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.
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Euro Quick Takes: Ostia, Jenseits von Theben, Elasund, Ursuppe, San Juan

Ostia: This is a new bidding game from Mayfair, Pro Ludo, and Stefan Risthaus. The advance word hasn’t been great, but I’m a sucker for bidding games and Roman themes, and the price point ($25 retail) was pretty reasonable. It’s a straight auction game: each turn you’re dealt a hand of commodity cards, which you then pick one to save and then auction the rest off in pairs in once-around bidding. Everyone then secretly allocates the commodities they’ve bought either to the Senate (which brings victory points) or the Forum (which brings in money). Forum goods are worth more when the supply of that type (i.e., the number sold) is low, while the players who commit the most valuable goods to the Senate get VPs. The values of the goods the Senate wants are given on cards that are revealed a turn in advance. Or, you can invest money in warehouses that allow you to store goods from turn to turn.

Ostia was quite a pleasant surprise I thought. It’s been compared by some to Medici, but I found it to be quite dissimilar: the secret and simultaneous allocations are clever and add some guesswork, and there is a nice tension between wanting to acquire diversity (for the Forum) and specific goods (for the Senate). You can plan a bit because what the Senate wants this turn and next turn are both visible, and the pressure on money seems right – money is tight, but not ridiculously so. The system is clean and plays well. It’s probably just a little too long – the auctions get a touch samey because the stakes on any particular auction are never that great and don’t increase as the game goes on, and so there are few opportunities for “power plays”. But for me, it wasn’t off by enough to be a big deal. I felt like I was learning interesting things about how the system worked throughout my game, and am looking forward to giving it another try.

So I liked Ostia. It works, it’s a bidding game that is different, and while I doubt it’ll be a long-term keeper, I’ll get my $25 worth easily. To answer my original question, it feels like a Knizia from about 1996. Knizia’s recent stuff, like Beowulf, Palazzo, or Amun-Re, are definitely much superior by almost any analysis. But Ostia isn’t competing head-on with them, for me it’s different enough to be worthwhile. I easily liked it better than Medici, although as time has worn on it Medici has admittedly become one of my least favorite Knizias, and Ostia is easily one of the best auction game from someone other than Knizia that I’ve played in some time.

Jenseits von Theben: It appears I may have to correct some of the things I said when I last wrote about this game. I complained at the time that the Congress cards were overwhelming and that the endgame didn’t work. This was at least in part because we missed a rule, or at least I think we did: artifacts are supposed to count their face value in VPs at the end of the game. In my defense, the rules are not very explicit on this point. They mention it, but in a somewhat oblique way. Regardless, there is no question the game plays a lot better this way. The Congress cards are still too powerful in my opinion, but they are not overwhelming. The endgame is still rather weak, but it’s not outright pointless. All good. Unfortunately, the exhibitions are now greatly de-emphasized, since the points for doing them are comparatively minor. This robs the game of some of its flavor; before we were desperately shuttling back and forth between digs and exhibits, with tons of pressure to find stuff and get back; now you just optimize your digs, spend the maximum allowable time, and if a well-timed exhibit comes along, that’s an added bonus.

I guess what I’m saying here is that the game still creaks a bit, but played this way it’s a much more satisfying experience, and instead of Jenseits von Theben being a few tweaks away from being functional, I can now see it is a being a few tweaks away from actually being good. As it is, I still wish it worked better, but it’s a nice, flavorful game, very random but probably good for a couple plays – nothing to really set your world alight, but different and nice for a change of pace.

My previous post has been updated.

Elasund: This game has held up well to repeated play. The new variant buildings you can find online are a nice touch, and help vary the flavor of the game. I still like this one a lot; it’s the best new Teuber game since Starfarers.

The thing I find funny about Elasund is that I now consider it a long game. A long game! Elasund is only about 90 minutes, which I would have considered an average-length or even a shorter game not that long ago. And really, Elasund does justify its length, and I think it’ll come down with play. But Reiner Knizia has just been putting so much pressure on game length, with shorter games that pack a lot of gaming value into a smaller package. Beowulf is only 45-60 minutes. Palazzo, Ingenious, Tower of Babel, and Blue Moon are all games that provide a satisfying challenge and are played in comfortably under an hour. Throw in San Juan, Hacienda, and Louis XIV and it’s tough being a 90+ minute game these days.

Ursuppe (now Primordial Soup): This is a game I’ve been wanting to get off the shelf again for ages, but have never had an opportunity to do so. Usually there is one person in the group who is not a fan, and I have a couple color-blind friends for whom this is probably the most egregiously color-blind hostile game ever made. But I was finally able to play.

