In Praise of the Adequate

I was pointed to this fun NYT article about personal satisfaction by Sarah Vowell’s Facebook feed:

Not everything has to be great. Maybe it’s a thrill to watch things become great. Maybe it’s healthy to feel that a meal is reasonable, that a performance had its moments, that a trip was fun in parts, that a person is engaging and you look forward to finding out what they’re really like, that last night’s sex was nice. In my slow but persistent bid for the reader’s sanity, I hereby prescribe a period of allowing things to be adequate.
I agree. So, to wit, a few pleasingly adequate games I’ve played in the recent or not-so-recent past and that otherwise I might not bother to write about:
Arctic Scavengers: While deck-building is an inherently engaging design pattern, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do something interesting and different. I like Arctic Scavengers for its chaos and uncertainty, because it’s designed on a standard deck-building core and yet goes in a completely different direction, and because of its effective communication design. Players are trying to build a tribe in a post-apocolyptic, nuclear-winter scenario, and the tropes of the genre – scavenging for equipment, skirmishes over scarce resources, bringing together scattered specialists – are all authentically there. I also like the new idea it brings to the game genre, that of building buildings which provide a permanent effect that helps you manage the chaos of the card flow. Is it a classic? No. But it pleasingly and effectively does what it sets out to do.
DC Comics Deckbuilding: Another deckbuilder, this is essentially Cryptozoic ripping off and re-theming Ascension (these comments apply more or less equally to the Lord of the Rings Deckbuilders, just choose which franchise you like best). The artistry here is not in the mechanics of the design, but in the application of new paint. It nicely hits all the touchstones of the genre, and all your favorite characters are here in more or less plausible versions of themselves. Also, all the games include many more attack cards (thematically keyed to defeated enemies) and fewer “permanents” (Ascension constructs) which gives them a bit more feeling of fluidity.  It’s certainly not thematically rich, being closer to the Monopoly re-themes than to Lord of the Rings or even Cryptozoic’s own The Hobbit, but when the underlying game is excellent and reasonably appropriate to the genre you could do a lot worse.
Indigo: Classic Knizian elegance, this ones sees us building paths for stones that start on a central tile, trying to guide them to our scoring gates which are spaced out around the outside edge of the hexagonal playing board. The twist is that many gates are controlled by two players, both of whom will score when a stone exits. Natural alliances grow in various areas of the board as turn order and shared gates work for or against different player pairings. Abstract and not that deep, there is still a lot more here than a cursory glance might reveal, and the physical design of the game is very attractive. This is a prototypical nice game.
Infiltration: This brings with it the usual hazards of Fantasy Flight Games: tiny fonts and questionable presentation decisions make it physically hard to play for older gamers. Still, this is a nice, short push-your-luck game with Vaccarinio’s trademark of lots of interacting cards (rooms that you infiltrate through, in this incarnation) with special rules. What makes Infiltration for me is how nicely it pulls in the elements of the heist story: a ticking clock working relentlessly against you while you dodge internal security and deploy your fancy, high-tech equipment. The Android universe is also colorful and nicely-drawn.
Smash-Up: The central idea of this game is to get at the good stuff from deck-building games, while minimizing the risks of degenerate card offerings, runaway leaders, small early misjudgments dooming you, and other hazards of the genre. You “build” your deck out of two halves of flavored cards (Zombies bring cards back out of the discard pile, Dinosaurs have raw combat power, Leprechauns move cards around and change rules in combat, Ninjas sneakily show up right before scoring, and so on) to create Zombie Ninjas, Alien Dinosaurs, and other inherently entertaining combinations. It’s a nice mix of the zany with an interesting tactical/resource management game that gets much of the fun of deckbuilders without some of the downsides. Plus, it has really good art and even uses adequate font sizes! It maybe runs just a touch long and is a little thinky for what it is, but is still a nicely-put-together game.
Star Trek Catan: It’s more or less straight Catan, but the one mechanical addition – crew cards with special powers that you can keep for a short time – accelerate the game slightly, add some nice flexibility with things like relocating ships (roads), flexible bank trading, and add some more ways to help players catch up. The Federation Space expansion map is a nice touch and even includes episode references. The little plastic Enterprises and general presentation is also quite nice, although the fonts on the crew cards are ludicrously small. Catan is almost 20 years old at this point, but it’s still a classic game and fun to play a spruced-up version.
Uchronia: Glory to Rome was a game I think I always wanted to like more than I actually did. Despite the hugely appealing interplay of quirky special powers, it had a problem with punishing luck (you can be out of it in 15 minutes if you fail to draw a decent bootstrap combo early) and very little tolerance for players’ mistakes, with apparently minor errors easily throwing the game. This can lead to a lot of irritation for non-experts. Uchronia files off many of these rough edges and makes for a more streamlined, pleasing experience. It’s lost the quirky insanity of the original, which admittedly was a significant element of the draw; it’s also got a wretched rulebook that seems to uses terminology designed to be obtuse, and the fonts are (again) too small for how they are used in the real world. But get past this, and there is a solid game underneath that takes the well-conceived construction metaphor from Glory to Rome and turns it into a game more people will find engaging.
After a few dry years for new hobby boardgames, for me the last year or so has been great – in no small part due to plenty of solid, decent new games like this. Here’s looking forward to more of them.

