Bay Area GamesDay XXXVI – part 2

This is the second time I’ve had a chance to play Sword of Rome. Last time I was the Etruscans/Samnites; this time I was the Greeks.

This was the first time I had played with someone else who had read the rules, and it was a good thing. It turned out I had seriously misunderstood how victory points are accumulated. I had been calculating VPs as simply how many VP spots you occupy, but it turns out what you really need to do is to add one VP each on each turn you occupy a VP outside your home territory, and likewise subtract each turn for each home VP you’ve lost. This makes losing home territory a lot more painful. It also makes it hard to recover from an early game deficit. Because combat is so attritional in the long run, and because there is a non-trivial “bash the leader” element in the game, it’s very unlikely a power will be able to go up 3 or 4 VPs, so if you get behind by a few VPs early it’s unfortunately a rather deep hole.

Our game started off in the usual way – the Gauls invaded the Etruscans, the Greeks wrestled with the Carthaginians, and Rome wiped out the Volsci. Things were looking good for the Gauls, who sacked Pisae on the first impulse and went on to do some quality plundering. Things didn’t go so well for the Greeks, who saw two 9-strength field armies virtually wiped out by poor dice rolling in the first two turns, putting them seriously behind the VP 8-ball by going at least 1VP down (Neapolis) starting on turn 1. The Samnites were eviscerated by the Gauls, losing a couple ungarrisoned cities to revolt after the Pisae debacle, and so the Etruscan/Samnite player spent most of his time trying to rebuild.

In the midst of all this, the Roman player was building up his position. The Via Appia was built up on turn two, which really helps them defend. Given the layout of the map, the Romans have a “hard core” of cities centered around Rome, where an army parked there can reinforce to 6 critical adjacent areas, and it’s extremely hard even for large enemy forces to push beyond this unless the Romans get bad consul draws (not as likely here as in Hannibal). Once the Via Appia is built, this protected corridor drastically expands and an army parked in Rome can easily defend a huge chunk of recruiting territory.

Up north, the Gauls ran into some spectacular bad luck, as large armies continually failed to evict a tiny Transalpine Gaullic outpost for several turns, costing them several VPs.

Meanwhile, I had started to recover as the Greeks and was going after Carthage, having decided there was nothing I could do to Rome with Lilybaeum as still a thorn in my side (even with the extra fortifications for Syracuse built, it’s not enough for a garrison to hold out there for long without a strong field army). With some help from some slightly over-aggressive Carthaginian activations, Phyrrus finally drove them from the island and could redeploy towards Rome.

While I was doing that, Rome was building up a lead. The Gauls and Etruscans/Samnites, however, were finding it difficult to take the battle to them. The Romans had two big field armies, and as long as they hid out in the Roman core the Gauls and Etruscans could only fight them at negative DRMs, not an appealing prospect. On the other hand, the Romans couldn’t venture outside their safe zone either without fighting at a disadvantage. So something of a sitzkrieg developed until the Gauls got bored and tried to attack, with predictable results.

The rest of the board was eventually able to nibble at the edges of Roman territory, but it was too little, too late; the Romans held on, although the lead was reduced from what it was in the middle game and things were closer than I expected.

There is definitely a lot to like about Sword of Rome. It’s got nice historical flavor. The individual event decks seem very well done, with events that are powerful enough to be exciting but not unbalancing; poor execution on the event mix (typically events that are too weak or too hard to play; or, interestingly, the opposite extreme of being overpowering in Wilderness War) has been a weakness in a number of GMT’s card-driven games. The game moves along well, as individual turns should not take too long. You get lots of choices with all the events, and it feels like you’re making interesting decisions.

There are two significant wrinkles though, and they are intimately intertwined. The first is the combat resolution system. It’s quite clever, but I’m just not convinced it really works. The results are hugely random, and it seems most battles are between roughly even forces and are usually a crap shoot, with the results of bad luck being potentially quite devastating. For example, in the early game, the Greeks and Carthaginians are staring each other down with equally-sized and similarly-led armies, and neither can really do much else until their opponent is defeated. But there is also little either can do to make this anything more than a dice-fest; the Greeks really have only 3 combat cards in the deck, and none do much more than simply adding a +2 DRM, which is just not that significant when compared to the combat cards in Hannibal or Successors, where the very powerful combat cards (Allies Desert, Gift of Oratory, Anti-Elephants, Silver Shields, etc., along with more plentiful Campaign cards) are an important element in the games’ overall balance in forcing action. (Although there is an interesting Pyrrhic Victory card for the Greeks, which hands them an auto-victory in one combat, albeit with the loss of half their forces for and inflicting only a single CU loss on the enemy – but this can be deadly in very specific situations, like, where the enemy has no retreat route. But the odds of having the card when you need it are extraordinarily low).

