Doom: The Boardgame – 1x2p, 1x4p

I’ve now had a chance to play Doom twice more, once with 1 marine and once with 3 marines.

I didn’t talk much about play balance in my last entry, because everyone enjoyed it well enough, and one playing wasn’t enough to really guess as to the ultimate balance. With two more games under my belt, though, I can tell you that the critics are right – this game has serious balance problems.

We played last night with 3 marines. I had a suspicion that this was going to have issues, so we gave the marines the following handicaps: instead of 2 skill cards each, we gave them 4 and allowed them to pick 3; and when respawning, we allowed their ammo to get bumped up to 3 bullets/shells if it was lower. This is a pretty substantial boost, and all the players had very good marine cards. Plus, as the invader player, I really didn’t hammer them as hard as I could have.

At least, not in the beginning. By about halfway through the module, I thought “hey, they’re doing pretty well, I better stop slacking off”. The game wasn’t as close as it looked, though – they made it to the last room with one frag left (but badly wounded and only a couple rounds of ammo left), but they had no chance at all to get even one player out. Well, they actually did have some chance: if they had played an excruciatingly tedious game of sniping and running away they might have made it, but nobody had the stomach to go through that.

The two player game wasn’t much better; I had weak marine cards, and made it only two-thirds of the way through the level. Kim generously gave me an extra life so I could get killed by the Cyberdemon in the last room.

The bottom line here is that I don’t think in any of the games I’ve played the marines have had even a remote chance of winning – and we’ve always given them some sort of balance (even in the very first game I played, we were giving them extra ammo). The play balance is clearly way, way out of line. This really is not a deep tactical game; there simply isn’t enough room for tactical skill to improve the balance. I felt that in my most recent games the Marines were playing quite well for the most part until they got bored right at the end.

I remember watching a promo movie for Halo 2, in which one of the Bungie guys talks about how Halo is 30 seconds of fun – sneak up, melee, throw a grenade, firefight – stretched out through 8+ hours of gaming. That’s fine for a console game which has many other selling points (and he may have been oversimplifying – Halo is a very well-designed game). But I’m starting to feel that the tactical problems in Doom are just not interesting enough to sustain replayability, especially given the game’s long playing time. Both of the last two games I’ve played had played themselves out by about 75% of the way through. That’s not good. You want the game to end before that happens. I think the problem is mainly one of pacing – there is just a bit too much fiddling here: open a door, clear a room, gather the goodies, lather, rinse, repeat – if the action was more continuous and less predictable I think it would be more fun. While I think this last game was enjoyed by the players for the first hour and a half or so, the enthusiasm was really tailing off towards the end, and by the time we were done, I don’t think anyone was very impressed by the game.

So Doom may well be relegated to the niche of a game I play with my D&D buddies, where we can get into the flavor of the dungeon crawl thing and not be thinking “hey, I could have been playing Lord of the Rings”.

I dunno. I still hope to give it another shot or two; we did rather enjoy the first playing, so it would be good to see if the game can get back into that happy zone, perhaps with a few house rules. But I may yet have to take it up with Rick Thornquist 🙂 (Never mind putting Fantasy Flight back on my “make sure you try-before-you-buy” list).

Game Night

Fab Fib: this is a bluffing game in the mold of Liar’s dice or Coyote. It’s played with a pack of cards, of values 0 through 9. The start player draws three cards. He or she then bids a triplet of numbers, for example 6-5-2, and the next player must decide whether to accept his bid. If he or she does, they take the three cards, discards at least one of them, refills to 3, and then must increase the bid. He instead they call, the cards are revealed and unless they match the bid exactly, the challenge is successful. The loser of the challenge gets number of points that is somewhat random (it’s noted on the cards, usually 1-3 per card). When you get 10 points, you’re out. Yes, this is basically Liar’s Dice with cards. The problem is, unlike Liar’s Dice, you have essentially no information with which to make your decisions. When deciding to call, all you really deciding is whether you think your opponent is the type who would bluff. That’s it. This game really has nothing to recommend it over Coyote or Liar’s Dice, but it is at least short.