Ursuppe is a game I had pegged in my mind as a second-tier classic. A game that’s not totally compelling, doesn’t provide the complete package, but does enough well to get long-term replayability: it’s got the fun empire-building type thing with the genes, an excellent theme, and great art.

Having played it again, I must confess to some mild disappointment. It still does have all these nice features, but almost ten years on, the flaws in the game now bug me more. There is a real problem with being able to catch the leader; those who get ahead, stay ahead, generally. Some of the genes are definitely mis-priced; Streamlining, even at 5 BPs, is a great deal, while Defense at 4 BP is not so much. There is also a huge rules ambiguity, with the interaction of Struggle for Survival, Holding, and Escape being totally unclear (and a situation which is not exactly uncommon).

It’s still a fun game, just one of somewhat more limited appeal than I remembered, I guess. I still like it, and I think if alea remade it and balanced out the gene cards as well as they did the buildings in Puerto Rico, maybe it could live up to my fond memories. As it is, it’ll stay on my shelf, but probably come out less often than it’s successor, Urland, which always surprises me by being better than what I remember.

Puerto Rico and San Juan: When I did my year-end article, I commented that San Juan had gotten a ton of play for a long time but had started tapering off a bit of late. It seems to be back. I’ve played half-a-dozen times in the last month or so, and I found myself asking, “OK Chris, when are you going to break down and recognize this game as an all-time classic?” The answer would be, apparently, right now. I must have played San Juan at least 50 times and it’s still fresh. So I went over to BoardGameGeek and kicked my rating up to a 10. By contrast, when I played Puerto Rico again recently, I found myself saying afterwards “you know, I don’t really have any desire to play this again”. That’s probably an overstatement – I’d play again, although I’d probably insist on some of the variant buildings – but still.

Now, part of the problem here is that San Juan and Puerto Rico were on vastly different power curves. We literally played Puerto Rico absolutely to death when it came out. One of the guys in our group at the time wanted to play nothing but, and we played at least a game a week for a long time. San Juan has never been subjected to that kind of stress. On the other hand, San Juan has now comfortably passed its second anniversary with a lot of play, and I still like it a lot. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, barely creaked out of its first year.

What can I say? I’m not going to call San Juan a technically superior game. But it does capture a lot of the good stuff from Puerto Rico in a vastly more streamlined package, and the vagaries of the card draw both make for more excitement and keep it from becoming stale the way Puerto Rico ultimately did. For my tastes, San Juan finds a much happier balance point amongst time and effort investment, variety, play-balance, and fun. Maybe we can get some expansion cards for San Juan, and maybe add a 5th player. It might convince everyone to go out and replace their worn-out basic set while they’re at it.

Elasund

Continuing along in our survey of the hat trick of big-box games from big-name designers, Elasund is Klaus Teuber’s newest Catan-branded game. This time we’re building a city named – wait for it – Elasund.

Elasund is identifiably a Settlers game, moreso even than Candamir was, but this time Teuber takes a detour off into the land of tile-laying games. The obligatory dice roll at the beginning of your turn tells you which row of the city’s grid will be active this turn. Players with buildings in that row earn money and influence. You can turn money into VPs by buying more buildings, city walls, or helping to construct the typical Settlers-style Castle/Church/Cathedral (here, a Church). You can use influence to get the zoning board to help you out with your construction problems.

Building buildings first requires getting permits. Buildings come in various sizes, from small ones (1×1 or 1×2) that require only one permit, to large ones (2×2 or 3×2) that can require up to three. You are restricted to placing only one permit a turn, and only in or near the row you rolled. Influence, though, can get around these restrictions. Permits, once placed, can’t be moved; again, unless you spend influence. Influence can also help you out in terms of bulldozing inconvenient buildings placed by your opponents.

I’m not sure about the message this game is sending in terms of transparency, good governance, and the rule of law. They probably do some pretty mean gerrymandering on Catan.

I liked Elasund quite a bit, and it and Hacienda are currently tied for my second favorite game from Essen. Like Settlers, it has a lot of things I like in short eurogames – it plays quickly and easily, and it’s nicely thematic. There are always decisions to make and there is always planning to do, but like Settlers good play is an aggregate of lots and lots of small decisions rather than fewer large, critical ones, so you don’t get player lock-up problems and the game moves along briskly. It has a nice mixture of player skill versus the luck of the dice, which lends the game dynamism. Another plus: while it’s identifiably a Settlers game, it’s also quite different from previous incarnations. It feels like a classic tile-laying game (Carcassonne, say) blended with a Settlers sensibility.