Anyway, all this alone really wouldn’t be that bad – just adding spice to the game – but Sword of Rome is a long game. Our game took about 6 hours, and we were playing only the 6 turn game and weren’t playing slowly. That’s a long game for something comparatively chaotic, and something you can be basically knocked out of pretty early by bad luck. I like a lot of stuff in Sword of Rome, but I really, really wish the playing time were closer to Successor’s 4 hours. It would make the high chaos factor a lot more tolerable. I think the 9-turn game’s 8-9 hour length is simply unacceptable, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever try that again.

With all this said, though, the bottom line is that despite some reservations, I had a lot of fun with the game, and look forward to playing it again. The relatively clean and straightforward system, nicely-done card decks, reasonable play-balance, and interesting situation add up to a game that is significantly more playable and enjoyable that some of GMT’s non-Racier card-driven games, which have tended to have some issues. I also like how each power has such a different mix of cards, and so plays quite differently – I want to make sure I get to play each one once. I think in the end the good stuff is strong enough to keep it on the table for a while; the more modest complexity is very important in this regard. So on balance, a thumbs up. But I still wish it were shorter.

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Bay Area Games Day XXXVI

Mall World is the new game from Rio Grande, Bewitched-Spiele, and Andrea Meyer. Two of Meyer’s previous recent designs are the rather clever ad acta and Schwartzarbeit. I’d been pretty happy with those two, and they are very unique, so Mall World was a definite pickup.

After one play, I’m not quite sure about it. It definitely has a horrid rulebook, something Rio Grande seems to be having trouble with of late. The problem here is one of terminology; it seems that all the game terms were selected in order to be confusing. And unlike her previous games, the theme here is a bit tortured, which always makes the game harder to learn.

All that said, there are elements of Mall World which are actually quite interesting. The idea is that you are developing a Mall. The Mall can have four types of shops, Food (Green), Hobby (Red), Sports (Blue), and Clothing (Purple). These can be further customized by targeting children (Blue), teenagers (Red), Men (Purple), or Women (Green). The players acquire orders, which can pay off when shops of the various types get placed in the Mall in the proper configurations. There are three tiers: the first pay off for just having non-customized shops adjacent to each other in various configurations. The second type pay off for just having a particular customized shop anywhere. The third tier (the special orders, for which each player has one) pay off for having two particular types of customized shops adjacent to each other. In all cases, you multiply the payoffs by the number of times they appear.

As in Union Pacific, each turn the player has to choose between playing an order (which will score) and expanding the Mall. Expanding the Mall is done by auctioning or paying for various development cards, which allow specific configurations of shops to be created. The auctions are quite unusual, and how they go depend on how many cards you play – the more you play, the more money you will received, but the less control you have over the development of the Mall. If you play just one, you use it yourself, but have to pay the bank (which is redistributed at the end of each turn as in Traumfabrik). Rounds end when a certain number of payoff cards have been played, at which point those cards pay off.

What I liked: I liked the auctions for developing the Mall; the choices there are quite interesting, and I suspect 90% of the game is in there. I liked that the game isn’t too long; again, your analysis paralysis folks can really torpedo the playing time (as in ad acta), but in general it shouldn’t be too bad. At least with 5, it was a rather chaotic game, so people should be encouraged to move along – but there are players who are going to look at the board, try to analyze all the options, and get hopelessly locked up. But inherently it’s not a long game.

I think maybe the big potential issue with Mall World is one of stability. Even more so than in Fifth Avenue, I think it’s easy to misapprehend the economics of the game. In our game, it was the case that folks always wanted to be the last to play order cards, so it took a while to get them down, and the game felt a bit uneven and slightly protracted as a result. Just like Fifth Avenue, it may just be a game you’ve got to play twice.