Lord of the Rings: Friends and Foes: After my recent playing of this expansion, I was angling to give it another shot. I decided this time that I was going to recommend a strategy of skipping Moria. That’s all well and good, but right out of the gate in Bree we got whacked with a large number of foes. This made it impossible to clear up the queue, and thus impossible to skip Moria. Then we proceeded to get blasted in Isengard. We skipped Helms Deep, but as noted skipping two in a row is very difficult so we got stuck trying to go through Shelob’s Lair, and didn’t make it out. It’s interesting, I noticed in this game that the groups I play with have become much more reluctant to allow Hobbits to be killed off. We now go to great lengths to keep everybody in the game as long as possible. Interesting, because if it’s become clear your character is dead weight, you almost have to find a way to commit suicide (I was in this position and couldn’t pull the trigger, so probably ended up dragging the party down). In the basic game, this is not a big deal, but in the much tougher Friends and Foes, with which we have a lot less experience, we probably need to be willing to be a lot more ruthless. Once again, I enjoyed this game a lot, and hope to be able to play this configuration again soon, and maybe win one. There is clearly still lots of room for improvement in my game.

Maskenball Venezia: This is a fairly nice party-style game from Adlung. Each player is dealt a card which illustrates a gesture – a salute, patting your head, covering your eye, stuff like that. The idea is that everybody sits around a table staring each other. Everyone then tries to make their gesture such that less than half the people at the table notice, and also watch for other players making their gestures. When you think you see somebody making a gesture, you pick the matching card from the reserve. At the end of the round, you reveal who you think made what gestures. For each one you get right, you get a point. You also get a point for every other player who sees your gesture, up to half the players. If more noticed you, you will instead lose points. This is very bad, as the game is only played 10 points. This is just a light silly game, but I must admit I enjoyed it. It’s actually harder than you might think to notice what everybody is doing, and tricky to keep track of everything. I think If it were longer, it would probably get old pretty quickly, but at about 15 minutes, it’s just right. More is better; play it with 7+, I think. My only complaint is that the cards, while physically very attractive, are sometimes hard to identify at a distance. Still, given the price, a nice game from Adlung.

Bonaparte at Marengo

Bonaparte at Marengo is the first new offering from Simmons Games, a new game company that is located in Sunnyvale, California, just a few miles from where I live. The interesting thing about the game is not so much the game design in the traditional sense, but the fact it was designed around an interesting visual aesthetic. According to the game designer’s notes, the inspiration was the old battle maps, with units shown as red and blue elongated rectangles. The entire game was designed around trying to achieve this particular look. Here’s a photo on BoardGameGeek that demonstrates this.

What we get is very similar to a Columbia block game, but instead of the traditional square blocks there are elongated red and blue sticks, sort of like giant roads from Settlers of Catan. The sticks represent infantry, cavalry, or artillery of strength one through three. Step losses are taken by simply substituting new blocks for the old ones instead of rotating. These are clearly neither as elegant or as functional as the traditional blocks, but they serve the purpose of the game’s visual appeal quite well.

The game map is basically an area movement style map, but with an interesting twist. In general, units will occupy an area, but when opposing units occupy adjacent areas, the action moves to the area edges. Units in reserve, or in the area itself, can’t attack and are extremely vulnerable if attacked. Once moved to an area’s edge, though, they can then attack into adjacent areas and defend. Battles are resolved entirely deterministically, by comparing the strength of the attacking unit(s) with the strength of the defending units, and taking the difference as losses. Artillery can provide preparatory or defensive fire, and cavalry can inflict additional pursuit losses.

Command-and-control is reflected, as in Columbia’s Napoleon, with a group activation limit. Each side can only activate 3 groups of units for move or attack per turn.

I found Napoleon at Marengo to be an interesting and rather clever game. Not a great game; the design is tight and well-executed, but it’s missing a spark, a magnet. For a block game, it’s surprisingly tactical, with different units not varying too much in strength, and so it lacks the traditional block-game tension. Compare Bonaparte at Marengo to Victoria Cross, another new block game from a first-time publisher. Bonaparte at Marengo is unquestionably the more professional production, with better written rules, better graphics, and a tighter and more novel design. Victoria Cross, though, is just more fun. It’s got more excitement, more uncertainty, and more pressure to make critical tactical decisions; the game gathers more momentum and has more drive. Bonaparte at Marengo definitely has more individually interesting tactical decisions then Victoria Cross, but the latter game seems to have more excitement.

