Revisiting The Bottle Imp & Fairy Tale

One of the cool things about bringing all the archives back online here at the new site is that I get to see what I was playing on a day-to-day basis 9 years ago or so, which of them I don’t play anymore, if there is a good reason for that, and if I should try and break them out again. One of those games was The Bottle Imp/Flaschenteufel, which was going through a bout of play just as I started blogging.

Since we only had three players at games last night, and I remembered The Bottle Imp as being best with 3, it seemed an ideal time to give it a try (there aren’t a ton of games that are great with 3). To refresh your memory if you haven’t played this game in as long as I haven’t: it’s a trick-taking game that uses a 3-suited deck of cards numbered uniquely 1-37 with no 19. At start, cards lower than 19 trump cards above 19. You have to follow suit if possible, but otherwise it’s just the high card which wins (high trump beats high other). So the ranking at start is 18-1,37-20. When you take a trick with a trump card, that card becomes the new breakpoint and the layout of the deck changes – possibly changing the trump/non-trump mix if you skip numbers. You  also claim The Bottle Imp of the titular Robert Louis Stevenson short story, which will cost you your immortal soul (and incidentally a fair number of points) if you can’t get rid of it by the end of the game. So players get desperate to try to slough off low trump to avoid getting stuck with the bottle as the game goes on.

The most obviously cool thing to me about The Bottle Imp is how nicely it captures the themes of the short story. Trumps give you the power to take tricks and score points, but you’ve got to make sure you dump the bottle before the end of the game, and as the end closes in it becomes an increasingly desperate enterprise. At some level The Bottle Imp is a push your luck game; you have to decide how many of your trump to try to take tricks with, and how soon to just try to start getting rid of them and avoid taking the bottle. At the start of the round each player takes one card out of the game, so some unknown cards will be missing which adds uncertainty. It’s a nice blend, and it’s supported by text and illustrations from the story on the cards, with the story starting on the 37 card and finishing on the 1.

The obvious downside is that the game is typically decided by the distribution of a few low trump – having the yellow 1 and 2 in your hand seems like a tough place to get out from under. In the 3-player game you may be able to slough a trump, maybe two, but ditching a low yellow is hard and requires misplay or luck (at start there are only 3 non-trump yellow, so if you’re feeling lucky you could lead the 1 on the first trick and hope someone is forced to play a higher trump … but that’s awfully gutsy). As the game nears the end you run scenarios based on which cards you’ve seen and try to figure out how you escape. Often the answer is: you don’t, and there wasn’t much you could have done about it.

I used to really enjoy The Bottle Imp, but playing it again it didn’t quite recapture the magic. Doing all the heavy lifting to run the many scenarios required to figure out how to get rid of your low trump late just seemed like a lot of work, more work than I found fun. I still think it’s a really clever game, it’s just one I’ve played a lot already and I found the process of exploring and understanding the game more fun than just playing it.

IMG_2103Fairy Tale is another classic from 2004 that has just been reissued by Z-Man. It’s a drafting game in the same vein as 7 Wonders, and has always had a dedicated fan base, but it never really caught on around here – I haven’t played it since the original version came out 10 years ago. But playing it again, I really enjoyed it. It doesn’t support 7 players, but in virtually every other respect I found it a far more engaging game than 7 Wonders.

I find the colorful Japanese characters and background, complete with dragons, demons, warriors, and castles, much more visually engaging than the totally generic Mediterranean civilization-building veneer or 7 Wonders. The game mechanisms themselves aren’t very evocative in either game, so it’s nice to have playful and interesting art.

The scoring transparency of Fairy Tale is also a huge win. In 7 Wonders you are often left to guess what the composition of the various decks are, how the tech trees are going to work out, and so on. Fairy Tale’s scoring is at least as nuanced and interesting, with a variety of scoring rules, but the distributions are always spelled out explicitly on the card. So the “Fairy Tale – Chapter 4” card is worth 9 points if you can get “The Fairy Queen”, there is exactly one of those in the deck of 100 cards, and this is nicely spelled out at the bottom of the card so you always know what you’re dealing with. The only slight difficulty is that in this case The Fairy Queen card itself doesn’t let you know that it activates another card – cards only tell you what other cards they require, not what cards depend on them – but it’s fine. It’s much cleaner than 7 Wonders’ baroque and involved scoring while being more nuanced and interesting.

I also like that defensive drafting is a more interesting proposition in Fairy Tale than it is in 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders, where you play every card you draft, it’s very expensive to draft a card just so the player on your left/right won’t get it and, in practice, only rarely worth it. In Fairy Tale, you draft a hand of 5 cards and then play 3 of them. Keeping an eye on your neighbor and making sure not to pass him or her an important card is much more interesting when the opportunity cost is not so inherently high.