We played with 5 players, which felt a bit chaotic to me; I’m not sure this is the optimal number. I never felt like I had much choice on the acquisition of orders, I would just pick up the one fairly obvious one, and I only acquired one or two more orders than I could play, which is why I say that I think the bulk of the game is in the auctions and tile laying.

The bottom line on this one was that there was definitely stuff in there that intrigued me, but another playing will be required (preferably with 4) to see if it really works.

Senator is the new game in Fantasy Flight’s Silver Line game line. This is not exactly a bastion of quality gamer’s games, so on balance Senator was a pleasant surprise. It’s basically a bidding game; you bid to acquire political “agendas” which then give you one-shot special powers, and can be later turned in to victory points if you can win a Consulship, assuming you can avoid having other players foist off conflicting agendas on you (war and trade, for example).

This is a nice, short, nasty little game. Between the assassins wiping out your bidding cards and other players torpedoing your agendas, it is actually surprisingly hard to get anything done (just like the real thing, I imagine). Between the special powers of the agendas and the special rules that apply randomly to each turn (Gladiatorial games limit influence expenditures as everyone is distracted; Spartacus makes Rebellion agendas easier; the Social Wars mean you lose your influence when you bid, whether you win or not; and so on), the auctions are always different and there is stuff to consider. The clincher is that it’s short; our game (4-player) weighed in at about 40 minutes, which was just right. It’s not likely to become an enduring classic, but I liked it, and will definitely play again. The only criticism is that the components may have had the usability internationalized out of them; the agendas’ special powers (of which there are about 6) are not indicated on the counters in any way and no reference is provided, so a cheat sheet will need to be created I think.

I also played some more Reef Encounter. For my first few games of this, I played the game much like I would Tigris & Euphrates – pretty much a short-term optimization game, doing the best I can do to improve my position this turn and for the near future, without worrying too much about long-term strategy.

This time, I tried to be clever. I tried to set myself up for one massive score, an 8-9 sized reef with a value pegged at 5, by slowly accumulating grey coral in front of my screen and occasionally locking it in on a few tiles for the whole game, then dropping a big reef all at once at the end. Meanwhile, I’m rapidly going through three other small reefs to put time pressure on the other players.

It didn’t work out so well. The big score just couldn’t compensate for the paltry points I got on my other reefs, and I ended up in last. So I don’t think I’ll try that again; I think you need to make sure most of the polyp tiles you score are worth something.

The game is still going strong; I enjoy it, it seems about the right length, there is significant subtlety, and it’s got interesting management and tactical decision. It’s a bit short on interactivity, but so are many classic games. I’ve played twice with 3 and twice with 4, and while some have said 3 is preferable, I find it good at both numbers. I’m still not sure whether it fall into the “very good” or “great” categories, but I like it quite a bit.

Bay Area Games Day XXXIII

Dos Rios: I got this game for a couple reasons. Firstly, it is unique, which always is worth a try for me. Secondly, nobody else was buying it. Thirdly, I had a discount coupon from Fine Games. Probably the first two would not have been enough but for the third, given the price point. Anyway. Dos Rios is a bit hard to explain because it is, in fact, pretty unique, but here goes. It’s basically an abstract positioning game masquerading as an economic game. You have pieces you move on the map each turn, trying to get them in position to score. Each turn, some types of terrain will score for the pieces occupying them if they are fed by the river. Unfortunately, the river is a moving target – as players build dams, the course of the river can change. Obviously, there is a bit more to it than that, but that’s the broad outline. There is a good review here.

The main complaint is that it’s a bit dry (ha ha), and the fact that you can do a lot on your turn and there is little strategy or planning for future turns means it can drag at times – not a game to place in the hands of your local victim of analysis paralysis. It is somewhat reminiscent of Tikal, not only for these reasons but also because Dos Rios features a Hacienda that is very reminiscent of the Tikal’s Base Camps, with similar trade-offs (up-river positions are better, but harder to get to, like the deep-jungle positions in Tikal, and you can use your Hacienda/Base Camp as a teleporter).

Dos Rios was decent I thought. Not much better than that, and I’m not sure I’m that thrilled with my purchase – I certainly don’t think I could recommend it at the $50 retail in good conscience. I did enjoy it well enough, and it’s certainly worth a play or a few plays if someone else in your group has bought it, but I have a hard time seeing it getting the 5-10 plays I hope for out of a big game and it didn’t seem to quite capture the mix of being unique and interesting to keep on the shelf even if played infrequently (like, say, a Mammoth Hunters or a Bohn Hansa are for me).