Tales of the Arabian Nights

I’ve been really enjoying this new game from Z-Man. You get to wander the world of the Thousand and One Nights, encounter strange people and customs, and try to make your fortune. There is a whole genre of what I think of as “experience games”, games where you play to watch the stories unfold as much as anything else. Games like Arkham Horror, American Megafauna, maybe Britannia and Republic of Rome. A surprisingly large number of wargames, like Paths of Glory or Successors, and arguably a lot of games which are too huge to realistically play to actual conclusion, like Case Blue or Guderian’s Blitzkrieg. I also feel many of GMT’s games where you wrestle far more with rules and processes than you do with actual decisions fall into this category; Fields of Fire certainly, and games from The Burning Blue to 1805: Sea of Glory and PQ-17 also feel to me like they get filed here.

So anyway, back to the topic. I think what appeals to me so much about Tales of the Arabian Nights, apart from the great flavor, is that it is an experience game which actually works. Yes, the stories it generates as you have your adventures are usually great fun and the real reward of playing. But you also have to actually play the game. You can’t just do stuff because it sounds cool or you want to see what happens; you have to play to your character’s strengths, trying to use the skills you’ve been given or have earned to their best advantage. Courting the Wealthy Princess may sound cool, but if you don’t have the Courtly Graces or Seduction skills, it’s probably not a percentages play, either from the point of view of winning or generating an interesting story. You have to play to your strengths.

With this in mind, I think a key to enjoying the game is the right attitude. You can’t come at it either trying to “generate cool stories” or getting too hung up on winning. I think you have to realize that the game is pretty random, and even if you play the best game possible you may well get hosed. On the other hand, if you don’t play to win, you aren’t going to generate the most (or even any) interesting stories. So take Knizia’s advice to heart, and realize that you do have to play the game to win, but the actual winning itself isn’t the important thing.

I’ll finish with a couple more concrete tips and observations.

Firstly, on the question of how to choose your victory conditions of story points vs. destiny points: This is a tough call and it’s unfortunate that the rules don’t give you a little guidance on this, since it’s an important decision that you make up-front with little to no information. My sense has been that Story points are a little easier to come by than Destiny, so that argues for favoring Story a little bit. A possibly more important factor, though, is that there is a fairly common status, Scorned, which turns all your Destiny points into Story points. There are also a few other fairly common Statuses that allow you spend Destiny for some effect, and Crippled (which doesn’t seem that common) doubles your Story points. On the flip side, Story Point losses, spends, or conversion to Destiny seem very rare (I haven’t seen any, but they could be out there). It’s still a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think it pays to favor Story points. Scorned seems to come up a lot, and if your objective points are split close to 50/50, it can be a real back-breaker.

Secondly, some folks I’ve played with have griped a little bit about the early game, a gripe with which I am not unsympathetic. The first phase of the game seems to involve wandering around a bit a trying to make something happen, looking for a break. You’re comparatively unskilled at that point, so it doesn’t feel like you are able to exert that much control until you’ve gained some experience. Thematic, but it can make the early game a little unsatisfying. We were pondering minor variants you could use to tweak things a bit, and I think we hit on a good one: just allow the players to pick 4, or even 5 skills at start instead of 3. It seems like it would do no fundamental violence to the game and it would give you a better shot at managing the encounters in the early game, and would let you fit more action in to the same game length. We had a discussion about whether you could get one starting skill at Master level for the cost of two skills, but were undecided. Master level skills are a significant advantage in terms of guiding your destiny, and it seemed like something that should have to be earned. Regardless, personally I don’t mind the early game of wandering in the wilderness, but I can see that overall this might improve the game for a lot of folks.

Lastly, keep the player count on this game down. The box advertises up to 6, but that just seems nuts. I’d say you should cap it at 4, and 3 is probably preferable. While you aren’t the current player or the reader, Tales of the Arabian Nights is almost pure downtime. There is only so much fun to be had listening to other players’ stories. Some, certainly – enough for a 4-player game, I think – but add more players and it gets pretty attenuated.

Around the Horn: Tribune, Wealth of Nations, Tinners’ Trail, Im Reich der …, Wie Verhext!

A few quick takes on euros I’ve been playing recently …

Tribune: A new game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel (designer of Die Macher). This is becoming my favorite of the recent burst of stuff. Not because it’s awesome, which I don’t think it is, or because there is any single design element which is an obvious magnet, but because it feels so solid and professional and well balanced. You can choose which goals you want to try to achieve to win the game; the various scenarios set goals in terms of money, a tribune, favor of the gods, faction control, military influence, or laurels, and you need to fulfill 3-5 of them, depending on the number of players. All of the goals can generally be achieved in multiple ways, so you have choices about how to get there as well. But there is also enough randomness to both add texture and opportunism and force you to reevaluate your plans from time to time, but not so much that the game feels frustrating. I think it’s landed in a really good spot which, honestly, Die Macher didn’t find despite its other virtues (for example, the polls in that game feel too random and high-stakes to me). Tribune’s different flavors and game lengths imparted by the different scenarios you can play are a nice touch too. The “short” game was good but felt a touch too short for my tastes, but the “medium” game was just right for me. Another bonus: Tribune seems to scale well through its range of 3-5 players. I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the 3-player version, but it worked quite well.

