2038

There have been a surprising number of 18xx-style games on my playlist of late. This is anomalous, I think, not a trend.

2038 is a game on which I have profoundly mixed feelings. I love the on-board play of the game, the exploring of asteroids and building up of routes. You can see a review I wrote when the game first came out some ten years ago here – it talks about these things, and reading it over again myself, my fundamental opinions haven’t changed that much over the years. The operations aspect of this game is brilliant. I am far less enamored of the financial markets.

I’ve ranted about the loot-n-dump recently, and 2038 has a particularly severe problem with it. This is tied into the fact that 2038 uses minor companies, and as I discuss in my review these companies are even more powerful than usual (!), generating enormous cash flow in the short term followed by a large cash hand-out and an Asteroid League share in the long-term. It’ll take a $500+ up front investment to generate the same cash flow out of a public company as you do out of a $100 minor, at least in the early game. This means not only can’t you trust a president who owns two public companies, you also have to be wary of player owning a public and a minor company (i.e., everyone). Under no circumstances should you ever buy more than 1 share of the first big public company which the game forces you to float, the TSI, unless the TSI president has no minors (extremely unlikely); it’s not clear that it’s a bad idea for him to simply clean the sucker out, dump everything into his minor, sell off the shares, and just start another public company which will then have immense resources. Since you are legally barred from selling TSI shares until after the company has operated, there is absolutely no escape from this if you have two shares, and you will lose the game in the first 20 minutes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bear in mind that when I go on about this whole tactic, the 1830 fan will point out that the loot-n-dump almost never happens. This is true. But it hangs as a threat over every stock purchase you make that is not a company you are president of, and it doesn’t have to actually be a good idea for it to be dangerous – it just has to look like a good idea to the president at the time. Normally in 1830 or 1856, you can diversify until a player owns two companies, at which point you will generally be compelled to sell down to one share in those companies; it’s just too risky – maybe the president does some math wrong, and you’re out of the game. In 2038, you’re restricted in share purchases from the get-go lest you be hammered.

There are other problems on the financial end: I don’t like the way the minors and their ungodly return on investment dominate the game, especially the early game, although I do very much like how their operations play out on the map. I’m not thrilled by the rules on Growth Corporations, which seem like a sucker play. I don’t like the start packet, which tends to railroad the early game. I’m not real happy with the small number of public companies (7) and the very constrained order in which they come out, which may deprive players of the option to own a company (when there are 5-6 players) through unlucky timing.

I’m also not thrilled by the long playing time, but this is a practical rather than fundamental objection. While 2038 is long, I have always felt it maintains a solid interest level throughout. The endgame is much more interesting than simply figuring out how to acquire a permanent train (a la 1830 or 1870), and despite their faults from a play-balance perspective, the minors give the game a very nice texture as things progress from minors-only to minors and a couple public corporations through consolidation into the Asteroid League. 2038 has a nice flow to it, much moreso than 1830 or even 1856.

The question for me then becomes, how do you keep the good stuff and lose the bad stuff? What’s to be done to turn 2038 from a niche game into the classic it clearly has the potential to be?

Obviously, we would want to keep the wonderful route-building and corporate management elements while cleaning up or deleting some of the not-quite-functional financial stuff, bringing the playing time down, and generally making the game a bit smoother. I would suggest the following rebuilding approach:

  • Do away with the minors as they are now and rebuild as double-share public companies with low par price options;
  • Get rid of the loot-n-dump by adapting 1825’s more realistic receivership rules;
  • Greatly simplify the start packet, possibly by simply eliminating it in its entirety and adding the minors to the available companies to start, or auction off only the 6 pilot cards, not the companies;
  • Increase the flexibility in terms of starting public companies, perhaps by using 1825’s broader and less-restrictive tiering rules;
  • Divide the game into sub-modules in order to make smaller, playable chunks. The short game would be pre-Asteroid League formation, the long game would be the whole thing. But in order to make the short game really short and still satisfying, the map and number of companies available needs to be shrunk.
  • While making the above modifications, ensure that the companies still have a way to get sufficient cash into their treasuries without witholding all the time, since route-building is so much more expensive. I’m partial to the “realistic partial capitalization” rules, whereby companies only get capital for stock as it is sold, but unsold or repurchased stock will “pay dividends” to the company itself.