La Strada: I am of somewhat mixed minds on this one, having now played it twice. On the one hand, it is quite short and pretty neat. It boils down the low-end railroad games to the fundamentals of competing to connect cities. You’ve got choices, and there are strategy elements. It’s nice filler. The only question is, then, is it really filler? It’s about 20, maybe 30 minutes, but even there it might be just a touch long for a lightweight game. And it’s just a bit on the expensive side too. So I’m not sure. It’s not as engaging as Ticket to Ride, and Ticket to Ride is not that much longer. On the other hand, having bought both Dos Rios and La Strada, I am definitely happier with the latter purchase.

Middle-Earth CCG: I love MECCG as one of the best medium-complexity games ever made, and certainly the best collectible game, but I eventually wandered away from it. Part of it was that the later sets (particularly Against the Shadow and even more so The White Hand) suffered from significant quality lapses and degenerate deck archetypes, but part of it was that while I always looked forward to new expansions, eventually the weight of the large card set caused significant problems.

The problem was that the constructed deck play environment shifted from emphasizing balanced decks and skilled play to less interactive, massive-combo decks. I saw decks that could score lots of marshaling points if the cards came out in the right order, but would rarely chance the opponent’s hazard deck. This leads to what is for me a much less entertaining game.

Still, I’ll rarely turn down a chance to play, so when I got an email from a fellow-fan the day before games day I threw a couple pre-constructed challenge decks into the game box. My opponent wanted to play a constructed Minion deck, which I thought would be fine, so I pulled out my Indur minion Challenge deck (I’ve always preferred like-alignment matchups). Unfortunately, my opponent was playing a deck built around amassing a huge, untouchable company of 6-7 Ringwraiths, which would then go to Bag End and play a bunch of point cards in one turn then run them all the way back to Barad-Dur the next, all with essentially zero risk. I think less than 10 hazards in total were played all game, for me because there wasn’t much point, for him because (I’m guessing) he was too busy hoarding the massive numbers of resources required to try to pull this off.

I still enjoyed the game – but different people and different groups have different play styles. I am much more of a gamer, I want to make the strategic and tactical choices and manage the resources, while some people love looking for the ultimate power-combination that makes tactics irrelevant. I’m not sure these play styles are entirely compatible, so if you’re looking to get into MECCG, look for someone who shares your outlook. Fortunately, with the sets still available these days (The Wizards, The Dragons, Dark Minions) it’s not much of an issue.

I’ve actually never played two of Columbia’s games, War of 1812 and Quebec. So I was glad to finally take 1812 out for a spin. We decided to use the optional simultaneous move-plotting rules, which I can now recommend, as they add tension and are a big time-saver. I liked the game, although I was not blown away. It’s very simple, highly playable, and short. It’s got a very nice historical flavor for a low-end game, and it cleanly portrays how much things were driven by control of the lakes. It’s perhaps a touch heavy on the bluff and guess at the expense of tactics, which can be fun but usually caps the replay value. However, there were definitely enough strategic options that I would play again, I enjoyed the game, and – did I mention this? – it’s short. So not one of Columbia’s best, but an impressive design for 1972 and a win, on balance.

Memoir ’44: Not truly great, but fast and fun. It is an improvement on Battle Cry in a few ways, including a number of minor but successful tweaks to the action card deck, and critically a vastly improved historical flavor. The elite units, the interesting interactions between artillery, infantry, and tanks and occasional need for combined arms, and the more interesting and varied terrain all add up to a much more flavorful game than Battle Cry, which was in truth rather bland. The overall design of the card deck is still very retro, something out of the 70s or 80s rather than the post-Hannibal, post-CCG enlightenment, but can live with it. Sure, the game is still awfully random – maybe even unhealthily random – but it’s clearly a significant improvement over Battle Cry in this respect, there are reasonable choices, it’s tense, it’s got a fun factor, and did I mention it’s short?

Bay Area Games Day XXXII

A long day of gaming at GamesDay XXXII.