In other words, Elasund is a classic German game. Fun yet skillful, professionally designed and produced, clean, balanced, and fairly elegant, this is the sort of game that will appeal to the hobbyist gamer who still wants games that are flavorful and fun. It doesn’t succeed on these counts as well as Settlers of Catan itself did, but what could? Elasund is in the ballpark, though, and if you liked Settlers – even if you are now well past the point of burnout – Elasund is definitely worth checking out.

Candamir – The Odyssey

Candamir is Klaus Teuber’s latest Catan-branded game, which came out last year at Essen. I didn’t get a chance to play it right away, but considered it one of the more promising games at the time. Sadly, the initial plays were disappointing (where you can also find a more extensive description of the game). The potential was there I felt, but the game was significantly too long and definitely not interactive enough.

However, Mayfair was signed up to do an English version, and they seemed to recognize that there were some problems. So they announced that their version would include richer exploration tiles, which would hopefully have a number of salutary effects – mainly shortening the game and creating resources surpluses so that you’d see some actual trading. So far so good.

But it seems that nothing in the gaming world is ever easy. When I got my copy of Mayfair’s Candamir, I looked through with anticipation to see the changes they had made. I was dismayed to see that the tiles were exactly the same! Figuring that couldn’t be right, I found in the back of the rulebook a tile inventory, in which all the 4 tiles had an extra resource, unless they already had two resources, in which case they had an extra experience. So an email went off to Mayfair, wondering what had gone wrong; but in the back of my head, I was worried that this improvement in just the ‘4’ tiles wouldn’t be enough.

It turns out, things were even more confusing than that … not only were the tiles misprinted, but so were the rules … the 3 tiles all have an added resource or experience as well. Fortunately, Mayfair has printed up some replacement tiles, and if you have purchased or will purchase their version of Candamir, I strongly recommend you write them and get the replacements.

Because when I finally had a chance to play with them, I found it to be a major improvement. In the old game, the rate of acquisition of stuff was so slow that the game was much too long and nobody ever had excess resources to trade, resulting in basically a multi-player solitaire game. In our game with the new tiles, all of a sudden there was plenty of trading (if not quite as much as in classic Settlers), and while the game is long – closer to Starfarers than Settlers, maybe 1.5 to 2 hours – it doesn’t drag for most of the game. Like all of the Settlers games, towards the very end there can be a “grinding” phase when only one or two of the players have a chance to win, but the game still needs to close out. In classic Settlers, this is rarely more than 5-10 minutes. I think Candamir was pushing more like 15-20, which is more than one might hope, but not too bad given the nature of the game.

All in all, I rather liked the new, updated Candamir. It’s still no match for the original Settlers, but not much is. Still, Candamir is a game that manages to combine solid, clean, Teutonic game-design elements with a flavorful setting and fun adventuring elements that, as a whole, functions on both levels. From Entdecker to El Cabellero there have been many attempts to do exploration-themed games, and none of them have worked at all thematically, in that for me none conveyed any sense of traveling in a dangerous unknown. Likewise, many adventure games (like Runebound or Return of the Heroes) don’t give much sense that there is a balanced, interesting game underneath. Candamir doesn’t quite manage to pull everything off either, but for me it’s a vast improvement over previous efforts in this regard, is very solid on both levels, and it definitely still feels Catan-ish (including the randomness that drives some serious gamers berserk, but is never quite that severe when you really look at it). While Kosmos’ Candamir definitely fell significantly short, I am ultimately happy with the Mayfair Candamir, which is now a welcome addition to my collection.

Candamir

In Candamir, the players are taking the roles of Frontiers-people, perhaps, rather than Settlers. Instead of building roads, settlements and other infrastructure bits, you are personally going out to acquire resources and items for use by the first four Catanian colonists. Doing so requires strength, skill, and charima as you face down wolves, bears, snakes, and bandits to fulfill your objectives, but if you do so you are rewarded with experience, tools, and helpful herbs, as well as the raw materials required to win.

Your persona in the game is a character who will probably have a couple special powers and be rated in four attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, and Fighting Prowess. There are four default characters, but there is also an interesting point-buy system allowing you to build your own. Over the course of the game, you have to pass many tests, each of which is against one or more of these abilities, and has certain penalties for failure and payoffs for success (some even have up-front costs as well). Each test is simple – you roll a d6, add your ability score, and win or lose. The costs and benefits are all clearly laid out in nice friendly icons.