Regardless of all this, though, I like Bonaparte at Marengo as a tactical game. It’s not too complicated, it’s not too long, the pacing is perhaps a touch slow but the game is interesting throughout. While not groundbreaking, it’s different enough from the other games in my collection to be of interest for that alone. And the unique, historical look of the game does add to the pleasure of playing it. It’s not an obvious classic, but it is an interesting and promising first design from a new company, and is a fundamentally very solid game I think. I guess the bottom line is, I enjoyed it and I’ll play again. It’ll be interesting to see how well the comparatively constrained situation can hold up to repeated play.

Kupferkessel Co, 1825 – Unit 2, Domaine

Kupferkessel Co: Kim and I showed up a few minutes late so missed out on getting into the first game, so we played a quick round of this. This was a 2001 release that had gotten some good vibes at the time, but somehow I missed out on playing it. All in all, though, we weren’t too impressed by it. It’s a simple game, but the scoring is rather klunky, and we just didn’t feel there was much there in terms of strategy or tactics, you just move around the board desperately trying to remember what you’ve done already (90% of the game is memory). It’s one of those games that just feels flat, like a conglomeration of ideas that lacks inspiration or spark and doesn’t stick together. Sort of on par with Heave Ho!, maybe short of Avalon or Druidenwalzer. Not one we’ll play again.

Next up was 1825 Unit 2 with 4 players. For some reason I had remembered this unit as being ideal with 3 and a little thin with 4 players just on the number of companies, so I threw in my recently-acquired kit K5, with the Furness and North Staffordshire minor railways. As it turns out I needn’t have bothered, everything worked out just fine and the addition was unnecessary – perhaps of more interest in a Unit 2 + Unit 3 combined game. The Unit 2 company mix is actually more interesting than the Unit 1 mix; in the latter game there is a steep fall-off in quality after the first handful of companies, with some of the later ones (like the LBSC and SER) relegated to fairly mediocre runs with little upside. In the Midlands, there are no real dominating companies (except maybe the Midlands Railway itself) and the mid- and late-game companies are all pretty decent with no real stinkers. As it turns out, neither minor company was ever started, although I would have taken a crack at the Furness if the timing has worked out better. I ended up winning by dumping the early companies (LSWR and Midlands) to pick up a dominating interest in Lancashire & Yorkshire, which went on to do extremely well. At a touch over 2 hours, this worked out quite well and I enjoyed it.

Last up was Domaine, which I lost horribly. Tactical tip: your first castle should always be in a corner location. I missed this and my kingdoms got squeezed … it was very ugly. My score ended up being non-zero, but not by much.

Doom: The Boardgame

If this game goes wrong, I plan to personally blame Rick Thornquist.

Why did I buy this game? Being a Macintosh guy, I never thought much of Doom (Marathon came a little later, but seemed to me a much superior game). I think I played HeroQuest once 10 years ago and didn’t think much of it either. I was fresh from my modest disappointment with War of the Ring and its overdone plastic. Doom had a lot going against it.

For the one or maybe two people out there who are unfamiliar with the premise of this game, you are a Space Marine battling demons who have escaped into our dimension. You do this in classic dungeon-crawl format, with 1-3 Space Marines teaming up against 1 Invader player. You shoot stuff, read some flavor text, and try to find colorful keys. The core good idea here is a set of dice that allow you to settle matters of weapons range, ammo consumption, and damage by simply rolling the appropriate dice for each weapon. A green die provides range but not much damage, a blue die give you damage but not much range, and a yellow and red die give you some damage (the yellow a little more range and less damage, and vice versa for the red) and can potentially consume your ammo. So, for example, the pistol has a yellow and green die, which gives it range but not much damage, while the shotgun has a red and blue die, which makes it lethal but short-ranged.

I was the invader player in this game. In your first game, I think the invaders are actually easier to play than the Marines, and so I might recommend that a less experienced player take them. You don’t have quite as many options, you have fewer resources to manage, and generally you’re just looking for opportunities to play cards rather than hoarding for the right moment, although you do want to save a few powerful cards for clutch situations. The Marines have a lot more tough choices, with more tactical options and a lot of pressure on the by-now legendary tight ammo supply.