Despite its troubles, 2038 is still an interesting game and one of the best attempts to really extend the 18xx system. While it has some hits and some misses, the good stuff in 2038 still leaves me with a fondness for the game. I’m just not going to play it very often.

As a final comment, I must admit I had forgotten just how well-designed the components are for 2038. The game is graphically unspectacular, but the player aids are an inspiration. After wading through GMT’s Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, and even Europe Engulfed, with their absolutely wretched player aids, to play 2038 was a joy. There are clear reminders exactly where they are needed as to what happens when and which special rules you need to remember. Phases of the game are clearly indicated. The sequence of play chart is helpful. The rules are clear, concise, complete, and readable. 2038 is certainly a model of presentation for a modestly-complex game.

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18EU and 18xx

When I’m back in Ohio, Kim & I usually get together with our friend Mark for an 18xx game of some kind – of late we usually do 2038 or 1825. This time, Mark had his relatively new copy of 18EU at hand, and since it was supposed to be a bit shorter (4 hours?), we decided to give that a spin over the 1825 we were originally thinking of.

For those of you whose 18xx lore may go back a ways, 18EU is based on an old Minor Companies Variant for 1835. In brief: 1835 contains 6 minor companies, companies with no shares that are simply owned by players outright but run similarly to public companies, with half the profits going to the player and half to the corporate treasury (most companies in 18xx games sell shares then split the profits among shareholders). These companies would then ultimately be scooped up and merged into one late-game über-company, the Prussian national railway.

1835 was the first 18xx to use minors, and it was a cool idea, but had one major problem: the minors were a vastly better investment than anything else in the game. A 100DM investment in a minor company would outperform any 100DM share of stock, often by a wide margin. Since the supply of minors was limited and uneven, getting more of them was a big head start in the game.

So along comes the 1835 Minor Companies variant. Instead of starting the game with a mix of private, public, and minor companies, instead all we get is a whopping 15 minor companies; then to start the public companies, you have “grow” a minor, with the newly-formed public company getting all the minor’s assets and the player getting a president’s share. This nicely solved the balance problems, since now there were plenty of companies available, and any unevenness in distribution could be made up for by the fact that some minors were better than others.

18EU starts exactly the same way – with 15 minors. Then instead of buying major companies with fixed bases, you instead have to “convert” your minors into majors, which can start anywhere (so you can get the Belgian state railway emerging in Austria, if that’s all that is available and/or the president is feeling slightly perverse). In the late game, companies can be started in the traditional 18xx fashion, by selling 60% of the stock, but you can pick a home base from any available on the map.

The rest of the game is largely 1830 in character – numerical trains with a rapid obsolescence cycle, a 2D stock market that will trash your stock price if people sell, and so on.

This was my first trip back to an 1830-style game in a long, long time. I’ve played 1825 a bunch recently, and occasionally a 2038, but it’s been ages since I played 1856, and even longer since 1870 or 1830. While at some level I remembered why I liked these games, on another level the return trip was a bit disillusioning.

For starters, I had forgotten how much I despise the “loot-n-dump” ploy that 1830 added to the mix. In 1830, the key innovation of financial markets – limited liability – does not exist. If you are the president of a company, and that company does not have a train, and not enough cash to buy one, you are forced to go into your own pocket to do so (this is not the case in 1829, 1853, or 1825). Practically speaking, what this allows is for a player who runs two companies to clean out one of all its cash and trains, selling the stock and sticking another player with an albatross. This results in very stultified play, because everyone is afraid to own more than one share of anyone else’s stock (with only one share, you can never become president). Everyone is going to get to their holding limits by buying 60% of their own company and 10% of every other company. There are a few exceptions, but the net effect of all this is adding a lot more rules in order to make the play of the game more boring. You miss out on the far more fluid and interesting stock market of 1825. Of all the 1830-style games, only 1856 has an interesting stock market game.

