Havoc, Ark, Tigris & Euphrates Kartenspiel, Essen Wrapup

At this point in playing through the Essen games I had actually become rather demoralized. Not for lack of good games; in fact, I think 2005 has been an excellent year, and we’ve had quite a few really outstanding medium-weight games (Beowulf especially, but also Tower of Babel, Elasund, Hacienda, Palazzo, and Louis XIV). For the first time in a while, I am enthused about enough new games that I am no longer feeling obliged to say “since 2000”.

No, what had demoralized me was the predictability. This blog has always been written with the knowledgeable gamer in mind. And what knowledgeable gamer worth his or her BoardGameGeek avatar really needs me to tell them that games from Kramer, Knizia, and Teuber, published by Hans im Glück, Kosmos, and alea, are probably worth checking out? This combined with the grinding mediocrity (at best) of all the efforts from smaller-label companies that I played was disheartening.

OK, so Caylus is an exception; in the old days of print media, maybe I could have proudly come out with my scoop, pointing you to this small-press title that, along with a few warts, had at its core an interesting game; something that the hard-core gamer might be interested in checking out. But these days the poor thing was so relentlessly over-hyped before I even got my hands on a copy (and I played for the first time the same day it was released), I found myself in the position of having to actually say that it really wasn’t as good as all that, even though by the relaxed standards of micro-press labels it was, on balance, a fairly nice game (if too long). Maybe Hans im Glück can pick it up and work the same magic they did on Keydom, a game to which Caylus seems quite similar in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it really could have used a good developer.

Still, setting aside Caylus, nothing – nothing – I had played from a non-major label or designer to this point called out for a second play, and all were utterly predictable in their often major and obvious deficiencies. Because I’m a generous guy I’ll try Third World Debt and Siena again perhaps – if I can talk anyone into it, and I don’t think I’ll find any takers from amongst the people who played the first time – but more as the triumph of hope over experience. Some of the new games didn’t even merit a single play after reading through the rules.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’m glad that I saved Havoc for last.

Havoc is a small-box card game from Sunriver Games, a new startup involving a few folks from the Gathering of Engineers. It is a game of drafting and poker hands.

The basic idea is that you get points from various battles from the Hundred Years War, which are played out in order. The battles usually have points for placing first, second, and third place, although there tend to be high-stakes battles with steep fall-offs and lower-stakes battles with a more even distribution. Between battles, everyone drafts cards for their hands in tried and true Alan R. Moon style, either from a few available openly on offer or blind from the deck. When a player has had enough, he calls “Havoc!” on his turn instead of drafting, and a battle is fought.

This is done by playing cards one at a time from your hand into a bid, much as you would in Taj Mahal or Beowulf (or exactly like Mermaid Rain, for those who have played that slightly obscure game). The bid is then evaluated as a poker hand, going up to 6 cards. The card deck is 6 suits, so you can have some additional combinations (5 of a kind, big houses, etc.). You then distribute the points to the people with the strongest hands.

There is a little bit more chrome; there are some Dogs (of War) cards, which are very limited wilds, and a timing mechanism to prevent things from getting out of hand with too much drafting. The chrome is actually slightly awkward without adding a huge amount gameplay-wise, but it’s not too bad, and it adds a bit of flavor.

If I had to pick out some minor issues here, I’d pick on a couple things. First is the rules, which are not always very clear, and we had a lot of trouble picking up the game cold, when nobody had played before or read the rules (in retrospect, the example of play is helpful). Second is the play length, which is similar to Beowulf but with a fraction of the depth of that game. Sure, we can’t all be Knizia, but I think Havoc probably goes on a bit past its expiration date – but again, it’s really not too bad. Lastly is the confusing proliferation of poker hands. With 6 cards, there are tons of different hands, and the ranking is not always intuitive. Not everyone has a working familiarity with poker rankings, and given that you are drafting rather than drawing blind, some hands (particularly straights) are losers. Some pruning here might have been helpful, or keeping the number of cards played to the traditional 5.