With a couple rather minor provisos, I quite enjoyed the game. It’s very simple but provides interesting tactical decisions. At least with 2 Marine players, it was definitely tough on the Marines, but tough in a way that left me hankering to try again, rather than just feeling like the Marines were roadkill. The story may be different with 4, and we’ll have to see if the Marines can improve their play enough to make it a game, but for now it’s in a good zone.

Downsides? For me personally, I could live without the testosterone-fueled “my gun is bigger than your gun” Doom theme. The descriptive text the Invader player is reading is thick with death and implied gore that really seems more embarrassing than evocative to me as an “older” gamer. The game is just a nice dungeon-crawl shoot-em-up, and this flavor isn’t adding a lot. I always felt the whole Doom II computer game ambiance was a little adolescent (Doom III may be better – I haven’t played), and would have been on balance a lot happier with a theme based on Bungie’s far classier Halo, or even Marathon. But I assume (and can only hope) Doom was cheaper as a license.

My only other complaint (and it’s fairly minor) was that it seemed like there was a bit of overkill in the weapons selection. True to the computer game, you have some 10 weapons available, but some of them seem superfluous. You’d have to be awfully desperate, for example, to waste your incredibly valuable ammunition on the pistol since it uses the same ammo as the shotgun and assault rifle (and at the same rate) and does negligible damage. There isn’t that much difference between the assault rifle and the chain gun, and you would simply never use the plasma gun if you have the BFG. The problem is, I think, that there isn’t enough variation in ammo consumption – virtually everything consumes ammo at the same rate. If there were a couple ammo symbols on the high-damage blue die, things might make more sense, with weapons that do more damage consuming more ammo. But there isn’t, so there just isn’t much trade-off between some of the weapons, and some could have been deleted I think.

Anyway, more so than many games, another couple plays will be needed to make sure it isn’t too tough on the Marines (I’m highly suspicious this would be the case with 3 Marines), and to make sure the game holds up. But I enjoyed it and look forward to trying it again.

Game Night

Lord of the Rings Trivia is one of the few trivia games I’ve been able to reliably enjoy. One reason is certainly the subject matter, but another is also that I’ve always felt that the questions were of a fairly reasonable difficulty level. This time, though, we got some of the toughest questions I’ve ever had to field in this game. Usually I figure I know about half of the answers and can pretty well guess half of the rest, but this time I knew a lot less then that.

As we’ve played this game more, we’ve taken to playing with double the starting resources and allowing 3:1 trades (instead of 5:1), to cut down on some of the tedious die-rolling even good players have to go through – the ring requirements at the end are insane. I think you actually could comfortably triple the starting resources without much trouble.

I’ve somehow resisted playing Thingamajig all this time because a) it looked like a gimmick game, and b) R&R doesn’t have a great track record. How it works is that each player in turn pushes a button on the device to get a new word. He or she then gives a clue to the rest of the players, which can be as long or as short as you like, but can’t use the word in question. Then everyone guesses the word. Everyone who guesses correctly gets a point, and the reader gets one point for everyone who guesses the word … unless everyone correctly guesses it, in which case you get nothing. This is simple and rather clever, in that you have to be just slightly indirect with your hints, and getting this right is not trivial. For a quick, simple little word game, I liked this one a lot and will probably pick up a copy myself. Some players were suggesting it’s better with more, but I actually think the ideal number might be the 5-6 range.

Lord of the Rings: Friends & Foes

Unlike Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Friends and Foes is an expansion that it just feels like I haven’t played much. After this game, I checked my high score sheet, and it appears that I’ve played it 7 times – not bad – but a number of these were right after it came out, and very little since. I think part of this has to do with the won-lost ratio; apparently, the Good Guys have won only one of those games.

I think part of the problem may be that most groups I’ve played with try to skip Helm’s Deep and Shelob’s Lair back-to-back because they don’t want to have to miss out on the goodies at Lorien (which you do if you go around Moria). But skipping those boards in sequence is very difficult unless you’ve saved up a couple of the fairly rare cards that automatically defeat foes and make sure the Ringbearer has 5 shields; and Moria is one of the toughest boards. If I play again soon enough to remember this, I’ll recommend skipping Moria next time.