18EU’s other major failing is the endgame. As I have said so many times, in an ideal world, a game will end at the latest shortly after the winner is apparent, and hopefully nobody has to play to much after it’s clear that they have no chance to win. In most 18xx games, the last few turns of the game are played out rapidly, “on paper” or using a spreadsheet. The tiles are all played already, the cross-board routes are built up, and 90+% of the companies’ runs are locked in; it’s just a question of whether the folks who played for the late game have allowed themselves enough time to make up the difference in early game earnings. In 18EU, though, there are endless possibilities for adding trivial amounts to your runs, so runs are never locked in and lots of time is spent adding an utterly inconsequential £10 or £20 to your £450 run, which is tedious. At this point most players will know about where they are in the pecking order, and I found the last hour plus of this game to be a bit painful.

Last thing, I was a bit surprised by how “closed” 18EU was. A key tool of competition in 18xx games are stations: these are used to both extend your own runs and to block other players. In every other 18xx game (except the outlier 1841), these stations cost money, usually substantial money ($40 or $100, remembering that the most money a company usually starts with is $1000). In 18EU, stations are effectively free (you are forced to pay $100 upon floating for all your station tokens). When combined with the fact that most cities have room for only one station, the board gets jammed up quickly and most of the route-building is focussed on circumventing blocked cities, which is not all that entertaining.

For me personally, I found that these drawbacks to 18EU were not balanced by any countervailing upsides. The playing time is twice 1825, comparable with 1830, and the design is certainly nowhere near as clean as either. It adds complexity which largely serves to take away options. The whole early game with the minors was not sufficiently interesting, and the opening auction of minors is impossible to play sensibly until you’ve played the main game a few times, which will make 18EU inaccessible to all but the people who play 18xx games regularly. And that, I think, is the ultimate message here: 18EU is a game for the 18xx fans. It’s a game that’s different from other 18xx games, so will provide some variation. It’s got a reasonably sensible playing time, while most of the post-1830 18xx games are too long (often much too long). But it’s nowhere near as solid a game as the core games of 1825, 1830, 1853, 1856, or 2038.

Nürnburg Games, part 2

Heckmeck: This is a Reiner Knizia dice game from Zoch. This is a game that is interesting in theory, because it is basically a highly compressed “category” dice game, a la Yahtzee, something I haven’t really seen in a German-style game. You roll dice repeatedly, and for each roll you must keep one “category” of dice: all the 1s, all the 2s, etc. You can only keep each category once, so once you’ve got 4s you can’t score them again. You keep rolling until either you choose to score, or you roll and there is nothing you can save (in which case you pass the dice). Add up your dice, take a scoring chit which does not exceed that total. There is some more stuff in there – you need to roll worms (a special die face) to score at all, and you can steal other people’s scoring chits – but that’s about it. I think this is more interesting in theory than in practice; I’m not sure it’s actually a better game than Yahtzee! (which may be underrated, albeit that isn’t saying a lot). This is the weakest Knizia game I’ve played in some time, and I can’t recommend it at all, especially at the length, 30 minutes or so. If you want a Knizia dice game, pick up Exxtra or Clash of the Gladiators, or better yet, just go for Can’t Stop.

Diamant: Another new game from Alan R Moon and Bruno Faidutti, this is unfortunately not available in an English edition. For those of you who have played Cloud 9, I’m told this is somewhat similar; I haven’t played the original. Everyone is a diamond miner. The game is played in 5 rounds, each of which will involve exploring one shaft. Turn over a card, which will have either diamonds or a disaster. If it is diamonds, split them up evenly amongst the players, with the remainder being left behind in the shaft. If it’s a disaster, nothing happens … unless it is a second, matching disaster for one previously drawn, in which case everyone still in the shaft loses all their collected diamonds. After each card draw, everyone simultaneously decides whether to press on or bail out. If you bail, you keep your diamonds accumulated to this point, and all the bailing players split up any diamonds that got left behind (with any odd ones being again left behind).

This is a clever game of chicken, and it seems that it would scale well to larger numbers of players (6+), which is a big plus. It’s simple, without any spurious elements, and I found the tension of deciding when to leave and when to press on engaging. A recommendation, at least if it can be found at a reasonable price, which I’d suggest should be about $20-$25. Unfortunately, it currently goes for about $40 in the US as a big-box game. I’d be a lot happier if it were a small-box card game, but what can you do; it’s a good game, regardless.