Wealth of Nations: I’ve only played this once, so I’ll just make a couple short comments. First, there has been some speculation on BGG that the loan system in the game – where the more loans you have the less money you get for the next one, but where you don’t have to pay interest – doesn’t work. On reading the rules, I tended to agree. But having now played once, I think everything is OK in this respect, if not perfect. Regardless, this is another game with a punishing learning curve which, unfortunately, is coupled with a lengthy playing time (2-2.5 hours). You can make choices that are not obviously bad that will wipe you out of the game in the first 20 minutes or less with little to do for the remainder of the game other than struggle to keep your head above water. So, here are my tips, for what they are worth: industry tiles are more expensive than they look, and good returns more elusive than you think. The game needs to have a solid base of production for food, labor, and energy before higher-valued industries start to pay off. As in Container, you need to be risk-averse in the very early game while you wait to see how things are going to play out; if you’re producing stuff you can’t directly use, and for which there is too much supply and not enough demand, you’re hosed. Everyone always needs Food, Labor, and Energy, and if you can’t sell those things, you can at least use them to grow your empire. Although Capital and Ore look tempting initially due to the high price of those goods, demand does not ramp up for a while, and if the early producers of Food and Labor are not given some competition, the prices on those commodities can become crippling for anyone not producing them. Wealth of Nations is clever, and I suspect a good and interesting game. But it may be too fragile in practice and possibly too punishing.

I will make one concrete criticism of Wealth of Nations, and that is of the game end conditions. This game does not end until you have been well and truly impaled on the fork: virtually all the industry tiles are played, the game board is used up, or one player is out of options. One of my cardinal rules, often stated (maybe I should make a page for them), is that games should end before they are over. Wealth of Nations could use a victory point or wealth target endgame trigger to go with the exhaustion of build options so that runaway winners don’t have to spend resources to end the game just to put everyone else out of their misery.

Tinners’ Trail: This is Martin Wallace’s first entry in his Tree Frog line. I enjoyed my one game of this, with some caveats, but I’ve come to distrust my initial impressions of Wallace games. Too much of his stuff has felt promising after one or two plays only to crash and burn, hard, because of out-of-whack game balance.

That having been said, Tinners’ Trail is a fairly straightforward, clean, well-paced and quick-playing game of mining for tin or copper in Cornwall. That’s all to the good. On the other hand, it’s again on somewhat shaky thematic ground. The core issue here is that the cost for and opportunity to obtain infrastructure (ports, rails, adits, workers) plays out somewhat strangely – the supply of such improvements is extremely limited, and they have to be paid for with time (a là Thebes, vaguely) rather than money. The time cost is so negligible though that the decision is not whether to build an asset or not, but instead which of the starkly limited supply is the most underpriced and how to get good turn order so you can choose first and not get shut out. It is then doubly strange in that the one resource that is fairly plentiful and not likely to constrain you much – dirt in which to dig – is the one that is auctioned.

This is all a little strange, but in practice it does at least mechanically work reasonably well. But I think the thing that will ultimately undo Tinners’ Tail is the heavy-handed randomness in the market prices for tin and copper. You put a lot of thought into the game, but the uncontrolled swings on the commodity prices, which translate directly to victory points, make more difference than skilled play I think.

Regardless, I think Tinners’ Trail does offer some entertainment and interesting decisions, does not outstay its welcome and is comparatively clean, and so I’ll be happy to play a couple times. But I can’t see it having any staying power. It also seems quite overpriced for what it is, which is a run-of-the-mill light-to-medium-weight German game. Oddly, the game it reminds me the most of is Guatemala Café. Both are abstract business games of development with pleasing production. I feel like I would have found both of them really clever if I had run into them 10-15 years ago. Today, not so much.

Im Reich der Jadegöttin and Im Reich der Wüstensöhne: These are two new games from Klaus Teuber, based on the old Entdecker game engine. By my count, these are something like his fourth and fifth attempts at getting it right (Entdecker, Entdecker: Discovering New Horizons, and Oceana having gone before), and in my opinion this is the first time he has nailed it and delivered the complete package. Part of this is improvements to the fundamental game engine; the ability to “store” tiles that won’t fit for later play means blown exploration draws aren’t as swingy, and the new movement rules, which allow you to get stuck in the middle of the wilderness if you press out too far on your own, make for interesting choices. I also think that thematically the archeology theme of Jadegöttin is more successful. Similar to what I found with El Capitan recently, Jadegöttin has an interesting cooperative-competitive dynamic: players benefit when others help them to explore areas of the map, but when push comes to shove, it’s better for you to control the completed area than your opponents. The key in this sort of thing is getting the right balance of rewards for winning and for assisting, something which is not easy – Carcassonne, for example, doesn’t capture as much of this as perhaps it should because its scoring rules are restrictive and punishing, making cooperation and therefore player interaction hard to justify. Jadegöttin (and Wüstensöhne) give points out much more generously to players with non-majority presences in areas, making the tension between helping others and striking out on your own much more interesting, and (in the case of Jadegöttin) more authentic for a game about archaeology. Anyway, I like both these games a lot. Jadegöttin is definitely the lighter and more chaotic of the two games, and more suitable for family or low-impact gaming, while Wüstensöhne is somewhat more sophisticated, with tighter resources and sharper decisions. Both ultimately weigh in towards the lighter end of things though.

