War of the Ring 3×3

I seem to be playing War of the Ring mainly with 3 players of late – 3 recent games. There always seem to be a couple people interested in playing, and the 3-player rules aren’t too bad (I wouldn’t play with 4; the downtime for the Fellowship players would be too high). Here’s the problem, though: the bad guys never win the three player scenario. In fact, they’ve never really been terribly close. If the Fellowship guns it for Mordor, the bad guys are barely even organized before the Ring gets disposed of. Counting the Mumakil as leaders is simply inadequate compensation for the significant restrictions on how the bad guys are able to use their dice. Next time we play, we’ll give the Shadow Player some additional boost, perhaps an extra die (the one from The Mouth) at start.

But this begs the larger question: does Sauron have any hope at all in the game at any number of players? As I’ve played more, many elements of the game have simply been falling away. For example, we’ve discovered it’s virtually never a good idea to split off any companions from the Fellowship (except Gandalf, via his first death); the benefits of activations and easier diplomacy are simply far too marginal and the costs in spent dice far to high compared with a rapid trek to Mordor, which will win you the game outright. Likewise as the Fellowship players have realized the way to victory is through rapid Fellowship movement, most all Shadow Player options can be eliminated as simply impractical, leaving only the rapid attack on Rohan/Gondor and Lorien. The number of action cards that are at all interesting to each side has plummeted as most are too weak and are realized to be a distraction from the only real way the players have to win the game.

So Sauron must play a much tighter game than the Fellowship to have any chance at all. All the Fellowship player has to do is push the Fellowship at every opportunity. Sauron has to precisely muster the right forces, get them moving at exactly the right time to have enough guys to win but not muster so many guys they’ll take too long getting there. They’ve got to use their Nazgul precisely to delay the Fellowship. And they’ve got to cycle Character cards aggressively using the Witch-King, because so few Strategy cards are worth anything after the first few turns and the only way they’ll hinder the Fellowship is to get the few cards that help in this.

So I dunno. It’s a decently fun game, but as the reasonable options have been narrowing, my enthusiasm has been waning significantly. Most good wargames have a progression of widening options: the game is complicated so you don’t really know what to do the first time, so you go with a “historical” strategy, but as you play more and understand the nuances of the game, you try different things, some of which work, and new strategies develop. War of the Ring simply hasn’t developed. The relatively obvious strategy for the Fellowship is to move as fast as possible to Mordor; we’ve yet to figure out how Sauron can do anything to force any kind of reaction from the good guys, and the game seems hugely constrained by this as it forces Sauron down a specific path. Not too promising as an indicator of whether War of the Ring will still be on my shelf in 6 months.

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Mall World, Razzia!, Weinhandler

If you remember, last time I played Mall World I was somewhat uncertain. Stuff in there intrigued me, but we had a lot of trouble with the rules, and the balance seemed slightly off with 5. Having played it a second time now with 4, I’m much happier with the game.

The rules were easier to explain now that I’d played once, and I was able to do so pretty quickly. Once we got going, the game played smoothly. This made a huge difference.

Mall World can feel a bit chaotic, mainly due to the way the contract cards come out. Sometimes you get good ones, sometimes you’re facing down lousy ones. The good thing is that you always feel like you can make progress. You can be working towards your special order (which requires a lot of work), or doing your best to develop the contracts you have. So it feels constructive, and even if you are behind, you feel like you’re doing stuff and if you can get a big late-game special-order payout, you can feel like you’re still in it. All good stuff. And like Andrea Meyer’s other games, I guarantee you that you have nothing quite like this in your collection, even though it shares some mechanics with other games like Union Pacific, Traumfabrik, and Show Manager.

The first play is the toughest. The learning curve was described by one of my fellow-players as being more like a “learning cliff”. In order to get you past that first game, I will try to offer some practical advice. First, you may just have to pull out the rules and the set and play a round solitaire to get the feel for the game (perhaps an enterprising Geek could upload a blow-by-blow session report to BGG). Because it’s not highly intuitive like a Saint Petersburg or Ticket to Ride, and is so unique, it’s a bit harder to just sit down cold and start playing. Secondly, you’re going to have to crack down on any “rules interrupters” you have in your group (you know, the guys who break into your rules explanations trying to get you to explain things in the order they want to hear them for whatever reason). This is a game that, while not difficult, can be tough to explain and these people are going to do a lot more harm than usual.