Tower of Babel: Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. This is a new big-box game from Hans im Glück and Reiner Knizia. Well, this needs further clarification: Hans im Glück now has two varieties of big-box games, the “heavy” games like Goa and Amun-Re, and the “4-pagers” like Attika, Clash of the Gladiators, and Saint Petersburg. Tower of Babel is in the latter category. The players are trying to build a number the ancient Wonders of the Ancient World (Tower of Babel, Colossus of Rhodes, Lighthouse at Alexandria, and so on). Each wonder has three chunks that need to be built, each of which requires one specific resource (marble, for example). The active player decides which chunk to build on which wonder. Each player than can make an offer of resources to help build it. If enough resources can be found, the active player can decide which offers to accept, filling out any remainder from his own hand. If the chunk is successfully built, the active player gets a chit in recognition, and each player who contributed resources gets one “brick” in the monument per resource contributed. The wild card is a “trader” card which can be added to any resource card offered; this turns the tables, with the player of the trader card getting the building chit while the active player gets all the bricks (if you accept an offer with a trader in it, it can’t be combined with any other offers). As each monument is scored, points are scored for first, second, and “also contributed”, and these points escalate. There are also a goodly number of points associated with having 3 or 4 same-colored chits at the end.

As is usual for a Knizia, this is quite subtle and clever, and gets a lot of mileage out of a few simple ideas. The game of getting bricks into the monuments is basically an area-influence game, but the point skew is interesting – while coming in first is obviously best, the “also contributed” points are significant and can often represent the best bang for your buck. There is a lot of subtle tension in the offering phase – you want to offer enough materials to have your offer chosen, but you don’t want to make it too easy on the active player. The trader card is generally reserved for the power-plays, because you’re going to have to make a fairly rich offer to have it accepted, but they are critical to scoring the building chits since they are only really worth significant points if you can get 3 or 4 of the 6 available in each color.

I liked Tower of Babel. In the category of serious but lighter 4-pager Knizia games, I doubt it will unseat Samurai or Through the Desert, but there are interesting things going on, nice tensions, and it plays quickly and exceptionally cleanly. I played it with 3, and it worked very well at that number; it’ll be a rather different game for 5, and given all the balances it’s hard to speculate how more will work. Regardless, for me, this will be a definite buy when it comes out in English in May (hopefully).

Louis XIV: This is from alea and Rudiger Dorn. After Traders of Genoa, which is a personal favorite, Herr Dorn hit a slightly rough patch with the very different Gargon (which was OK, sort of) and Emerald (which was OK). Then we got Goa and Jambo, both of which are more stylistically derivative from Traders of Genoa, and both of which I liked a lot. Now we get Louis XIV, which is both from alea and also has recognizable Traders of Genoa elements … so we’re feeling good about this one.

Players represent nobles trying to get stuff done in the court of Louis XIV. Each of the various courtiers has favors he or she can do for you, if you influence them or bribe them. Each turn you will have goals available to you, which if you can accumulate the right favors for, you can gain a lasting advantage (more income, more influence, special powers, etc.). The courtiers also have more material favors available, such as cash, influence manipulation, victory points, etc. Each player allocates their influence every turn with card play.

This is an alea “hobbyists” game, so there are significant details to these processes, but that’s the high-level view. Complexity-wise, Louis XIV’s rules match its box size, being somewhat more complex than any of the small-box games (like San Juan), but less complex than any of the big-box games (perhaps with the exception of the ever-anomalous Adel Verpflichtet). Despite just a touch of complexity, I found Louis XIV to play cleanly and quickly, with a modest playing time and short turns and enough options to be interesting, but not so many so as to make it susceptible to analysis paralysis.

I’ve played this a couple times now, and my impression is that Louis XIV will fit in quite nicely with the alea line, giving you a slightly meatier option than the small-box stuff, but not going so far as the generally higher complexity and longer play-times of the big-box games. I think it gives you significantly more to engage on than San Juan, although I doubt it will provide as much replay value because Louis XIV just isn’t as variable. But all in all, I was quite pleased with it, and would certaianly recommend it to fans of alea’s games. So far, the pick of the Nürnburg crop.