I also like the lack of phased decks. In 7 Wonders the different character of the 3 different epoch decks bakes a lot of opaque complexity into the game, punishing new players and requiring several go-rounds just to get a handle on the texture of the game and know what cards are available when. In Fairy Tale, you just have a deck and all the distribution information is listed on the bottom of the cards and it’s far easier to play competently your first time out. You aren’t fighting with a bunch of information you can’t possibly know. Fairy Tale can be taught to new players in 5 minutes or easily learned from the rule booklet at the table.

I’m pretty much done with 7 Wonders at this point, but I enjoyed Fairy Tale. I think when it first came out, my context for drafting games was Magic: The Gathering and other CCG draft formats, which honestly annoy me. With 7 Wonders and Lost Legends recontextualizing  the genre for me, I was able to really enjoy it. It captures all the good stuff from 7 Wonders without the hassles, and with a much more colorful backstory.

Parthenon

Parthenon is a new game from the newly-prolific Z-Man Games; it’s yet another civilization-building type game, this time with a vaguely Settlers-esque appeal.

Each player becomes the leader of an island in the Aegean, attempting to make their name in the world. Unlike in Settlers or Civilization, there is no map – everything is handled abstractly. You start with a couple villages that produce a single basic good (Grain, Grapes, Olives, Wool, etc.) automatically at the beginning of each turn. The rest of your building options are represented by a handful of cards, and include a couple more production villages, workshops, temples, ports, marketplaces, etc.

The immediate thing that you realize about this game is that given the goods you produce on your home island, you literally cannot build anything beyond your first couple production buildings (several costs are, in fact, expressed in terms of “goods you don’t produce”). Of the 6 basic goods available, you will have villages for only 3. Of the 4 rare goods available (tools, pottery, spices, and papyrus), you will be able to produce only one.

So, to do anything at all, you’ll need to trade. This involves either finding a compliant fellow-player to trade with (each of the islands produces a different selection of standard or rare goods, so this shouldn’t be too hard) or journeying to neighboring lands, which function much like the ports in Settlers, giving you various X:1 trading options. The journeying process is neat but fairly random, as you load up your goods and protective cards on ships and then draw cards to see what hazards they face, with nearer locations (Athens, Sparta, Ionia) being a lot less risky than further ones (Egypt, Carthage, and Rome), but the risker destinations also offer much better trade rates, as you would expect.

Whenever I play new games from a company I don’t have much experience with, I always find myself reading the credits – mainly looking over the playtesters, seeing if it’s anyone I recognize, seeing if a developer is credited, etc. On perusing the Parthenon credits late in the game, I saw something unusual – the game is derived from a game used as a team-building exercise, presumably for corporate customers. As I read this, everything became clear to me. The game forces you to trade with your fellow-players to do anything at all, because virtually all of your own resources are useless to you. The huge randomness of the trade expeditions and the brutal and somewhat arbitrary random events that pop up each turn might actually be desirable in such a game, as the players are forced to “pull together”. Unfortunately these things just don’t make for a terrifically compelling social game (and, I should say, if I wanted a team-building game at work I’d think that having everyone round for a game of Lord of the Rings might work better). Anytime you are forced down a certain approach to the game it’s not good – compare to Settlers, where you can either do the best with what you’ve got, or try to do better by trading. And the large and essentially arbitrary effects of the events is going to be frustrating and a turn-off for most serious gamers. We’re not talking events that force you to lose half your cards if you’re holding too many; many events wipe out your entire inventory.

There are a couple more minor gaffes here as well… one of my rules of gaming is that a game should end while you still have choices. One of my complaints about Advanced Civilization, for example, is that it will typically end with one or two players acquiring all the Civilization cards. For the last few turns of the game, these players are just “buying out the string”, acquiring whatever they can afford rather than making real choices about what they need. Compare to Settlers: Cities and Knights, where players are making choices right until the end. In Parthenon, the victory conditions involve just buying up everything in your inventory. Combine this with the fact that only a few of these buildings are very useful at all, and things seem off.

I’d really like to give Parthenon a passing grade (say, a 3 out of 5). The theme is great and well-realized. The graphics are very nice and evocative. I think the whole journeying mechanic for visiting foreign lands is well-done and fairly well-balanced. But ultimately I can’t do it, and it ends up being rated around a 2 for me. This is a game with a high price point ($50 retail) and long playing time (2+ hours), and given that, there just aren’t enough choices, the game is too constrained, the event cards are too random, and ultimately too many balances are out of whack. I think if Z-Man had been able to cut the price point back to under $30 retail (there are a truly excessive number of cards in the box) and the play length to 60 minutes, things would be better. But at the current price point, it’s very hard to recommend.

Off to Essen!