Wie Verhext!: The latest alea game, this is a light and clever game that has grown on me. It’s a vaguely role-selection based game like San Juan or Citadelles or Race for the Galaxy, but not directly analogous to any of them. The game has 12 roles, some of which allow you to gather the ingredients to make potions, some of which let you raise or spend cash, and some that let you actually make the potions. Each turn, you choose 5 of the roles you want to do. The lead player then picks one of those roles, say the Witch, and plays the card (“I am the Witch!”). Each player in turn then who has also selected that role must choose to either usurp the role (“No! I am the Witch!”), or settle for the lesser power of the role (“So be it!”). The player who ends up as the Witch gets to take the full power of that role (use the appropriate ingredients to brew a potion for victory points). Any player who was usurped gets nothing. The player who wins the role must lead. Obviously, leading isn’t great, because there is a high chance of being usurped and you can’t “duck” by taking the lesser power when you know it’s going to end badly for you. But if you want the strong powers, you have to usurp, which means you’ll end up leading.

This is a game that’s easy to dismiss as a light, chaotic game when you first look at it, and maybe that’s right. But as I got into it, I found there was more scope for bluffing, guessing, and second-guessing than you might think. While everyone starts with the same set of roles, ingredients, and money, the fairly strong role powers guarantee that holdings will rapidly and strongly diverge, and so you can get a pretty good read on what people would prefer to do, what order they might like to do it in, and therefore what roles they might be taking and how they might come out. From this comes a neat little game of planning, anticipation, and evaluation, both when choosing which roles to play, and in how to play them. It’s not hugely strategic, but it is quick-playing and simple and there is more here than meets the eye.

At first I was a little annoyed with myself because I got this direct from Germany shortly before the US version was (finally) officially announced. But now that the English version has been delayed again, I’m glad to have it and have enjoyed playing it.

More Essen Games: Fowl Play, Pillars of the Earth

Fowl Play: This is another limited release from Richard Breese and his R&D label, available for prices we’ll generously call a little high.

The basic idea is that the players are foxes loose in the chicken coop, trying to catch various fowl (turkeys, ducks, chickens, and geese). The basic driver here is that you score points for catching a diversity of prey (a balanced diet, you see), but the different quarry set up in different corners of the map, so once you committed to bagging turkeys, say, it takes time to switch to head over to a different corner and start hunting geese.

At the same time as you are playing your primary role of a fox, you are also moving the fowl to try to evade capture. At the beginning of the game you’ll be dealt a single target animal (fowl have three properties: type, color, and shape, for a total of 36 unique pieces – if this all seems a bit confusing, perhaps this picture will be worth a few words) which you are trying to keep alive, and you’ll get big points if it survives, and slightly fewer points for animals that share one or more traits. Fowl actually move a little faster than foxes, but you are restricted in what you can move: each turn you play one card that both dictates turn order (via a number) and which fowl you can move (it’s got a picture of one unique fowl, and you can move anything that shares at least one trait with it). You can move these fowl a combined total of 3 hexes; your fox only moves two hexes, so while you can’t outrun an individual bird, you can outrun a flock.

So, foxes run around, herds of turkeys try desperately to evade, and a lot of fowl don’t make it. The game it actually reminds me of, in a rather oblique way, is Titan: The Arena. In both games you have a hidden piece of information identifying someone you’re trying to keep alive. But, in both games the tools you have to preserve that creature are quite indirect – you’ll mostly be trying to make sure creatures you don’t have any stake in don’t make it, rather than trying to pump up your own guy, in general. The difference is, Fowl Play is played out as an interesting tactical game of chasing down quarry, while Titan: The Arena is much more of a management/strategic game.

Which brings us to the thing which will probably cause people the most grief about Fowl Play: the final scoring. If you found the indirect final scoring of some of Knizia’s earlier games like Samurai a bit opaque, these are as nothing next to Fowl Play. Figuring out who won involves filling in a spreadsheet. You have to figure out who has the most of each the 6 individual different attributes of bird (circle, square, black, white, etc), then score for diversity within each category, then add up all the escapees … it’s a bit involved, and the most complicated part of the game. In general, having the most complicated bit be right at the end is probably not a good plan, from a design perspective.

But the truth is, even though Fowl Play’s scoring is complicated, I think it can be boiled down to fairly simple heuristics. Capturing stuff is always good, unless it shares a property with your target. You always need species diversity, and this will be a major driver of your play. Don’t worry about the individual categories too much and just go for the easy pickings early, and then build up those holdings later, if you can.

I imagine the design goal here was actually to make the game flow a little bit more easily by making the scoring involved enough that it can’t be easily mini-maxed; but I think the same could have been accomplished with a more straightforward system by adding random or more important hidden elements. But, that might have ended up feeling arbitrary, so who knows. At the end of the day, Fowl Play is definitely a light-hearted, fun game with scoring so baroque that that it’s going to be a potential issue for many gamers (many of Richard Breese’s games share variations on this issue in some aspect of the game or another).

Far be it from me to make excuses for a game which has scoring that is probably too involved and which is a possible show-stopper for many, but still, I liked Fowl Play. I think it’s nicely thematic (the birds move around in flocks as they try to avoid the foxes, the foxes hunt better in packs, and the artwork is charming and appropriately cartoony), I like the tactical details of actually moving the pieces around to corner and catch birds (or slip through the foxes’ net). It’s definitely a medium-weight game that can look like a brain-burner at times (and will probably wither on the vine if played too much that way), but played as a medium-weight with some depth, I definitely think it’s fun.

Is it worth what it’s currently going for, price-wise? If you don’t already own it, probably not (and given that Boulder now has it marked down, perhaps even Breesophiles may have hit their limit on what they’re willing to pay). But if someone in your group has sprung for it, it’s definitely worth a go.

