and harvests and whatnot, but at the end of the day these don’t seem to matter that much and it ends up with whoever manages to grab land while avoiding being attacked by his neighbors, wins. It seems that if I’m going to play a game that is mostly about being a weasel, I’d rather play Intrigue or Quo Vadis.

Lastly, and probably a major element, is just that I find the visualization and planning of the event queue fairly easy. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I’m also pretty good at Wings of War and Gunslinger, so I sort of lose out on the interesting challenge of planning your turn (too bad this isn’t a skill that’s very useful in real life).

Anyway. Wallenstein isn’t bad, one I’m happy to play with my friends. But it isn’t one I’d suggest.

ConQuest

I’ve been going to ConQuest, a fairly large local game con, for a number of years now. In the past, I’ve always taken the opportunity to run a big wargame – I did a Guderian’s Blitzkrieg a couple years back (which was fun), and a EuroFront game last year (which was a disaster). Kim has run Acquire and Liar’s Dice tournaments for a couple years now. The flea market is also an awesome way to sell games that are good but that have just outlived their lifespan. This year, we were undecided as to whether we would be able to go as we were considering doing a longer vacation around Labor Day, so I didn’t sign up to run anything.

We decided to stay home after all and avoid the crowds, so I grabbed the event catalog. I was thinking to get in some of the new euros, maybe a game of Downtown or Sword of Rome or Ardennes ’44, or a small OCS scenario. Much to my disappointment, the boardgame event listings were not just thin, they were extremely thin. Virtually nonexistent, really. In terms of euros, there was almost nothing. The wargame end was slightly better served, but not much – too many pet games, not enough practical ones, and not enough games with serious GMs.

I came very close to not coming at all (one of my friends was having a rather tempting “ConQuest Sucks” gaming party), but I had a lot of games I wanted to sell at the flea market. So I went.

I ended up playing a few pick-up games. I got in a game of Maharaja, which I enjoyed. In a year of fascinating games plagued by balance questions – Goa and the Exploration Track problem (worrying, but probably bogus), St Petersburg and the Judge/Mistress of Ceremonies (definitely a problem), San Juan and the various competing ideas of imbalance (all probably bogus), Power Grid and the mid-game plant problem (definitely an issue), Memoir ’44 and its ludicrously unbalanced scenarios – it’s nice to play a solid game with no obvious question marks. But you should probably bid for starting roles. I look forward to trying the Yogi variant sometime.

I then played Fifth Avenue again. I will again mention a full review is forthcoming. It went over quite well with this group (while the general response has been quite positive among groups I’ve played with, for some people it just doesn’t click).

Last game before the flea market was Alhambra, by Dirk Henn. I’ve been critical of this game in the past, and while I did enjoy this playing (I won), I’m not going to change my tune now – one player in our game mentioned that it seemed to have the “illusion of control”, which I think sums it up pretty well. We did play with one of the variants from the expansion (the Viceroy, I think), which helped a bit. It’s slow, it’s light on decision making and player interaction, but I think in the end it works, if just barely. Not in the same league as Showmanager/Atlantic Star by a far cry, but it seems a game comparable to Carcassone – your less discriminating family and friends may be engaged by that illusion of control, it’s simple (more or less), some skill is still helpful, and it doesn’t hurt your brain like Fifth Avenue sometimes does. Not a recommendation from me, but it does fill a niche I think. If you want a little substance, though, Union Pacific scores over Alhambra in almost every way.

Then, off to the flea market. I love the flea market because it allows me to unload a bunch of middling-value stuff that is too much of a hassle to list on eBay, but ends up being worth a fair amount in aggregate. This time, I liquidated over $400 worth of stuff, so that was time well spent. Some of the games that hit the door included Dos Rios, Nautilus, Rückkehr der Helden, Anno 1503, The Cotton Kingdom, an old beat-up Storm over Arnhem, my old West End Paranoia boxed set (I now have Paranoia XP, which may or may not be an improvement, but at least is hardbound), The Two Towers Kartenspiel, duplicate copies of Kingmaker and Civilization, DAK (I now own DAK II, and despite what I paid for DAK I, I couldn’t quite justify keeping two copies given what I could sell DAK I for), some old surplus GW Lord of the Rings metal … and much more I can’t remember. Some of the stuff left over at the end surprised me … I had a very good condition copy of the Storm over Arnhem folio edition, but no interest. Arena Maximus, which should have appealed more to the ConQuest crowd, didn’t go, even at an aggressive price. Couldn’t liquidate Tobruk, even unpunched and at a $5 price point. The guy who I foisted off, er, sold my copy of Phalanx’ Nero too was back this year and bought a few items, so that was good. Maybe he never played it.

The flea market layout had changed from last year, from a large open court to a single walkway with areas on the sides. Even though I sold a lot of games, I was not particularly thrilled with the new layout, as my space was extremely tight, just enough for about 3 people to look over my games at one time, which is far less than in the past. I’m sure I could have sold most of the stuff that didn’t sell if people could have simply accessed my area more reliably; too often I had people backed up who couldn’t get in. A personal pet peeve is the guy who asks if he can check something like the Fellowship of the Ring Kartenspiel that I have listed at $5, and who then sits there, carefully inventorying the components, checking their condition, reading the rules from front to back … and then simply returns it to the pile without even making an offer. In the past, this was merely slightly frustrating. Now, with so little space, it was extremely annoying – but with all the games being used, I can hardly tell people they can’t review the games…

After the flea market, my friend Charles and I played some Gettysburg: Badges of Courage. I find myself waffling just a touch on this game, but I quite enjoyed this outing. Too bad we didn’t have time to continue to a second day, because it was an interesting setup. I initially thought using the Column optional rule might be an improvement, but now I’m not so sure. It is a lot of hassle, and I’m not sure what it accomplishes is worth the hassle (it slows down the Confederates on the first day, but it also slows down the Union at critical junctures too, so it might be a wash). We played without them this time, and it was quite satisfactory.

The bottom line on the con was that on the one hand, I did enjoy the games I played, and did pretty well at the flea market despite the lame setup. The kicker though was that I was playing almost exclusively pick-up games with people who are my regular gaming buddies. Fun, but there certainly was no need to pay $25, drive the rather wretched commute, and deal with nonexistent parking to do this, we could have all just met at somebody’s house. This is not why I go to cons. I go to cons to meet new people, recruit new players, and to play more organized games in interesting formats. ConQuest desperately needed more organized gaming, perhaps a Kniziathon, or at the very least a Settlers or Acquire or Puerto Rico tournament, some scheduled eurogames, and/or a reasonably well-coordinated open-gaming area. Not to mention some wargames with reasonable playing times and more than minimal player bases (the ASL event being the only solid event run). Without any of these, the only thing that will get me back next year is the flea market.

Fifth Avenue

I’ve been playing a bunch of Fifth Avenue lately, and my original couple pieces that I intend to post have been growing into an honest-to-goodness actual review, so that will be forthcoming as soon as I finish it.

The summary is, I’ve been quite pleased with Fifth Avenue. It’s fun, it’s got choices and a lot of tension, and a small deal-making element. Conceptually, although perhaps not in the details, it’s of some relation to El Grande, which is of course a personal favorite of mine. It certainly seems like alea is back on track after the small blip with Mammoth Hunters (don’t get me wrong, I liked Mammoth Hunters, but it had some minor issues – not least the length – which alea games usually don’t).