I don’t know if Mall World will gain classic status, but like the better smaller-press games, it’s clever, it works, and it gives you something rather different, something that you just aren’t likely to get from the bigger brands.

Razzia! is, of course, Ra – a game that is amongst my favorites. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed Razzia!, except for the lack of an (easily-provided) token to indicate who is auctioning and therefore where the turn order is. Sure, you lose a little depth compared to the original due to the lack of disasters and the smaller card set, and it’s slightly less well-scaled to different numbers of players (due to the constant number of Razzia! cards required to end the round, as opposed to the variable number of Ra tiles). On the other hand, it also delivers a more straightforward game; slightly more functional graphics – the indicator that tells you which cards to discard between rounds is very helpful for new players, although neither the graphics overall nor the theme are as appealing or as effective as in Ra; and a non-trivially shorter playing time. If you’ve got the time and energy, you probably want to play Ra by preference, but when you want something a touch shorter, lighter, or more accessible, or if you want something you can easily carry around, Razzia! scores. It certainly won’t supplant or replace Ra, but I’m happy to have both.

Weinhandler is the new game from the designers who brought us Santiago, a clever game that for me anyway was fun but didn’t have staying power. It’s a bidding/set collection game, in which you are swapping bottles of wine in several suits to try to build up like-colored sets. The bidding has been compared to Money!, which I think is slightly misleading because while the view from 10,000 feet might be similar, it actually plays very differently. If you recall, in Money! the high bidder gets to choose any available set of cards (either in the pool, or in front of another player), which he swaps with. In Weinhandler, you have no choice – you must take the pool if you are the high bidder, second place gets the first player’s bids, and so on down the line. So, if you like the wine another player is offering, to get it your bid has to come in directly under it – sometimes tricky. Also, because you only have to “stay in” when bidding – you don’t have to overbid – there is a certain trickiness – you can duck, duck, duck, until everyone has passed, and then splurge to win.

I like Weinhandler. It’s clever, it’s different, it’s pretty simple yet reasonably challenging, and it plays quickly. I was nervous at first that the points for scoring bottles in the correct order would overwhelm the points on the bottles themselves, but that appears not to be the case. It’s not quite as tight as a Knizia, but at the price that’s OK. This one will come out again.

Bay Area GamesDay XXXVI – part 2

This is the second time I’ve had a chance to play Sword of Rome. Last time I was the Etruscans/Samnites; this time I was the Greeks.

This was the first time I had played with someone else who had read the rules, and it was a good thing. It turned out I had seriously misunderstood how victory points are accumulated. I had been calculating VPs as simply how many VP spots you occupy, but it turns out what you really need to do is to add one VP each on each turn you occupy a VP outside your home territory, and likewise subtract each turn for each home VP you’ve lost. This makes losing home territory a lot more painful. It also makes it hard to recover from an early game deficit. Because combat is so attritional in the long run, and because there is a non-trivial “bash the leader” element in the game, it’s very unlikely a power will be able to go up 3 or 4 VPs, so if you get behind by a few VPs early it’s unfortunately a rather deep hole.

Our game started off in the usual way – the Gauls invaded the Etruscans, the Greeks wrestled with the Carthaginians, and Rome wiped out the Volsci. Things were looking good for the Gauls, who sacked Pisae on the first impulse and went on to do some quality plundering. Things didn’t go so well for the Greeks, who saw two 9-strength field armies virtually wiped out by poor dice rolling in the first two turns, putting them seriously behind the VP 8-ball by going at least 1VP down (Neapolis) starting on turn 1. The Samnites were eviscerated by the Gauls, losing a couple ungarrisoned cities to revolt after the Pisae debacle, and so the Etruscan/Samnite player spent most of his time trying to rebuild.