Nürnburg Games, part I

Kim and I had an opportunity to play through a bunch of the new stuff from Nürnburg recently. Here is part one.

Australia: This is a new Kramer/Kiesling game from Ravensburger. You are competing to score areas on a map of Australia. There are spaces along the area boundaries to place your pieces (rangers) – most spaces adjoin multiple different areas. Each area can score either for a koala bear (when all adjacent spaces are occupied by rangers) or for power lines (when it has exactly some number of rangers in adjacent spaces). Like Torres, the number of points you score is based on the raw number of pieces you have, not on ranking or majorities. There is some element of cash management here also, but really, that’s about it. It’s very reminiscent of Samurai in feel, in that you want your opponents to set you up to score, but without the elegance or depth of that classic (this is an anti-recommendation – if you like Samurai, don’t bother with Australia). Also, the theme is a classic disjointed paste-up job. Not terrible, I would play again if others wanted to give it a shot, but definitely not a buy for me.

Amazonas: This is a Stefan Dorra game from Kosmos/Mayfair. It’s a railroad game re-themed to the Amazon. You’re collecting rare and exotic animal species, killing them off to send back to European collectors or researchers. Or something along those lines, anyway. When you build a base camp location, you get a chit for the type of species produced by that site. Each turn, cardplay will determine your basic income, turn order, and which species you can get paid off for, which in turn finances the building of more camps in connected areas. You get points for breadth and depth of species collection at the end, as well as for connecting to all four of the camps pre-specified on your hidden goal card at the beginning of the game.

Stefan Dorra has a reputation as a good, perhaps underrated, game designer – so after this game I looked him up on BoardGameGeek to check out his ludography. It was basically as I recalled – one minor hit, For Sale, and a handful of solid, workmanlike designs: Marracash, Medina, Die Sieben Seigal, to pick a few. Nothing truly spectacular, but some good stuff. In my opinion, Amazonas isn’t even up to these standards; it commits the cardinal sin of being boring. There is little player tension; everyone is just building his or her own little networks with only occasional serious competition. The tactics of route-building and choices in earning income are not without some interest, but for the most part things are pretty tepid. On the plus side, the graphics are very nice, the theme is reasonable, and the game is pretty simple.

On balance, I think this is a family game, and not a gamer’s game. I think if you treat this as an “8 and up” game, it’s a nice partner to Sunken City – the kids get some decisions they can handle, the parents aren’t bored out of their minds, the event deck makes things pretty random, and it looks nice. But I don’t think your average adult gaming group is going to get much mileage out of this one.

Ticket to Ride: Europe: This is Alan R. Moon’s sequel to his Spiel des Jahre winning Ticket to Ride. There were complaints in the original about the dominance of long-distance tickets and long routes; those who worried about such things should be soothed somewhat. There are now tunnels, which can have variable extra building costs, and ferries, which require wild cards to build. You can also build stations, which allow you to “borrow” other players’ routes for the purposes of completing tickets. Finally, and in a major upgrade, the engine and ticket cards are now full-sized and far nicer.

On the one hand, I like the appearance of better balance on the tickets. On the other hand, I have reservations about basically all the other new stuff: the stations seem to reduce the pressure to build because you are at far less risk of getting cut off, and the randomness of the tunnel building seems a bit gratuitous and can make the short tunnels very expensive. I fear that while the original Ticket to Ride had the potential for some sharp play, the new version is more “damped” and so less tense. I don’t think the original Ticket to Ride can really afford to lose too much in terms of excitement level.

Given that a lot of the details have changed, it’ll take another couple plays to see if everything is in a good spot, balance-wise. None of the new stuff is fundamentally game-altering, so the feel is overall very similar to the original, and whether or not Ticket to Ride: Europe will be worth buying will depend on how well the details come together: whether there is still enough tension between building and drafting, whether the various regions of the board are viable, etc. My initial reaction was that it was nice, but it was not sufficiently different from or such an obvious upgrade to the original that I felt compelled to buy it, despite the much-improved components. But I enjoyed it enough to play again, and it might grow on me.