I realize that my specific list of games to acquire isn’t that long: a couple Age of Steam maps, Jenseits von Theben, a couple older used games. Most of the other stuff that’s high on my list makes it over to the US pretty quickly: the Tigris & Euphrates card game, Beowulf, Caylus, the new Wings of War supplement, just to pick a few (although we’ve got enough luggage space to bring a few back early). I’m sure there are a couple things on my list that I’m forgetting, but mostly it’ll be just the experience of being at the largest game show on earth.

See you when I get back.

New Essen Games

Each year I buy a couple fewer games from Essen. This year there were quite a few that were tempting, but I didn’t buy too many in my first round of direct-from-Europe orders (and I should say that with the dollar worth so much less than it was just 3-4 years ago, things are not the deal they used to be). There was an interesting bit on record collecting on NPR (“Lost in the Grooves”) Wednesday in which one of the guests mentioned that in order to keep her collection under control and keep from buying everything, she had to have three reasons to buy a random record that she came across (they don’t necessarily have to be good reasons – cool cover art or an intriguing track name were OK – just reasons). We can now see if I can retroactively come up with 3 reasons why I bought these:

  • Reef Encounter: Appealing theme, Richard Breese is reasonably reliable for functioning game, limited edition which will probably represent a reasonable investment. Richard Breese self-published games are reliably decent but never great, so as a designer he’s right on the bubble – if this had been another “Key” game, I probably would have passed, but the reef theme sucked me in.
  • Ys: Well-produced, derivative from Aladdin’s Dragons which is a personal favorite, limited edition again. Really only one of those reasons counts for anything, but it’s a major one. This is one that I have genuine optimism for (i.e., it might end up hitting 10 plays).
  • Garten Zwerge e B – Truly bizzare theme, new company with an interesting lineup, bidding game. The game design itself is actually not unusual, but it’ll be interesting to see if the theme (breeding garden gnomes) is too weird for people. Game number two that I have genuine optimism for, actually.
  • Metallurgie – small (I need more good small card games in my collection), cool graphics & theme, by the same company (Argentum) that did the above and another interesting-looking game. This was a throw-in.
  • Telebohn – Wierd, I own all the other Bohnanza stuff, and, uh, it was cheap. I think that third reason doesn’t really count. But once you own 8 Bohnanza expansions, and the the last couple (Bohnaparte/Dschingis Bohn) were good, you feel sort of compelled to keep picking them up.
  • Sole Mio! – Again, small and cheap; and I was a fan of Mamma Mia! for quite a while before it just hit the end of the road and I never played again. I was hoping this might give me some enjoyment out of the game again, but it was probably a borderline call.
  • Revolution – I have great respect for Francis Tresham’s designs. I still play 1825, and even Civilization occasionally, so while this wasn’t a no-brainer – his best stuff is no less than 10 years old – I wasn’t going to pass on this. Unless it turns out to be terrible (very unlikely), it’ll be a decent investment.
  • Out of Africa – It’s a bidding game, cool graphics, and Phalanx is improving somewhat although I’d still like their games to be better than they are. I’ll give Ted Racier’s upcoming WWI game a shot, but these probably represent Phalanx’s last chance with me. If one of the three doesn’t hit 10 plays, I will approach their stuff with much more skepticism in future. I’ve cut them a lot of slack for games that just weren’t as good as they should have been, because the graphics are excellent, the games certainly haven’t been bad, and their hearts are in the right place. But that only goes so far.

I really like this whole “three reasons” concept, but obviously I’m still working on what it means to me. Either that, or I shouldn’t have bought a couple of those.

Stuff I would have picked up in previous years but didn’t:

  • Antiquity – Splotter is just too unreliable. Roads & Boats was great for a very niche game, but so much of their other stuff has been great concepts that they couldn’t take the last bit to a decent game. So this is a wait-and-see.
  • Im Shcatten des Kaisers, Mall World – I’ll wait for the English versions.
  • Candamir – Tempted. Mayfair hasn’t announced an English version, and it sounds reasonably internationalized except for the flavor text (but don’t quote me on that). I’ll hang on and see if an English version is announced sometime soon, but this will be a must-buy eventually.
  • Carcassone schlock – I’ve got The Castle and Hunters and Gatherers. How much more does one need?
  • Sea Sim – Again, Cwali disappointed with Logistico so they are no longer on my must-buy list. Another wait-and-see.
  • Razzia, Geschenkt, die Weinhandler – In my never-ending search for small-box games that last more than a couple plays, I’ll pick these up eventually I think.

Anyway, looking forward to giving a bunch of these a try (especially Garten Zwerge, Ys, and Revolution). I’ll let you know how it goes.

GMT Games Day West

I’ll be heading down to GMT Games Day West tomorrow evening, so if you’ll be there and would like to play some Europe Engulfed, Ardennes ’44, Kasserine, or Ukraine ’43, drop me an email. Looks like there should be plenty of Sword of Rome action, so I’ll hope to play that at least once. I’ll also have War of the Ring and some Columbia titles for some shorter games, if anyone is so inclined.