In the midst of all this, the Roman player was building up his position. The Via Appia was built up on turn two, which really helps them defend. Given the layout of the map, the Romans have a “hard core” of cities centered around Rome, where an army parked there can reinforce to 6 critical adjacent areas, and it’s extremely hard even for large enemy forces to push beyond this unless the Romans get bad consul draws (not as likely here as in Hannibal). Once the Via Appia is built, this protected corridor drastically expands and an army parked in Rome can easily defend a huge chunk of recruiting territory.

Up north, the Gauls ran into some spectacular bad luck, as large armies continually failed to evict a tiny Transalpine Gaullic outpost for several turns, costing them several VPs.

Meanwhile, I had started to recover as the Greeks and was going after Carthage, having decided there was nothing I could do to Rome with Lilybaeum as still a thorn in my side (even with the extra fortifications for Syracuse built, it’s not enough for a garrison to hold out there for long without a strong field army). With some help from some slightly over-aggressive Carthaginian activations, Phyrrus finally drove them from the island and could redeploy towards Rome.

While I was doing that, Rome was building up a lead. The Gauls and Etruscans/Samnites, however, were finding it difficult to take the battle to them. The Romans had two big field armies, and as long as they hid out in the Roman core the Gauls and Etruscans could only fight them at negative DRMs, not an appealing prospect. On the other hand, the Romans couldn’t venture outside their safe zone either without fighting at a disadvantage. So something of a sitzkrieg developed until the Gauls got bored and tried to attack, with predictable results.

The rest of the board was eventually able to nibble at the edges of Roman territory, but it was too little, too late; the Romans held on, although the lead was reduced from what it was in the middle game and things were closer than I expected.

There is definitely a lot to like about Sword of Rome. It’s got nice historical flavor. The individual event decks seem very well done, with events that are powerful enough to be exciting but not unbalancing; poor execution on the event mix (typically events that are too weak or too hard to play; or, interestingly, the opposite extreme of being overpowering in Wilderness War) has been a weakness in a number of GMT’s card-driven games. The game moves along well, as individual turns should not take too long. You get lots of choices with all the events, and it feels like you’re making interesting decisions.

There are two significant wrinkles though, and they are intimately intertwined. The first is the combat resolution system. It’s quite clever, but I’m just not convinced it really works. The results are hugely random, and it seems most battles are between roughly even forces and are usually a crap shoot, with the results of bad luck being potentially quite devastating. For example, in the early game, the Greeks and Carthaginians are staring each other down with equally-sized and similarly-led armies, and neither can really do much else until their opponent is defeated. But there is also little either can do to make this anything more than a dice-fest; the Greeks really have only 3 combat cards in the deck, and none do much more than simply adding a +2 DRM, which is just not that significant when compared to the combat cards in Hannibal or Successors, where the very powerful combat cards (Allies Desert, Gift of Oratory, Anti-Elephants, Silver Shields, etc., along with more plentiful Campaign cards) are an important element in the games’ overall balance in forcing action. (Although there is an interesting Pyrrhic Victory card for the Greeks, which hands them an auto-victory in one combat, albeit with the loss of half their forces for and inflicting only a single CU loss on the enemy – but this can be deadly in very specific situations, like, where the enemy has no retreat route. But the odds of having the card when you need it are extraordinarily low).

Anyway, all this alone really wouldn’t be that bad – just adding spice to the game – but Sword of Rome is a long game. Our game took about 6 hours, and we were playing only the 6 turn game and weren’t playing slowly. That’s a long game for something comparatively chaotic, and something you can be basically knocked out of pretty early by bad luck. I like a lot of stuff in Sword of Rome, but I really, really wish the playing time were closer to Successor’s 4 hours. It would make the high chaos factor a lot more tolerable. I think the 9-turn game’s 8-9 hour length is simply unacceptable, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever try that again.

With all this said, though, the bottom line is that despite some reservations, I had a lot of fun with the game, and look forward to playing it again. The relatively clean and straightforward system, nicely-done card decks, reasonable play-balance, and interesting situation add up to a game that is significantly more playable and enjoyable that some of GMT’s non-Racier card-driven games, which have tended to have some issues. I also like how each power has such a different mix of cards, and so plays quite differently – I want to make sure I get to play each one once. I think in the end the good stuff is strong enough to keep it on the table for a while; the more modest complexity is very important in this regard. So on balance, a thumbs up. But I still wish it were shorter.