Pillars of the Earth (Die Säulen Der Erde): If Aladdin’s Dragons was a simplified and streamlined version of Keydom, it might be said that Pillars of the Earth does the same for Caylus. Sort of. The situation is a little more complicated in this case, however: unlike Keydom, Caylus needed more than just stuff taken out. Caylus also needed another idea.

So that’s sort of what we get. We’re still building bits of a cathedral using resources we’ve gathered. We’re still placing workers in areas where they gain special powers. The favors are gone, and the range of building powers is greatly reduced (which is good; too many buildings in Caylus were worthless). Resource generation has been completely changed though, and is now it’s own sub-game: players have two different types of pawns, and place worker pawns first to claim available resources, and once that’s done, they then place a much smaller number of overseer pawns to gain special powers. This is nice, because compared to Caylus, it forces you to play properly.

The big departure from Caylus, and the part this is going to cause the most grief for some folks, is the overseer placement. Instead of placing in strict player order, pieces are drawn at random (horror!) from a bag. If you’re drawn first, you get good placement, but you also need to pay a high price – 8 gold I think it was -– or go to the back of the queue. Each subsequent pawn drawn from the bag pays 1 gold less, until the placements are free.

I’m somewhat undecided on how much I like this. It creates a sort-of auction, in that if there is a good spot on the board, it’ll cost about as much to take it as it’s worth. Unlike a true auction game, in Pillars of the Earth players aren’t usually going to come to hugely different conclusions about the value of each placement. Who actually gets it at that price is obviously somewhat random, but at least they’ll most likely pay a fair price, and it rewards good evaluation skills. It’s always nice for a game to reward a variety of skills rather than being purely tactical, so that’s good, and it’s nice to get some of the interest of evaluation without the potentially quite time-consuming process of actually doing quite a few full-fledged auctions.

On the other hand, there definitely are a few times in the game when draw order will matter a lot. Players accumulate resources at a fairly constant rate, as more or less the same mix and quantity of resources are available each turn. You then need to acquire craftspeople – potters, sculptors, carpenters, and so on – to convert those resources into VPs. That rate of resource conversion accelerates rapidly as the game goes on, with early Stonemasons converting 3 or 4 stone into a VP, while later sculptors can turn 1 stone into a VP. Obviously, getting the key craftspeople, especially late in the game when the very few who can use metal become available, can be a big deal. And that can depend on getting picked from the bag at the right time, which can be ultimately unsatisfying, especially in a long-ish game.

Still, overall I enjoyed playing Pillars of the Earth. I think it engages on enough different levels (strategy, tactics, evaluation) for a big-box game, and it’s thematically solid (and very well-presented). But I also got the same feeling playing the game as I did playing Space Dealer: it felt like I was being asked to make interesting judgments about the relative values of different options, and do interesting planning, but by the end it didn’t feel like the game had a whole lot of depth. It felt like a couple run-throughs were going to give you about all you were likely to get out of it. The strict progression in the availability of craftspeople (and the lack of real variety), the limited variability in the resources cubes available each turn, and the samy-ness of each turn’s feel all conspired to convince me that there wasn’t a lot of replayability in the package.

The bottom line for me was that I enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, but it’s not a game I’d queue up to buy. When it comes out from Mayfair, it’ll likely be at the $50 price point, and for me, that’s too high. I’m not sure what I would pay; I’m not sure I’d buy even if it were $30. I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s one of those games I’d prefer to play on someone else’s copy.

Tile-Laying Extravaganza: Gheos, Tulavi, Bison

Gheos: This is a new tile-laying game from Z-Man, with a Civilization building theme and triangular tiles. You build up continents with different Civilizations, claim stakes in those Civilizations, and score points for the resources the Civilizations you have stakes in control.

Gheos struck me as just being incredibly bland. The tiles are triangular, and the format for all of them is that all three corners have water and all three edges have land, so the range of different tile configurations is very small; usually, it’s just a question of what resources they have, a question which really is not that interesting. Because you can always stack tiles on top of each other, so you can play any tile anywhere at any time (which can break up or join continents, which allows civilizations to migrate or merge), the flow of the game has very little coherence.

And of course a tile-laying game can always cover any issues by looking impressive once laid out; but Gheos’ look is pretty bland and it just isn’t visually interesting.

Nice try, but for me, not there. If you want a cheap copy, mine can be found at my section of the BGG Marketplace.

Taluva: Well, one complaint that certainly can’t be leveled at Taluva is that it’s not visually interesting. From the rich tropical colors (including nicely-chosen player colors) to the well-illustrated volcanoes and beaches, nice graphics are certainly one thing Taluva can deliver.

Players are colonizing the island of Taluva, which, sadly, is wracked by volcanoes. You’ve got three different types of buildings (Temples, Towers, and Huts), which are played under different conditions (huts anywhere, Towers only on high ground, and Temples only in larger settlements). You can win either by placing all of two types of your pieces, or by having the most Temples in play at the end. But, if you ever cannot place a building, you immediately lose!

Taluva is more or less what you would expect from a Carcassonne-like tile-laying game. Expand the island, slap down your pieces, and carve out your areas. It’s got the twist that volcanic eruptions can allow you to build up as well as out, and also can wipe out other people’s pieces (giving it a touch of overt competition), but I still think of it as being a pretty close cousin to Carcassonne. I think where it scores is the relatively open play (you can put down buildings almost anywhere, and there are only a few restrictions on where you can place tiles), the somewhat more strategic play in building up your little villages, and of course in the very attractive appearance once you’ve got everything laid out on the table.