Still, these issues are comparatively minor. The bottom line was that I liked Havoc. Once you nail down the rules, it plays quickly and pretty cleanly. I like the bidding; there is a certain amount of bluffing you can do, although it’s in the margins generally; Havoc is not really a bluffing or probabilities game the way poker is. It’s what I think of as an “efficiency” game, a game where you are trying to get the most mileage out of your cards; you ideally want to spend them all by the end of the game, winning a lot of auctions by a little and losing a few auctions by a lot, and as such is a stripped-down cousin to Beowulf or Taj Mahal (or Blue Moon). I like this class of games quite a bit because you’re always thinking, making a lot of judgement calls and evaluations, but not a lot of direct calculation. This I think leads to a fairly engaging game.

Unfortunately, I can’t talk about Havoc without mentioning its cost. Havoc is only available as an “exclusive” through FunAgain games. Since FunAgain has long since stopped being competitive with other online vendors on price, this means if you want to get Havoc, you’re going to pay about $26 (shipping on a game this small is a killer; but shifting an order from Fairplay, Boards & Bits, or Boulder to FunAgain in order to buy Havoc will be even more painful). I was pleased enough to think about buying a copy for myself after I had played, but I balked at the price. If Havoc were $15 I think it would be an easy sell; at that price this is the sort of game I’d be happy to pick up at my local retailer or throw in to another order online. Maybe I’d give them another $5 to support a startup. But at $25-ish, it’s really tough (for reference Beowulf is $26 from Boards & Bits). It was a close call in the end, but given the competition this year, I didn’t end up buying Havoc. But I did enjoy playing it.

Moving along … Ark is the new Doris & Frank small-box game. It’s basically a tile-laying game disguised as a card game. You’re trying to get animals onto Noah’s Ark, but you need to arrange them so they all are going to be in the proper climate-controlled rooms, won’t eat each other, won’t unbalance the Ark (as the Brontosaurus is wont to do), etc. The nice thing is that the animals you acquire are a mixed bag of blind draws and drafting, so you can exercise some control there. You get the usual charming artwork from Doris, always a plus. And the playing time is quite reasonable.

The downside is the minor horde of fiddly rules that you have to track: placement rules like the fact that carnivores can’t share space with herbivores unless the herbivores are larger, or that shy animals can’t be next to carnivores; and the half-dozen special power associated with a few cards. These are not terribly burdensome, and they all do make sense, and they are much more of a pain to explain than to play.

I didn’t love Ark, but I definitely did like it, and would play again. It’s short, and although the list price of $20 might be steep, if you get it online it’s under $15, which seems about right.

When I first wrote about the Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, I said I liked it but had some nagging doubts. At that time I had played it mostly with 3. Having now played half-a-dozen more times, mostly with 4, my doubts have been largely settled. For me, anyway, the 4-player game feels right. It’s got more competition, the game seems to move along better, and the pacing feels more natural to me. All a little wishy-washy, perhaps, but there you go. 10 games in, I like it, and my opinion has stabilized at the “definite keeper” level. Not quite on the same level as the boardgame, but that’s a high bar, and this version is shorter.

So, there you go. This will, I think, wrap up the intensive coverage of the Essen games. There are still a few more to play (Celtic Quest and Wings of War: Burning Drachens, just to pick two), and there will be updates on some of the meatier games as I come to terms with them. There was significant frustration, and of course there are many games I didn’t, and most likely won’t, play (Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame), but on the whole I have to say it was a good year.

1829 Mainline

1829 (South) was the first 18xx game, published back – it’s hard to believe it was so long ago now – in 1974. 1829 is a very fine game, with the caveat that it takes, oh, about 12 hours to play. Especially problematic in light of the fact that it’s only fun for maybe 6. But you know, there just weren’t as many good games back then.

1825 tackled this problem by keeping the core game more or less intact, but chopping the huge 1829 up into much more manageable chunks. Two games (1829 and 1829 North) become 3 base games plus 3 regional expansions plus an expansion to lengthen the game plus at least half a dozen more mini-expansions adding various features from the original. Some additional rules streamlining and game balancing was done, and players were given significantly more flexibility, but 1829 at its core is clearly recognizable.

Playing the small 1825 games, though, you miss out on the scope of the bigger 1829, the long runs and open play. 1829 Mainline is an attempt to do an 18xx game that is both simple and short(er), and operates on a large geographical playing field, as well as bring us a game that is different enough from 1825 and 1829 to be worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed was the streamlining that eliminates the last few major 18xx features that non-regular players find troublesome. The main one is the phases of play (certain trains trigger rusting of other trains, changes in tiles available, changes in train holding limits, and colors of track available). Now you can just buy whatever is available, and upgrade track whenever you want. All good. There are also no longer restrictions on buying and selling stock; you can buy whatever is available and sell whatever you want. All of which is a relief.