Bay Area Games Day XXXVI

Mall World is the new game from Rio Grande, Bewitched-Spiele, and Andrea Meyer. Two of Meyer’s previous recent designs are the rather clever ad acta and Schwartzarbeit. I’d been pretty happy with those two, and they are very unique, so Mall World was a definite pickup.

After one play, I’m not quite sure about it. It definitely has a horrid rulebook, something Rio Grande seems to be having trouble with of late. The problem here is one of terminology; it seems that all the game terms were selected in order to be confusing. And unlike her previous games, the theme here is a bit tortured, which always makes the game harder to learn.

All that said, there are elements of Mall World which are actually quite interesting. The idea is that you are developing a Mall. The Mall can have four types of shops, Food (Green), Hobby (Red), Sports (Blue), and Clothing (Purple). These can be further customized by targeting children (Blue), teenagers (Red), Men (Purple), or Women (Green). The players acquire orders, which can pay off when shops of the various types get placed in the Mall in the proper configurations. There are three tiers: the first pay off for just having non-customized shops adjacent to each other in various configurations. The second type pay off for just having a particular customized shop anywhere. The third tier (the special orders, for which each player has one) pay off for having two particular types of customized shops adjacent to each other. In all cases, you multiply the payoffs by the number of times they appear.

As in Union Pacific, each turn the player has to choose between playing an order (which will score) and expanding the Mall. Expanding the Mall is done by auctioning or paying for various development cards, which allow specific configurations of shops to be created. The auctions are quite unusual, and how they go depend on how many cards you play – the more you play, the more money you will received, but the less control you have over the development of the Mall. If you play just one, you use it yourself, but have to pay the bank (which is redistributed at the end of each turn as in Traumfabrik). Rounds end when a certain number of payoff cards have been played, at which point those cards pay off.

What I liked: I liked the auctions for developing the Mall; the choices there are quite interesting, and I suspect 90% of the game is in there. I liked that the game isn’t too long; again, your analysis paralysis folks can really torpedo the playing time (as in ad acta), but in general it shouldn’t be too bad. At least with 5, it was a rather chaotic game, so people should be encouraged to move along – but there are players who are going to look at the board, try to analyze all the options, and get hopelessly locked up. But inherently it’s not a long game.

I think maybe the big potential issue with Mall World is one of stability. Even more so than in Fifth Avenue, I think it’s easy to misapprehend the economics of the game. In our game, it was the case that folks always wanted to be the last to play order cards, so it took a while to get them down, and the game felt a bit uneven and slightly protracted as a result. Just like Fifth Avenue, it may just be a game you’ve got to play twice.

We played with 5 players, which felt a bit chaotic to me; I’m not sure this is the optimal number. I never felt like I had much choice on the acquisition of orders, I would just pick up the one fairly obvious one, and I only acquired one or two more orders than I could play, which is why I say that I think the bulk of the game is in the auctions and tile laying.

The bottom line on this one was that there was definitely stuff in there that intrigued me, but another playing will be required (preferably with 4) to see if it really works.

Senator is the new game in Fantasy Flight’s Silver Line game line. This is not exactly a bastion of quality gamer’s games, so on balance Senator was a pleasant surprise. It’s basically a bidding game; you bid to acquire political “agendas” which then give you one-shot special powers, and can be later turned in to victory points if you can win a Consulship, assuming you can avoid having other players foist off conflicting agendas on you (war and trade, for example).

This is a nice, short, nasty little game. Between the assassins wiping out your bidding cards and other players torpedoing your agendas, it is actually surprisingly hard to get anything done (just like the real thing, I imagine). Between the special powers of the agendas and the special rules that apply randomly to each turn (Gladiatorial games limit influence expenditures as everyone is distracted; Spartacus makes Rebellion agendas easier; the Social Wars mean you lose your influence when you bid, whether you win or not; and so on), the auctions are always different and there is stuff to consider. The clincher is that it’s short; our game (4-player) weighed in at about 40 minutes, which was just right. It’s not likely to become an enduring classic, but I liked it, and will definitely play again. The only criticism is that the components may have had the usability internationalized out of them; the agendas’ special powers (of which there are about 6) are not indicated on the counters in any way and no reference is provided, so a cheat sheet will need to be created I think.