Grand Illusion

It was an all-wargame Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII for me, and Ted Raicer’s new WWI game from GMT was my major undertaking.

If Grand Illusion can be said to be “about” anything, it would be managing command points and manpower.

The sequence of play is designed around command points. The game is played in turns of alternating impulses. Each impulse you may spend command points from a limited pool to activate units and/or attack. Early on in the game, the Germans will have many more command points than the French, while things will even up later. So the French have to use their points very judiciously, making sure not to overreact or otherwise deplete their supply while the powerful German forces are still threatening. If the Germans can get a couple impulses against a paralyzed opponent, this is bad (it’s too bad the available command points are displayed openly … this would be a much more tense game if you didn’t know exactly what your opponent’s capacity to react was).

Movement and combat is then kept fairly simple. Combat involves just rolling less than your strength number with modifiers to hit, causing a step loss. All combat takes place inside the giant hexes, which function much as the areas in the area-impulse games like Breakout: Normandy, with rules about how you can move from and to hexes in various states of control or contest.

Like many of Ted Raicer’s other games (Paths of Glory, Clash of Giants), units can be full-strength or reduced. Reduced strength units are not dramatically weaker, but are much more brittle and easily eliminated. Bringing units back from reduced strength is not hard, but takes time and command points; on the other hand, bringing them back from the dead is extremely expensive. So the Germans need to push hard on the Schlieffen plan, but not so hard that they actually lose a lot of units. Likewise the French need to make an honest attempt at Plan XVII, but again, must try not to lose units in large numbers.

Probably the most serious downside is the quality of the rulebook, which is poor throughout, murky in several areas, and lacks both an index and intuitive organization. This is problematic because honestly, Grand Illusion is unlikely to be a game with a lot of replay value. So I figure I’ll realistically get maybe 5, 6 games out of it if things go well, 10 if I’m really lucky … but the first time through is basically just a learning game as you struggle with the 20 awkward pages of rules. This is not good. I don’t think Grand Illusion is a complex game, despite being a touch fiddly, and these rules needed to be a lot better, or at the minimum have an index. The poor quality of the rules is compounded by weak player aids.

As for the replayability issues … Grand Illusion I think gets what short-term replayability it has from injecting chaos into the game. The number of Command Points you get in a turn is random, and can be quite variable. Likewise, each battle is preceded by a “fog of war” die roll, and this can be rather dramatic. Now, without this randomness, I think Grand Illusion’s replay valuable would be negligible – the main scenarios railroad you into the Schlieffen Plan or Plan XVII, neither of which was a very good plan in retrospect and neither of which had a great deal of flexibility. But simply adding randomness is obviously not the most satisfactory way to do this, from a game persepctive, and I think in the medium term it will lead to more frustration than play value. In the medium-term, Grand Illusion attempts to spice things up by providing a more wide-open scenario with the ability to purchase pre-game option packs, which give more units or more flexibility, albeit at a cost in VPs. While this might work fine, I’m always a bit skeptical of the approach because I wonder if all the possible match-ups lead to an interesting game, and how accurately they could have been costed.

The bottom line: I thought Grand Illusion was decent. There are definitely issues, some of which are significant, but overall I enjoyed it and expect that if I get a chance to play more my opinion is more likely to improve than to fall. The management of command points, manpower, and the chaos of the random events was interesting and had tension. The impulse-based system keeps the game moving at a decent clip, and once you get going with the game, it plays pretty cleanly. I liked the giant hex-areas, which seemed to work at the right level of detail for this campaign. The feeling provided by the game is fairly historical, and there are tense choices. It’s a vastly better attempt to do this campaign than The Gamers’ Drive on Paris was, albeit at a significantly higher complexity level. The playing time is little long (at a guess maybe half an hour a turn for 8 or 15 turns), but not nearly as bad as some other recent Raicer games (Reds!, RTC). The rules are mess in my opinion, but once you’ve waded through and played a learning game the true level of complexity isn’t that high. I’d definitely like to play it again sometime, but it’s unlikely to become a gaming fixture.