The operations phase is mainly familiar to players of 1825 or 1830, with the only major rules change being that yellow tiles (basic track) can be put down in large batches, jumping ahead to the next city in one fell swoop as long as no drastic maneuvers are required. This is simple, but combined with the larger board it opens up a much richer tactical game than is typical in these games. No longer are entire geographical regions non-viable because of the plodding pace of tile laying. No longer is building bypasses necessarily an excruciating process of laying one time at a time over many turns. You now have a lot more flexibility in developing your runs, and with lots of cities and lots of companies, there is interesting competition for the best routes.

The major changes, though, are in the stock round.

For those unfamiliar with 18xx, stocks are bought and sold in rounds, where each round you can buy a single share. This tends to give everyone a crack at owning desirable companies, and also allows some to-and-fro as some players may sell to take advantage of an opportunity or defend their holdings from takeover, and others then scoop things up, with opportunities opening and closing as the round goes on.

It also means things can take a while, and can be uneven when some players are buying and selling heavily while others are watching (due to cash constraints, lack of interest, or greater or lesser foresight). 1829 Mainline tries to both simplify and speed this up. Instead of selling at any time, you can only sell the first time around the table. Instead of buying one stock at a time, each turn you just buy as many as you can afford.

Obviously, this shortcut wouldn’t work with the basic 18xx system of having a large pool of stocks available to everyone at the same time. So instead there is a mixed system. Each player is dealt a hand of some number of stock cards (around 10) at the beginning of the game, which you can buy from freely. This is your private pool. Then there is a draw deck of stock cards; if you want, you can take a random draw from it and either buy it, or not (ending your turn if you don’t, thus adding an interesting element of risk). And there is the discard pile of rejected stocks, which you can keep buying off the top of. To keep some motion going, your turn must end by flipping a card of the draw deck and not buying it.

I like all this in principle. It dramatically speeds up the stock rounds. It eliminates a couple fiddly rules about when you can’t buy stocks you’ve already sold, rules which sometimes seem artificial and can hammer new players. And it adds a nice element of variance (because the stocks available for immediate purchase will vary each game), planning (working with the cards you’ve been dealt as well as judging when to keep reserves of cash to take advantage of opportunities since you can’t freely sell) and uncertainty (the draw pile) which 18xx generally lacks. I’d be happy with it if it were not for two issues.

The first is how companies float. Like in 1856, your company can begin running as soon as two shares are sold. Also like 1856, your company gets money to its treasury only when people buy stock.

Here is the problem: your companies need a lot of cash to succeed in the long-term. Therefore, they need to sell shares. What if those shares aren’t available, because they are buried in the draw/discard pile or because someone is sitting on them in his or her hand because he or she has other priorities? It’s really tough to be sitting there in the middle game on a company starved for cash, but with 50% of the stock unavailable to purchase at any price. Also, companies that other players buy into early will tend to do much better than those with a single sponsor, as they have so much more money. This problem can crop up a bit in 1856, where good companies like the CPR, LPS, or Welland will get other players’ cash, while second-tier companies won’t, to their own detriment. At least in 1856, though, you have the ability to take out loans and “flip” your own stock to generate the cash you need. 1829 has no loans, your ability to flip stock is limited, and with the random availability of stock, who knows if it’s even available to buy? It’s possible to get behind the 8-ball here and not have a lot you can do about it.

The second problem combined with the above is simply one of length. We played with 3 very experienced 18xx players who didn’t play slowly, and the game took 4.5 hours. On the scale of 18xx games, and with players new to the specific game, that doesn’t sound too bad. But with the random allocation of shares, and the reduction in flexibility in the stock round, I think 1829 Mainline really wants to be 2.5 to 3 hours. Which, interestingly, is what it says on the box – and Mr. Tresham is usually pretty good about getting these estimates right, even when they are unpalatable; the numbers for 1829, 1853, 1825, and Revolution have been quite accurate, even erring in favor of being too generous, for me. But I have a hard time seeing my way clear to a 2.5 hour playing time on this one.