I also played some more Reef Encounter. For my first few games of this, I played the game much like I would Tigris & Euphrates – pretty much a short-term optimization game, doing the best I can do to improve my position this turn and for the near future, without worrying too much about long-term strategy.

This time, I tried to be clever. I tried to set myself up for one massive score, an 8-9 sized reef with a value pegged at 5, by slowly accumulating grey coral in front of my screen and occasionally locking it in on a few tiles for the whole game, then dropping a big reef all at once at the end. Meanwhile, I’m rapidly going through three other small reefs to put time pressure on the other players.

It didn’t work out so well. The big score just couldn’t compensate for the paltry points I got on my other reefs, and I ended up in last. So I don’t think I’ll try that again; I think you need to make sure most of the polyp tiles you score are worth something.

The game is still going strong; I enjoy it, it seems about the right length, there is significant subtlety, and it’s got interesting management and tactical decision. It’s a bit short on interactivity, but so are many classic games. I’ve played twice with 3 and twice with 4, and while some have said 3 is preferable, I find it good at both numbers. I’m still not sure whether it fall into the “very good” or “great” categories, but I like it quite a bit.

Game Night

Megallurgie is a new game from Argentum, the folks who brought us the Garden Gnome game. This is basically a tile-laying game in card game format. You are trying to form contiguous areas of like-typed metals (iron, copper, silver, gold), but the trick is that copper always has to be stacked on top of iron, silver on copper, and so on, so the game has a layered feel. Once you complete a group, you score a point, and have to remove some of the cards from that group, leaving new metals revealed (except for iron, which will shrink the playing surface). It’s listed as 2-4 on the box, and I had played once before with 2, which I think is the ideal number. With more, you have the problem that if you screw up, you benefit the player to your left, which is a little awkward always. It’s kinda neat, it’s different, and I don’t regret the $5 or so I spent on it as an Adam Spielt throw-in … but not a great game by any stretch. The $12 FunAgain is asking is too much.

Zwergen Ziehen is a kid’s game. Not bad, but as card games go, it’s just a silly diversion for the 12+ set. I enjoyed the 10 minutes or so we spent on it, but would not have wanted to invest more. Better than How Ruck! in the tug-of-war games genre, but that’s not saying a lot.

After a second time out for Reef Encounter, I remain really impressed. It’s a great management/tactical game. This might have a shot at the best German-type game of the year. I even managed to win, on the strength of a big score in a dominant (5-point) coral. I was nervous because I had invested a lot in that one reef, spending inefficiently to grow it and lock in the big points; but it turned out to be worth it. Again, a few more games will be required, but this seems much better than Keythedral, so hopefully there will be a reprint.

Addenda on Ys: I forgot to point out after my last game that I actually discovered we had been playing slightly incorrectly. Collected gems are supposed to be open, while we had been intuitively putting them behind the screen (why else is there a screen?). Even after the mistake was discovered, we continued to play that way. Next time I’ll try to play the “right” way, but I seriously doubt it will change my opinion much. Open vs secret scoring is often a matter of personal preference, and 99% of the time I’ll go with keeping things secret, and it usually seems the right thing to do (the sole exception I can think of is Acquire, in which I prefer open holdings). It depends on what degree of analytical heavy lifting you want. I guess my feeling is that German-type games are usually pretty casual by nature, on the scale of these things.

Osgiliath (The Two Towers)

We always knew that The Two Towers was going to have to be, ah, altered a bit to make the leap to the big screen. The Two Towers game module preceded the movie by about a month, and we got a taste of how much … the last scenario had Frodo and Sam with Faramir in Osgiliath? With a culvert? What’s up with that? The funny thing is, after the movie came out we still weren’t all that enlightened because this whole scenario was cut, sharing the fate of the Flight to Lothlorien (from Fellowship) and the battle in the streets of Minas Tirith (from Return of the King). We got it back in the Extended Edition though.