Rommel in the Desert

I am hoping to run a Rommel in the Desert event at Origins. Well, I am running an event, I just hope people show up after the snafu with the printed program. I needed a short scenario, so I chose Battleaxe, which was apparently designed for the tournament at Origins ’87. Only problem: I had never played that scenario (I was unaware of it until it was added to the rulebook in the 2004 version of the game). So I’ve been trying to find opportunities to do so.

My first chance was at Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII. My opponent was a new player. I played the Germans.

Battleaxe starts both sides fairly short on supply, but the Germans particularly (only 4 cards to the Allied 8). I drew 4 blanks. “Isn’t there a mulligan rule in this game? I think there is a mulligan. Can I redraw?” (The mulligan rule was located later in the evening – you can redraw once, after which you are stuck with it). OK … 4 more blanks. Ouch.

For those unfamiliar with Rommel in the Desert, the game is driven by a deck of supply cards. Each card can be either one unit of supply, or not. Two-thirds of the deck is supply. Supply is required to do absolutely anything in the game, other than defending in place or running away from the enemy in terror. If you have supply, you can attack, counterattack, reinforce, or rearrange your defensive lines. If you have a bit more supply, you can launch larger offensives. If you have a lot of supply, you can attempt blitzkrieg-style breakthroughs. If you have no supply, you can withdraw.

I’ve had to play the game short supply, which is not easy, but is a lot easier as the Germans, since they concentrate a lot of hitting power into a few units, have better mobility, and are generally less fragile. You can use your fast recon units to sort of weave and dodge, and the Germans have a much easier time putting together nasty local counterattacks on short supply. I’ve never had to face down an opponent with 8 (admittedly unknown) supply cards while I had none, though.

I think if my opponent had more experience, it would have been a lot tougher; but the Allies are tricky to play. You can’t play this the way you would approach EastFront or Hammer of the Scots, because unlike in those games, one side’s units (the Axis here, unfortunately for the good guys) are simply better. A lot better, at least until the Grants and Shermans arrive. So for the Allies, the hexside attack limits make it harder to get force superiority; and the better Axis mobility makes it hard to outflank them. So you really need to leverage your supply advantage to unleash major hammer blows, rather than spending a supply here, a supply there – again, because the German units are so much better, if you’re in a move/counter-move situation, they’re always going to come out ahead.

Bottom line, if you can’t create a crisis, or at least an opportunity to tie them down in a major slugfest that will allow you to trade losses step-for-step, you’re better off waiting and building up your supply reserve. Of course, that judgment is tricky because you don’t know just how much supply your opponent has, or whether things are going to get much better. I think the British also have to be more sensitive to when to call off operations that are losing their momentum. If you’ve pushed hard, you aren’t getting results, and your stockpile is running low, it’s time to pull back rather than pushing the offensive until you simply run out of supply.

As our game played out, my recon units were able to screen my main body for the first turn, slowing down the Brits. I used withdrawl moves to yield a couple hexes. The first buildup saw one supply point come my way, which I resisted the temptation to use and simply fell back a bit more; the British had gotten themselves a bit mired in a couple battles to which they had brought insufficient force. The next buildup netted two more supply; at this point, I was able to spend one on a big counterattack, which stalled the British and stabilized a large part of the line. When I then had adequate supply on turn 5 or so, and the British had overextended themselves, and I was able to go over to the offensive and decisively maul their spearheads.

Like EastFront, Rommel is to a large degree about the efficient usage of scarce supply options – scarce supply has to be spent on concerted action and not frittered away. But Rommel is a much more dramatic game than EastFront, for a few reasons. Firstly, the German units are strong enough that the Axis can be fairly assertive. Secondly, you can run through your supply much more rapidly. In EastFront, the number of supply steps you can spend in a turn is limited, as is your ability to stockpile. In Rommel, you can spend vast amounts of supply on a lot of activity in a short amount of time, and you can also stockpile a very large reserve.

Every time I play Rommel in the Desert, I am reminded how much I like the game. Too bad I don’t get to play it more often; this is amongst the best of the best, especially since it plays in such a comparatively short time.