You earn victory points by gathering familiar Settlers resources for the colonists. To do this, you have to trek across the land, which is a square grid. Each time you want to move you draw a card from a travel deck, revealing what lies in each direction: sometimes nothing, but sometimes dangers, sometimes opportunities, and sometimes a bit of both. You then choose which way to travel – to risk a dangerous encounter to take a straight path, to divert to pick up some herbs, or to chance a possibly beneficial encounter.

When you return from your travels, you will probably have picked up resources. The colonists generally want swords, trunks, and some sort of window shade thing, all of which are assembled from multiple resources, so you can use what you’ve got or do the traditional trading. Providing a colonist with an item will provide a flat VP out of the ten you need, but each colonist also provides a bonus VP, longest-road style, to the player who provides the most items to him or her. Additionally, once you get back to the village, herbs that you may have collected on your travels can be brewed into various beneficial concoctions. Because this is a Settlers game, you have the opportunity to trade resources and herbs with your fellow-players.

I think there is actually a lot of stuff to like in Candamir. The character/adventure subsystem to me works much better than, say, Return of the Heroes because it’s much more subtle and incremental. There is a lot of pressure to up all your abilities to be able to defeat challenges both for their payoffs and for the time savings; but doing this is slow, and you have to choose between acquiring resources for the colonists and acquiring the experience to improve your own abilities, so you’ve got the usual nice tension between building up your capabilities and doing stuff that will actually score points. The game is also thematically quite rich, and is also really quite straightforward and easy to play, while still being quite varied and giving you interesting choices. There is also little reason why you can’t use the German edition even if you don’t speak German; the only relevant text is two character special abilities plus the special power for Mead, which isn’t that big a deal.

The potential pitfalls are downtime and game length. With 3 players, we just didn’t have a lot of trading going on, less than Settlers or Starfarers. That’s a little unfortunate, since trading is such an important part of all Settlers games, keeping everyone engaged most of the time. I’m not sure if it was just the game we were playing – managing unpredictability is another key feature of Settlers games – or if it’s the way the system goes. More play will be required on that count. It seems like trading could be quite productive; each character has certain movement bonuses that makes gathering certain resources easier than others (my character was a climber, for example – good for moving in the mountains and thus gathering Ore). It also seems clear that more players will lead to more trading, as in every Settlers-type game; but in Candamir, more players will lead to significantly more downtime, as the game is much more tactical. In Starfarers you’re moving a lot of pieces around and resolving encounters, but here you have many more moment-to-moment movement decisions – as well as possible encounters – so things could take a while. These are not hard or momentous decisions, and with the right group should move briskly. But they can add up, especially if you’re playing with one of those folks who feels that if they are presented with a choice, they really need to spend some time thinking about it.

At the end of the day, though, I liked Candamir. I have a few reservations that will require more play to work out if the problems are real or imagined, but the game had a good feel to it, and it had the always-welcome features of being straightforward, new, and different. I look forward to giving it another try, next time hopefully with 4.

Mark Walker’s Lock ‘n Load: Forgotten Heros Vietnam & Settlers of the Stone Age

After the debacle with Afrika Corps, the game with perhaps the most unwieldy title of all time was up. Dave and I gave the initial scenario (A Friend in Need) of Lock ‘n Load a spin. All I have to say is … now we’re talking. This is a game that manages to capture a lot of what made the classic Squad Leader so appealing, with a slightly cleaner, faster-playing, and more interactive system. Now admittedly, I got to play the VC, who on immediate inspection seem to have a significant advantage in this scenario; and it’s always harder to attack the first time you play a game. Still, the rules read like a Squad Leader (original) knock-off, but the actual play is unique, and works pretty well with only a few minor glitches. Even moreso than SL, firepower is prolific and troops fragile, and this felt very real. The Ambush-style paragraphs are also a very nice touch, although I fear it will limit re-playability, perhaps problematically. The virtually chartless direct fire table is very nice. The rules are slightly sketchy (the reciprocity of LOS should really be mentioned), but overall I was very pleased and will definitely be playing this one again.

Settlers of the Stone Age is a fun game, but I fear it is just too damn long. I love Settlers, and as I’ve said before the true brilliance of the game is the 45 minute playing time. The dice can hose you, but you’ll be done and can play again soon enough. Settlers of the Stone Age has so much good stuff, but at 2.5-ish hours, you can be playing for a long time with nothing to gun for. As much as I wanted to like this one, after some 5 plays I don’t see this one coming out again anytime really soon. Interestingly, Starfarers seems to get around this problem; that game can go 2 hours, but it rarely seems to drag in the way Stone Age can.