For me, it’s another solid game from Hans im Glück, a game that is sufficiently straightforward and attractive to be easy to get on the table yet gamerly enough to be engaging for the more discriminating player. More gamerly than Carcassonne, I think, maybe on par with Thurn and Taxis. Not an obvious pick for my year-end top 10, but fun, and one I’m glad to own.

Bison: After Hey! That’s My Fish! and Revolution, I was back on board with Phalanx, at least partially. Bison is their new game from Kramer and Kiesling, and it’s not a game you would mistake for something by any other designer.

Although the two games are quite different in actual play, the game that Bison fundamentally reminded me of is El Cabellero. It’s got the Kramer trademark of pieces split between your active area and a reserve which you have to pay to activate. You’ve got the expanding world divided up into regions that you want to control with your pieces for points.

Players are Native American hunters rounding up fish (from streams), turkeys (from mountains), and buffalo (from the plains). A feature of Kramer/Kiesling designs is actions points, and Bison has them, kind of. A round is each player taking one action in turn – expanding the world and placing new guys from your supply onto the new tile, moving guys around on the board, or building settlements. There are a total of 6 variations on these actions, and four rounds in a turn, so you aren’t going to do all of them every turn, but you have to expand the world at some point. As your guys control terrain on the board, they will score animals in the hunt, and then those animals are the currency you have to use to further expand. The player with the most income at the end – not the most animals in stock – wins. In a further twist, the 3 different types of animals you can score are fairly interchangeable during the game when paying to take actions, but at game end, it’s the player with the Ingenious-style “most of the least” that wins.

I liked Bison. Again, it’s basically a tile-laying game, but it’s got enough clever elements to make it different. It’s definitely similar in feel to Kramer(/Kiesling)’s previous action-point and area-control games to be recognizable, but it mixes it up enough and contains enough new to have a rather different feel to it. The visual design of the game is a little more abstract, and I think it will not be as universally appealing as the artful Taluva or the lighthearted Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, but I liked the look of the world unfolding.

There is an enormous caveat to this, however. Tikal, Torres, Java, and El Cabellero could all bog down because all information is open and players have enough options that some people are going to want to analyze them all, perhaps a couple times. Far be it from me to criticize other people’s style of play, but there are people who always seem to need concrete answers and are impervious to the fact that they are taking far longer than everyone else to find them. It would be ideal if a game like Bison, that I think really wants to be about 45-60 minutes long, would have more hidden information or more uncertainty so as to not encourage this sort of thing. But, sadly, it does not, and so in the wrong set of circumstances the game can screech to a halt. In fairness, Phalanx is strikingly honest about the playing time on the box – it says 90 minutes – but Bison is really not that deep, in my opinion. So don’t play it with anyone you wouldn’t play Tikal, Torres, or any other game prone to excess analysis. The failing of Bison is that while Tikal has enough depth to reward a fair amount of thought, I’m not sure Bison really does.

Space Dealer, Factory Fun

Space Dealer is a new real-time boardgame from Eggert-Spiele which I almost didn’t buy. Honestly, I haven’t played anything from them that I thought was any good (no, not even Antike). But when I heard the gimmick – using a whole mess of timers to moderate a real-time game – I had to give it a try.*

The basic idea is that each player is a space-going trading empire. You need to develop your infrastructure (more power, more production, more special powers), produce goods, and then ship those goods off to your neighboring planets. Getting the right goods to your neighbors before anyone else does gets you points (it also gets the recipient points, although usually quite a bit fewer).

Everything in the game is done with 30-second timers, of which each player initially has two. Want to build a new mine? Slap a 30-second timer on the card and wait for it to finish. Want to dig some green cubes out of your just-built mine? Ditto. Want to fly your ship to a neighboring star system (the players are laid out around the table in a circle, with each player two hops from the adjacent player)? Put a timer on it. You can see the pattern.

The nice thing about Space Dealer is that while 30 seconds or so isn’t a lot of time, it’s also not crushingly fast. You’ll feel time pressures to make decisions, especially early as players ramp up and you’re feeling pressure to get your production engine going. And once you’ve set yourself on a course of action for a few minutes, you want to take actions quickly so your timers aren’t idle. And as timers are exhausting every 15 seconds or so, keeping up with everything without making a bone-headed maneuver can get to be challenging at times.

I liked Space Dealer. It seemed to be in a very nice spot. The pace is quick but not frantic, the decisions about what to do (upgrade technology, build, produce) are interesting but easy enough to grasp that they can be played in realtime, and ultimately good play is about making good choices under time pressure and not just about playing fast. I’ve played it half a dozen times now and I’ve always enjoyed it, and I suspect it’ll keep a spot in my collection for a good while.

Ah, but there is (of course) a caveat. Space Dealer is a gimmick game. I think the gimmick, the time pressure and the real-time activity, is well-executed and so it’s fun to play for just that reason. And in a terrific move, Space Dealer includes a CD with music that goes on for exactly 30 minutes and both counts down the time remaining at intervals, as well as ratchets up the tension as the game goes on. I can’t imagine playing this game without the CD. But sadly, I doubt that there is serious replayability in the package. The range of production and special power cards you can build to expand your empire is somewhat limited, and I think that for most people, after a handful of games you will have seen about all that the game has to offer. Also, I’ve mentioned before that I think good games of this sort should, in general, end while player still have things left to do and real choices remaining. Space Dealer seems to end about when everyone is done: all the worthwhile cards in the game have been built, virtually all the demands are fulfilled, and there is little left to do but run out the clock on the last few remaining actions and see whose ship is going to arrive in the last 20 seconds and whose isn’t. It leaves you with a sense of a game that was fun, but not one waiting to be explored.

