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.

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Game Night

I almost pulled out of my Liar’s Dice slump – after 3 players were eliminated, I was still in it and up 5 dice to 3 to 3 … but one screwed up bid around here, and it’s the slippery slope. I think I was the 4th player out.

Die Sieben Siegel has been growing on me with each outing, which has to be a good sign. I admit I rarely read other game pundit’s sites, because I find I don’t get a lot out of it, but I was curious to see what people had to say on this one. One comment that struck me was a reviewer who felt that DSS had more luck than standard Oh Hell! because of the difficulty of predicting tricks and colors. I really do not think this is true at all; I think DSS is a lot more skillful than Oh Hell! or Wimmuln (from Mu und Mehr) or Wizard, both because you’re dealing with so many more cards (15/hand) and because seeing all the seals on the table gives you a lot more insight into which plays might work and which to avoid. I like this one a lot, I just wish it went up to 6.

San Juan is, of course, the Puerto Rico card game and the first game from 2004 for which I held out significant optimism. Take Puerto Rico and remove the colonists, ships, and plantations, turn the buildings into a card deck, and you’ve about got it. All the familiar buildings from the basic game & expansion set (plus some new ones) are in the deck, which you can build when you draw them. The currency you build with is the cards themselves, so to play, say, a Sugar Mill, you will have to discard 2 other cards from your hand. The Sugar mill will then produce Sugar when the Producer role is taken, which can then be turned into more cards when the Trader role is taken. The new role (replacing the Mayor and Settler) is the Councillor, which always has me humming Handel’s Messiah to myself for some reason. Anyway, it lets everyone draw a bunch of cards from the deck, and select one to keep. The roles have the familiar action/privilege breakdown.

San Juan was pretty cool, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s short. It pretty simple. It’s interesting. It really is Puerto Rico boiled down, and while some of the depth has been lost in the process, some of Puerto Rico’s less desireable attributes are gone too. With less hosage and a bit more randomness, it’s not quite the brutal whine-fest Puerto Rico can be. It rewards flexibility more than Puerto Rico, which tended to be a rather ruthless short-term-optimization game. All in all, I was quite pleased, and look forward to playing again. I doubt it will get the same raw number of plays that Puerto Rico did, but it might have better longevity – Puerto Rico hasn’t come out ’round here in at least a year.

San Juan addendum: I don’t know if this is a new thing, but Rio Grande really seems to be losing it. There is yet another major error on the box cover of the game (this is not a card game “for” Puerto Rico). The rulebook has a couple errors, and generally feels like it was translated by Babelfish and lightly touched up by someone for whom English was not a primary language – there are several examples of expressions that are literal translations from the German, but that no English-speaker would ever actually use. I expect better, but I guess it’s the hazard of being a niche market.

Game Night

It was a sparse(r) night tonight, just 5 of us, so we started with a quick round of Die Sieben Siegel. Wizard has been quite popular for a long time in our group, but I’d gotten a little tired of it so this is a very nice change of pace. It’s a little more cerebral I think than most Oh Hell variants, which usually works for me. It feels like it has a bit more control. I keep saying I’m going to acquire my own copy, but I haven’t had cause to put in a larger order to any of the usual online suspects yet, and shipping runs almost as much as the game for small stuff like this.

We then had a surprisingly difficult time settling on the next game, given how many great games there are for 5. After a few minutes of waffling we settled on Union Pacific, the classic game from Alan Moon, which we haven’t played in quite some time (and which I was interested in after the slightly less-than-optimal experience with Oasis). This game reminded me a bit why it took me a while to really warm to this game. It is superficially a very chaotic game, and it can seem a bit like you don’t have much control what with how the stock emerges randomly and with the sometimes draconian restrictions on playing stock. Drill down a little bit, though, and it’s clear there are a lot of nice tensions in this game, tough choices to be made, and good players win. Not as reliably as in, say, Acquire, and the final scores seem rather “damped” (it’s hard to win or lose by a big margin barring truly egregious play, and final scores will tend to be close). Still, the game often actively entices you to make bad choices, and you have to resist your instincts.

We played with the rules as printed, that allows you both draft a UP and discard a stock for a UP. For some reason some players don’t like this, and use a variant allowing you to do either or, but I’ve never understand the need or reason for doing this. More choices are good, and the UP simply isn’t as dominating as people seem to think. Our game was won by the player who had the 3rd largest UP holding, followed in 2nd place by the player with the 4th most UP. Like everything else in this game, it’s all about efficiency, not so much having the most of the best, so I think giving the players more options is good.

Game Night

Just a short session for me, as I had to pick up Kim at the airport.

Die Sieben Siegel – This is quite a neat new Steffan Dorra game. With so many of these small-box card games being endless rehashes of basic trick-taking games, it’s always nice to see one with a genuinely new and interesting idea. In this one, it’s basically just Oh Hell (without the growing hands, each hand is 15 tricks), but the kicker is that when you bid, you specify which suit each trick will be. This is clearly tough, but it also makes the play quite interesting because you know not only how many tricks each player thinks they will take, but what colors, and this gives you some interesting choices. I quite liked this and will probably pick up a copy myself.

Feurio! – The general buzz I’d been getting on this was a little mixed, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I actually quite liked it, though. The theme is really well done – I like how the fire spreads, I won’t say it’s “realistic”, but the game has a really good sense for its theme. The choices in placing your firefighters are interesting. The game is short. It could be over-analyzed, which is something to watch for, but it shouldn’t be a major problem as this is not an intense game. Not quite the sleeper hit that Trias was last year, but I’m happy with my purchase and it’ll be good for a number of plays anyway, I suspect.

Flaschenteufel – From the company that brought us the endearingly odd Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, we have another off-the-wall trick taking game. In this one, cards are uniquely numbered, and the high card wins tricks, with suit being relevant only for determining which card you can play (you must follow suit if possible, as usual). The odd thing is that there is a breakpoint, which starts at 19 – everything below the break is trump, and the highest trump played (if any) wins. Then, that winning trump card becomes the new breakpoint. The kicker is, the last person to win a trump trick is hosed – he loses points instead of gaining them. The other interesting thing is that the suits are not evenly distributed, with red being generally high, yellow being low, and blue being more even. This is a really neat game, a really different trick-taking game which presents a really interesting process of just figuring out how the game works, and this usually works for me. How long will it be good for? I don’t know, but Jekyll & Hyde did better than I expected in the end.