At any rate, we played the scenario. Frodo starts on the board edge and has to make it to the middle, where the escape route is located. Of a large horde of Orcs, half start near the culvert (the delaying force), and half start near the board edge (the hammer). The hammer serves more as a timer, since if they arrive in the melee before Frodo has escaped, it’s bad, bad news for the good guys.

Rich and I played the bad guys to Jeff’s good guys. Things got off to a good start as the much-maligned (with reason) Orcish archery arm managed to do some damage, actually knocking off more Rangers than they lost themselves. This was kind of cool, we haven’t played a scenario in which both sides had substantial archery capabilities in a long time, so we got to see a little bit of an actual firefight instead of the infantry/cavalry or siege slugfests that have been more common of late. Damrod and a small force on the flank were mauled early, although Damrod himself survived (much to the aggravation of Rich, who rolled like 8 dice to try to eliminate him once). But where Faramir went, the Orcs were driven back, and he managed to force his way towards the culvert.

What then emerged was probably the greatest density of figures I’ve ever seen in a Middle-Earth game. I mean, it makes sense – there is only one objective in the game for the good guys, and it’s right in the middle of the table. So it ended up like elementary school soccer, with everyone forming a big mob around the ball. Faramir and Frodo reached the culvert, but found it jammed shut, and as they worked to open it, they were sliced apart. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Frodo buy it before, but then again I don’t think we’ve ever played a scenario in which he had to be so close the pointy end of things.

Gollum was in this scenario, and he proved to be pretty much a non-factor until right at the end, when in a critical battle Gollum took over from Smeagol and he throttled a Gondorian soldier in a heroic fight to break through to allow a few more orcs to get at Frodo and seal his fate. Gollum has one might point, which I must admit seems a little wacky to spend on “leadership” type activities like heroic moves and combats as I did here; I doubt surrounding Orcs or Rangers (depending on whose side he’s on this turn) would be much impressed by his heroic example. The rules for Gollum, like Wormtounge, are a bit sketchy (OK, the Wormtounge rules are really sketchy). But these guys arguably don’t really belong in a full-on battle anyway. I might have to add him to the list of stuff that needs to be house-ruled.

This was a good second-tier scenario. I enjoyed it, it seemed pretty well balanced, the tactics were interesting, but now that I’ve done it it’s not high on my list of stuff to play again. With a few tweaks, maybe, to mix it up a bit and so that it doesn’t end up quite as the huge melee right around the victory area. But the Minas Tirith street battle from Return of the King (the Gandalf vs. the Witch King grudge match) was similar in flavor but much more interesting, at least from a replay standpoint, in my opinion.

All Essen Games, all the time … almost

OltreMare: This is a new trading game from Mind the Move. You try to acquire commodities in sets, much as in Bohnanza, Civilization, or Zubercocktail. The gimmick here is cards that serve a variety of purposes. Each turn, you load goods that determine the parameters of your next turn – so if I load a cloth, say, it will have a set of icons determining my hand capacity, number of goods I can load, number of cards I can draw, and how far I can move my ship. That’s about it. I think the problem with the game is that it’s basically like the other good, simple trading games (Bohnanza or Chinatown), with some extra stuff added in that really doesn’t quite work; there is no functioning “second idea” here, and the primary idea – trading for cards with escalating values – has already been done better. The “board” element of the game is almost completely gratuitous and adds little (and may in fact subtract due to the serious imbalance in the harbor tokens). Each player has a “pirate” stack of discarded cards that I am hard-pressed to explain the purpose of. As a whole it’s not bad – it’s fairly hard to make a terrible trading game at this point – but it’s a classic small-press game, decent but with too much extraneous stuff, significant rough edges, and a balance that feels off. In this case, there just aren’t enough meaningful player choices and the trading is somewhat desultory. I certainly wouldn’t veto the game if people wanted to play it – the game basically works, which is something – but for me this was not close to a buy (even assuming I could).

Garden Gnomes: Again, this game got a slightly mixed, but overall still reasonably positive, response. This is an experience game, something that you enjoy the process of playing, because while you can definitely play well or poorly and feel like controlling your destiny, there is still a big luck factor. But it’s a lot of fun to play in my opinion, an interesting blend of a serious and light game. We played with 5, and verified it’s a bit better with 5 than 4. And it played very differently with a different set of people, always a reasonably positive sign.