But I still like it. I imagine Space Dealer will end up being one of those games that we play a bunch now, because it’s new and cool, and then will go onto the shelf to be brought out once or twice a year because it’s so unique and because it’s fun. Maybe Eggert can do an expansion or two with more cards, more activities, and more development options to give the game more range.

Postscript: Space Dealer has a slightly awkward basic/advanced game breakdown, which I don’t think quite works. Here is the combination of rules that I have settled on: use advanced rules, but drop the neutral planets and the four technology cards that sabotage other players. Also, play that the Fusion mines produce two cubes in the color of you choice (as the graphics would seem to indicate), not four cubes (as the rules say). The “basic” game doesn’t quite work; if you’re reading this blog, you should go direct to this configuration. If you want an intro, do what we did, play a 5-minute training game, then reset and play the whole thing.

Factory Fun: It’s clearly a factory, but it it fun? Short answer: Yes.

Factory Fun reminds me vaguely of the old Parker Brothers’ game WaterWorks which I played as a kid, in that it involves a lot of pipes. You’re building a factory. Over the game, you acquire machinery that needs to be hooked up. Those machines have inputs and outputs; the inputs have to be hooked up to either your supply, or to other machines that produce the right output. Space is limited, so you end up routing your pipes out the side, around an intervening machine, taking a left at the column in the middle of your factory floor, and then to its destination.

Machines are acquired by means of a “speed auction”. Each player designates one hand as their “flipping hand” and one hand as their “grabbing hand”. Everyone flips a machine. Then you grab the one you want. Or not, if someone else gets to it first. I’ve seen and heard some moaning about this technique, and how you should just do a money auction, but I like the grabbing. Factory Fun is a light game. It should be played quickly. You can’t beat everyone scrambling for their machine of choice in terms of resolution time.

Once you’ve grabbed your machine, you’re faced with an interesting mini-puzzle of how to connect it up without breaking the bank (each bit of piping costs a monetary unit); and at the end of the day that’s what Factory Fun really is, basically 10 clever and fun little mini-puzzles where you try to fit your factory together while still hedging your bets to keep your options open for the next machine you acquire (much like Take it Easy). I enjoy these little puzzles, and so I enjoyed the game.

If Factory Fun has a flaw, it’s in the scoring. Each machine gets a flat point pay-out when you hook it into your factory. At the end of the game, you get a bonus for hooking the output of one machine into the input of another (better value-add, you see). This bonus is huge, and is the tail that wags the dog here, I think. Getting your machines hooked up in serial is far more important than anything else, to the point that I think it drives the game unduly.

Because of this, after about 5 or 6 games, I’m starting to tire of Factory Fun a little. I think the puzzles are clever, and the game is not too long, but once I realized that hooking up machines in sequence trumped all else, it lost a bit of its edge for me. The other pressures (space in the factory, wiring things up efficiently) just don’t seem quite strong enough to really give the game tension in the long run.

* One kind of game I will always buy is one which echoes one of my small stock of my own game design ideas. About 5 years ago, after Knizia’s Lord of the Rings came out, I was briefly working on a real-time game idea using timers. It was a cooperative game based on the US Space Program in the 60s, where players each had responsibility for finishing one component of the program. It involved completing projects by allocating timers to them. I never really developed the idea to the point where I thought it would actually work. But when Space Dealer came along with a similar concept, I had to give it a try.

I got a similar sense of deja vu recently when reading about Face 2 Face’s new game Moai. I had almost exactly the same idea for a game after reading Collapse.

Augsburg 1520, Gloria Mundi

Augsburg 1520: alea has been taking some hits for some of their recent games (Rum & Pirates, Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters), but even though they haven’t maintained their “every release a classic” run from Ra to Puerto Rico, I’ve still always found something to like in their games (it’s helped that their line shows great range; their first 6 big-box games included bidding, bluffing, tactical, and negotiation games). Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters, and Die Sieben Weisen are all games I liked for their solid execution of interesting ideas, even if they aren’t all tremendously replayable. And Rum & Pirates was just fun (I’ve played a number of times since, and no, I haven’t changed my mind on that). Only the so-so Wyatt Earp is out in the cold, but even that had an interesting twist on Rummy, with more incremental instead of all-or-nothing scoring. And of course the relatively recent San Juan is amongst the best games in their line.

Which leaves Augsburg 1520 as the first alea game to leave me more or less flat, with my desire to play again largely driven by confidence in the brand rather than any specific desire to see if it’ll work out in the end.

Augsburg 1520 is a bidding game. It’s of the traditional empire-building variety, where you have to acquire either stuff that generates more money, or actual victory points (Saint Petersburg is an exemplar of this sort of game). That choice between cash and VPs is OK, and has a few interesting twists – there are two choke-points, for example, where you have to buy a very expensive Church or Cathedral to proceed, but players who buy early pay a lot more than players who buy late – but it isn’t anything we fundamentally haven’t seen before. The bidding part is also OK. Each turn has 5 rewards on offer and 5 auctions. Players bid a quantity of money cards, which are color-coded to a specific auction (the last auction is wild; you can bid anything). The bidding is poker-style, with each player “calling” or “raising” the number of bid cards in turn, and after everyone drops or “calls” without raising we reveal our bids and the largest number of cards bid (the one with the single highest valued card in case of multiple high bids, which will usually be the case) wins. This has the great virtue of being comparatively quick (no endlessly circling the table), since there are a lot of auctions in each game.