Which leads me to my last point. Somewhat unusual for a Francis Tresham game, the 1829 Mainline rules have a few problems. As a fan of 1825 I was able to work them through, but the cost to build on various terrain types (rivers and mountains) are nowhere to be found – we just used 1825 values. Also, it is possible, if unlikely, for a company to become completely unowned, and what happens in that case is not covered (as it is with the receivership rules in 1825). So it’s possible that there is a rule missing here. If, for example, whatever cash is not paid out in dividends were to go to the company treasury, this might make a significant and possibly positive difference in the game.

At the end of the day I’m a bit on the fence about 1829 Mainline. Although I am unsure if it works quite right, I do like the new stock round rules and will give Mr. Tresham the benefit of the doubt until I’ve played some more. I like the large-scale tactical feel of the game, and I do think it’s successful in giving us the opportunity to do some really interesting, long-distance route development. But I am concerned by the time it took us to play it. I don’t mind losing a bit of control in the stock round in general, especially if it compresses the game a bit and because the game has opened up more flexible and interesting route-building options. But given that the semi-random allocation of stock does have a driving effect on the game, I worry that it’s a bit too easy to suffer misfortune in the middle game and then have to play a game you are out of for too long.

Triumph of Chaos, Part 2

If you recall my report from the first half of our game, I was reasonably impressed. My main nervousness about Triumph of Chaos was always the complexity, with the long rulebook plus a supplement with lots of faction special rules, but my fears had been abated somewhat in actual play.

By the time we finished our second session with the game, though, the chrome and faction special rules combined with a lack of any acceptable player aids had started to weigh on us. None of the rules are tricky in and of themselves, but a combination of quantity and often-unclear presentation was a problem. Figuring out some of the setup charts for the Ukraine and Poland seemed to degenerate to guesswork at times. While playing the early game, with smaller and peripheral factions, was fine, entering the later game with larger and more complex factions (Ukraine, Poland, Mahkno), and where the victory conditions had become somewhat opaque, was definitely less satisfying. A game with this quantity of special-case rules really, really needs a decent reference sheet. How many games with potential have been sunk by the lack of a single well-thought-out, 1-page (front and back) reference sheet? Too many.

Another element of the game that seemed decent at first but wore thin with more play was the political phase. While I think the rules for politics are quite clever, I also think that from a game perspective, they just don’t work very well. Each turn, players select action cards to commit to three political arenas, generically labeled “red”, “white”, and “other”. Based on the amount of strength committed to each arena, a certain number of political cards will be selected, with the player who committed the most strength choosing a few from the pile, and the rest being selected randomly. Each card then has an effect on the allegiance of each political entity in the game.

This in theory sounds good. But each card, despite a thematic title, is essentially just an abstract collection of modifiers (“+1 White”, “+2 Red”), often for 10 or more individual factions. Figuring out which cards to pick, especially if you get to pick a couple, is a mind-bending exercise in matrix manipulation. Even figuring out which arena to allocate to was opaque. And all of it was an exercise that doesn’t offer much entertainment or interesting challenge.

I still think Triumph of Chaos does a lot of clever stuff, and while the second session with the game was tough, I like the design of the card decks a lot. I like the leader rules. I like the situation, with a combination of linear fronts and far-flung operations. I like the graphical presentation of the game, even if it’s noisy in spots. But Matt showed little enthusiasm to play again, and in practice I have to admit that I do think it’s over the complexity line of what most gamers are going to want to deal with, and, more to the point, the level of fiddly complexity presents a big barrier to feeling competent with the game in a reasonable amount of time. Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin are classics because they can be learned fairly thoroughly in an hour or so of play. Triumph of Chaos, it seems, cannot. There are just too many special cases. Wargaming is a very crowded field these days, and games have to be played with other people, who have to be convinced to sit down and learn the rules; and then the rules have to be grasped and the merits of the game have to be strongly apparent in the first couple hours of play. The complexity of Triumph of Chaos seems, unfortunately, to be just on the wrong side of manageable. It seems the effort to keep all the rules in your head requires playing more and more often than what the game grabs you for.

I think it’s a shame, because Triumph of Chaos – even though I think it came out OK – did not need to be this way. I think there is clearly chaff here that could have been cut out, and if a harder line could had been taken on complexity, and if what remained could have been encapsulated in some good reference sheets, Triumph of Chaos could have been much more than the niche game it turned out to be.