Gärten von Alhambra: This is just not my kind of a game. In the draw-one play-one genre, I’ve come around to Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers, but that’s about it (except for the classic stupid-but-fun game Nuclear War). This reminds me of Dirk Henn’s Iron Horse (aka Metro), in that you do a lot of fairly uninteresting work to figure out where to play your one tile, but lose anyway because there is such a big variance in the quality of the tiles given a certain game state. Never mind the big kingmaking problem. On balance though it’s definitely not a painful game, as long as people don’t take forever and the game comes in at a sensible 45 minutes or less. You can play it with friends and have fun if you have nice friends, but not my cup of tea as a game.

Einfach Genial: I had somehow managed to not play this game before now, even though it’s been pretty popular amongst people whose judgment I trust. It is of course completely abstract, but the Tigris & Euphrates-style scoring, combined with the fact that’s it’s interesting but still straightforward, and challenging but not a huge brain-burner, makes it a rather engaging game. I liked it, and Kim liked it even more; we’ll probably pick up a copy. As is usual with Knizia’s bigger-box stuff, this will take a few plays to come to an understanding of.

Ys: Remember when I said it was cool to play Garden Gnomes with a new group and see how it played very differently? Well, it was modestly disappointing to play Ys with a new group and see it play almost exactly the same. I seem to be in this odd state of enjoying my games of Ys reasonably enough, approving of it as a solid enough game, but I can also see clearly that once it loses it’s “new game” appeal, it’s going to fall off a cliff.

Reef Encounter: Now, at last, we’re talking. I bought Reef Encounter with some reservations, since Richard Breese’s games published under his own label (R&D) have been close so often without ever quite making it. After playing a bunch of Essen stuff that has not managed to deliver – Garden Gnomes is overall a win but would ideally be a bit less chaotic; Ys is lacking spark; Heart of Africa is probably just bad; OltreMare is OK but rather rough – now we have one that, on initial impressions at least, can finally deliver the goods.

Reef Encounter feels like a throwback to the great tactical/resource management games of the mid-to-late 90s, a genre that seems to have faded a bit – stuff like Tigris & Euphrates, Union Pacific, Ursuppe, El Grande, or Lord of the Rings. You’re managing colonies of coral, protecting them with your shrimp, and trying to grow them in size so that they can feed your parrot fish. You can strengthen your species of coral so that they can encroach on your opponents … but the situation is quite fluid, so quickly your coral will be gone to feed your parrot fish, but the coral species you strengthened is now being used by your opponents to beat you. It is certainly most similar to Tigris & Euphrates from the 10,000 foot view, in that you are using different color tiles from behind your screen to grow colonies of coral (kingdoms), then claim them with your shrimp (leaders). Here, though, the conflict is much simpler and rarer (it’s more border skirmishes than conflicts, and shrimps once placed can’t be evicted), but the resource management is more interesting – you draft tiles instead of picking randomly, and need to manage “energy cubes”, acquired through drafting or successful conflicts, that you need in the right colors to perform almost every game actions in addition to just tiles.

I really liked Reef Encounter. Obviously, this is a fairly involved game so one play is not enough to judge, and can even be deceptive – but it sucked me in in a way that the other big box games of the year, with the exception of Goa, haven’t quite managed to do yet. It’s not overly complicated once learned – significantly simpler than Tigris & Euphrates I think, although the rulebook doesn’t make it easy to learn. Also like Tigris & Euphrates the board state changes a lot, so I’m not sure there is a huge amount of long-term strategy on offer, although there clearly is some, but that just seems the nature of the genre and there are a lot of choices and tough management decisions throughout. And the theme and variability that is so lacking in Ys is solidly delivered here. R&D games have always had basically solid themes, but usually with some weird stuff thrown in (like the bizarre resource allocation procedures in Keydom), but here it’s without glitches and is consistently well done I think. And the game is quite pleasingly colorful – not to be sniffed at.

Anyway. More play will be required to see if this is just solid, good, or if it’s even great. But I’m glad I bought it after all, and am fairly optimistic.