The feedback between the bidding and the economic game is also interesting: each turn you’re dealt a number of bidding cards. You then have to pay for the ones you want. Low-valued ones are cheap, while high-valued cards are expensive. The cards have cleverly printed their costs on the back, so you can verify everything without needing to see what exactly everyone is buying. This is interesting in that you have some choice of going for breadth or depth, or saving to buy a Church, but in practice it seems that most of the time you’re going to buy almost all the cards you are dealt, so it doesn’t seem to be as interesting as one might hope.

There are two major downsides.

The first is a bit of an endgame problem. Because some of the auctions are for victory point producing tiles that only a few players can have, and if you win it you get to steal it from somebody, you can see an endgame situation where a player in a distant third has to make a choice about who to steal victory points from that determines who wins, and that choice is ultimately arbitrary. It’s not going to happen all the time, but it’s always deflating when it does.

Secondly, don’t even try to explain the theme of this game to people. It involves purchasing debt from German nobility and then canceling that debt in return for favors. When I bought the game from my local game shop, the clerk (who was unfamiliar with it) was reading the copy text on the back about various debt transactions and remarked “wow! the game almost sells itself!”, albeit with a suspicious lack of enthusiasm. I muttered something about perhaps it being more meaningful if you’re German. I notice that they haven’t restocked since I bought their last copy. Let’s just say, the theme is not terribly compelling, and neither does it make much sense in terms of the game-play.

Ultimately, I don’t know. The initial impression is that the endgame has potential issues, and the game has interesting bits that don’t quite seem to cohere or add up to more than the sum of the parts. And the theme is weak. On the other hand, this is an alea game, it is unusual for a bidding game, and some of those bits are interesting and clearly have some depth, it’s not too long, and so I’ll play it again for those reasons. But it’s definitely not a game that grabbed me. Who knows; maybe in a few more plays I’ll be raving about it, but it seems unlikely, and that endgame issue will likely remain a sore point.

Gloria Mundi: Let’s just say, my expectations for Gloria Mundi were low. Really low. Sometimes that’s no bad thing.

This is another infrastructure vs. victory points game, this time in Rome. The Visigoths are coming, ripping up the landscape as they go, and you are trying to get to Carthage (where I guess the Vandals, despite their name, aren’t as bad) before they get you. But you need to pay for your ticket out of town with gold, agricultural products, and, um, small rectangular white things.

Gloria Mundi’s main selling point is the well-realized theme. Gloria Mundi is chaotic, but with the Visigoths closing in and everyone running away as fast as they can, what else would it be? The players are constantly fighting the frustration of seeing their good work destroyed by pillaging Visigoths, but hey, Rome is collapsing here, what do you expect? Low inflation and a buoyant stock market? I don’t think so.

Obviously, the theme only goes so far, but it does help a lot. Underneath the theme, Gloria Mundi is a mixed bag. To start with the bad, the most obvious problem is that the iconography on the cards is really hideous: the same symbol can mean different things at different times, rules are not interpreted consistently across similar symbols, and in many cases the symbols themselves are not illuminating. The special powers on the cards are not complicated, but the way they are presented is often so completely opaque that you’ll need a play-through just to figure everything out. This is really bad. I’ve always said that if you are only going to get a few plays out of a game, it’s really important that the first one not be wasted. Also, the pillaging mechanic, where the Visigoths destroy players’ holdings, is a bit arbitrary and is bound to leave people feeling gratuitously hosed at some point or another. And the mechanism for acquiring new cards is such that planning is almost impossible and if you are able to buy a card with a special power that gives you some good synergies, you should thank your lucky stars. Since Gloria Mundi is very much about the special powers of cards you acquire rather than raw production (unlike, say, Saint Petersburg), this can be an issue.

As for the good stuff, I like how the economic model works. Cards are divided up into farms, legions, and cities. Each turn you play a card from your hand and add it to your holdings, and that also indicated which types of holdings pay for everyone. So if I play a city card, I not only get a new city (which pays a gold), everyone activates all their cities. Each of these cards can then be augmented with power cards bought from the deck. This is kind of neat, and the frequent destruction makes things interesting and prevents any sort of runaway leader issue. And it’s interesting that your supply of Farm cards, say, is fixed, so if you invest heavily in one area early you get a good payoff, but it can leave you badly constrained later on when all you have are City or Legion cards which benefit your opponents more than you.

So what does all this mean? I like the theme, I like the card-play, and the art is fantastic; that might be enough to get the game on the table for a bit. What ultimately kills Gloria Mundi for me, though, is the length. Our game was pushing two hours, although I’m not sure how much of that was spent bickering over what the heck the symbols were supposed to mean. At 45 minutes, an hour at the outside, I think Gloria Mundi would have been a neat, if rather chaotic and ultimately disposable, game experience. At the kind of length we saw, though, forget it. I’m sure more play would bring it down, but I just can’t see it coming down enough.

I should mention too that while the box says the game goes up to 6 players, I expect four is the sweet spot. Chaos and downtime go up with each added player, and your ability to plan will asymptotically approach zero (although the game length won’t go up too much). I might play Gloria Mundi again, but I would be leery of adding a fifth player and would play something else with 6.