First up was Age of Steam. I’ve been avoiding this one for a while for two reasons: firstly, I didn’t enjoy Volldampf much, and secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever played a Martin Wallace game that really worked. Way out West, Empires of the Ancient World, Weiße Lotus, Tyros … all games with interesting ideas that revealed fairly serious systemic imbalances after only a few plays. Or Liberté, a game that was overwrought for the level of control. Volldampf was the best of the lot, but I found it extremely dry, and had an irritating “hidden trick” – you have to go for the routes down the middle of the board. Like in EuroRails, if you try to develop the peripheries, you’re screwed.

So I hadn’t been feeling inclined to try Age of Steam. But my friend Matt liked it, and given the applause it’s received, I was willing to try at least once. I’m willing to try almost anything once. Almost.

And what do you know, I rather liked it. To me, it felt Funkenschlag-esque – built out of tried and true bits, nothing that seems innovating or new and different, and yet solidly constructed. The chart which allows you to predict which bits are going to show up where is a very nice touch over Volldampf, and gives you some ability to plan. Opening up the route-building to 1830-style hex tiles is also a big improvement; the restricted track-laying in Volldampf was not a big winner for me. The Citadelles-style roles seem a touch sketchy, but are nice for flavor.

Our game finished in 2 hours, and at that length, this seems a very nice, more substantial euro-style game in the mold of Funkenschlag or even Die Macher. Given the prior history with the designer, though, it makes me nervous – I quite liked it, but I feel like I’m looking over my shoulder, waiting for the design flaw to jump me. It might be the Urbanization role, which seems significantly more powerful than the rest while there are still cities left; or the whole geographical thing a la EuroRails or Volldampf, with one area of the board much more important that the others, thus leading to a lack of different viable strategies; or a significant runaway leader problem; or that if you play with the analysis paralysis folks, it’ll take 3+ hours and at that length it might well not be entertaining anymore. Still, as I say I did quite like it – sort a distant cousin to the classic 1830 (1830 was great because it melded railway operations with the stock market, while Age of Steam just does the operations side – although in more detail than 1830. Both are more flavored abstract games than railway games, though). I’m ready to play it again sometime, and might even pick up a copy myself – especially if I can finally liquidate my copy of Way out West.

Next up was the same pair of Die Sieben Siegel and San Juan that I played last night. I still like ’em both quite a bit. San Juan got a good reception in our group, and was played a lot at GamesDay. We got into these odd loops – for this game, someone had borrowed my copy without asking, so I had to borrow someone else’s copy to play; this also happened to one of my friends, and he had to borrow my copy. I find this stealth-borrowing slightly irksome, and in future I’ll have to keep my games right next to me so I can keep an eye on them. It worked out OK this time, but it was close.

Matt then had only about 45 minutes before he had to head out, so we played a quick round of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. This is a very good game, one that keeps revealing subtleties. This time I was starting to get better at identifying where cards were based on who people asked to play for them. Weird, but a very good game.

With the recent release of Oasis, it seems that Alan Moon’s Union Pacific has been getting some exposure recently, which is a good thing. One of its best features is that it works extremely well with 6, maybe best at that number in fact, so when you’ve got 6 who want a slightly more substantial euro-style game, it’s an obvious choice. I must admit I found this particular game slightly frustrating, because for the last half to third of the game the stock market got gummed up and everyone was drafting blind from the deck. It was a slightly unfortunate situation in that the two stock types available were only of value to one or two players, but they steadfastly refused to take them, leaving the rest of us with just the crap shoot of drawing off the deck. Not entirely satisfying, I must admit, but many of the best games still have the occasional klunker due to odd card/tile/whatever distribution (Tigris & Euphrates comes immediately to mind here).

Last game of the day was Pizzaro & Co (also known as Magellan), the bidding game from Hans im Glück and Tom Lehmann. This is a game that also works well with 6. I’ve always been rather fond of this one, but it didn’t seem to go over very well when it first came out for some reason. I think it’s rather clever. The tension between spending now and needing to save for later rounds is intense. The explorers you are bidding on are diverse, and the rewards for winning auctions are subtle. After playing it again for the first time since 2002 (when it came out), I was inspired to try to remember to break it out next time we have 6. Somehow, it has a place in my mind next to Titan: The Arena. Anyway, perhaps not quite as crisp or tight as Knizia’s best auction games, but nicely flavorful and more subtle than it appears.