Euro Roundup

Die Weinhandler: If you remember, the first time I played this I had reasonably good things to say about it. I’ve played a couple times since, and it’s been taking a few body blows. This is, admittedly, not a huge shock – these small-box games rarely have that much staying power. I think the frustration with Die Weinhandler centers on the initial deal. Your initial purchasing power is random, and the difference between a rich hand and a poor hand is huge. Getting a strong deal, then being able to acquire the first lot of wine if it’s rich, can allow you to coast the rest of the way out, while a poor initial deal can put you in a hole it’s hard to get out of. This wouldn’t necessarily be too bad in a shorter game, but this is a 45 minute game or so, and I think ultimately the length sinks it. Anyway, not bad, a good try, clever to play a couple times, but a far cry from Money!, to which it is quite similar in feel.

Fairy Tale: This is another game getting some repeat play. Despite enjoying my first play, the second play (this time with 4 players) fell surprisingly flat. Part of this was certainly that we didn’t use any of the “advanced” cards, which do add to the game significantly in my opinion. But part of it too was that this time I just wondered where the game was. After the first round or two, you just pick the card that scores you points, or pick a card that you must deny to your neighbor. This time it just felt like all the choices were obvious. Now, this sort of game can be fun or not based on how the cards come out, so given I enjoyed it the first time I won’t judge it too harshly, and would like to play again. But it’s gone off my “buy” list.

Einfach Genial: This has been getting a ton of play since I first brought it to my game groups a few months back. It’s got that combination of elegance and subtlety – just the right touch of randomness so it can be played as a fun game, yet with enough depth to challenge you – that Knizia is the master of. I haven’t yet played the 4-player partnership version, which I will do next time we have 4 because I have become a little unsatisfied with the straight 4-player version. It seems a bit chaotic, a bit more prone to the luck of the draw as regions of colors will close off more rapidly, and with occasional problematic kingmaking. But Einfach is a brilliant 3-player game, and I hope the solution to the 4-player dilemma is the partnership version. I see this has just been released “in English” as Ingenious, and it remains a top pick from 2004.

Colossal Arena: Speaking of my top picks from 2004, it is inevitable when making these things that something will slip through the cracks. In my case, there were three games worthy of mention that were inexplicably omitted: this, Tongiaki, and Wings of War. Anyway. This time I wanted to check out the new creatures, so we used the Daimon (gotta get that funky spelling) and Seraphim. I had heard some complaints that the new creatures were unbalanced, but they didn’t seem too bad on inspection. In our game, the Seraphim (whose power is the coolest of the new ones) was whacked right off, and the backer of the Daimon was never able to use his power because there were never any open bet slots, which does of course seem the usual course of events. Interesting that all the other creatures’ powers will always give you something, at least after the first round, but the Daimon frequently won’t. It may be a while before he comes out again. On balance, the special powers largely give the game flavor and interest, along with a little bit more depth and a little more chaos at the same time, so since none of the new ones seem too bad, more is better as far as I’m concerned.

Mall World: I’ve written about Mall World a couple times, and played a few more beyond this. It’s been holding its own well over repeated play. It has that elusive property of revealing interesting little tidbits with each new play. The bit with the most subtlety is the auction process, in choosing which cards to sell – you can play cards you want played and try to get other people to do your work for you, you can play cards you think other people will bid for to make money, or you can play conservatively, trying to make money offering cards that can’t hurt you. The effort to score your special orders is a game-long process of taking small opportunities one at a time as they are offered, and managing the risks of potentially dangerous auctions. And of course there is the Union Pacific-esque tension between developing areas and actually scoring. All good stuff. I think the key thing to bear in mind when playing this game, though, is that while there are lots of little things you can do to improve your chances, Mall World has a hefty chunk of just trying to manage risk and opportunity – so you can do all the right things and still do poorly because someone developed the mall in an unexpected way, or the last card you needed to cap your multiple-special-order scoring simply never became available. It’s a clever and challenging game, but it can also be a chaotic one. I like games like this (as evidenced by my tremendous fondness for Republic of Rome), but some may find it frustrating.