Kupferkessel Co, 1825 – Unit 2, Domaine

Kupferkessel Co: Kim and I showed up a few minutes late so missed out on getting into the first game, so we played a quick round of this. This was a 2001 release that had gotten some good vibes at the time, but somehow I missed out on playing it. All in all, though, we weren’t too impressed by it. It’s a simple game, but the scoring is rather klunky, and we just didn’t feel there was much there in terms of strategy or tactics, you just move around the board desperately trying to remember what you’ve done already (90% of the game is memory). It’s one of those games that just feels flat, like a conglomeration of ideas that lacks inspiration or spark and doesn’t stick together. Sort of on par with Heave Ho!, maybe short of Avalon or Druidenwalzer. Not one we’ll play again.

Next up was 1825 Unit 2 with 4 players. For some reason I had remembered this unit as being ideal with 3 and a little thin with 4 players just on the number of companies, so I threw in my recently-acquired kit K5, with the Furness and North Staffordshire minor railways. As it turns out I needn’t have bothered, everything worked out just fine and the addition was unnecessary – perhaps of more interest in a Unit 2 + Unit 3 combined game. The Unit 2 company mix is actually more interesting than the Unit 1 mix; in the latter game there is a steep fall-off in quality after the first handful of companies, with some of the later ones (like the LBSC and SER) relegated to fairly mediocre runs with little upside. In the Midlands, there are no real dominating companies (except maybe the Midlands Railway itself) and the mid- and late-game companies are all pretty decent with no real stinkers. As it turns out, neither minor company was ever started, although I would have taken a crack at the Furness if the timing has worked out better. I ended up winning by dumping the early companies (LSWR and Midlands) to pick up a dominating interest in Lancashire & Yorkshire, which went on to do extremely well. At a touch over 2 hours, this worked out quite well and I enjoyed it.

Last up was Domaine, which I lost horribly. Tactical tip: your first castle should always be in a corner location. I missed this and my kingdoms got squeezed … it was very ugly. My score ended up being non-zero, but not by much.

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Domaine, Puerto Rico

The original Löwenherz (which came out in 1997) was an interesting game. It got good reviews and was well-respected. Many people, including me, thought it was a top-tier type game. But as time went by, I had to keep knocking my rating down, because it just never hit the table, unlike the true classics like El Grande or Modern Art or Through the Desert. I think it was just perceived as too much work for not enough fun. And so my opinion settled on it as a good, but second-tier, type game.

When the “new” Löwenherz (known in the US as Domaine) came out, I thought it was a nice game but wouldn’t replace the original. I was wrong; for me, it has replaced the original. Domaine has been played quite a lot in our groups over the past year and a half, when most games, even many good ones, will last only a couple months – it has that elusive combination of elegance and depth that few designs seem to achieve. Streamlining the game by eliminating the negotiation element has done wonders for it, slimming it down to a much more reasonable play time (especially given the cutthroat nature of the underlying system). In retrospect, it seems like the original perhaps was trying to do too much, and eliminating the negotiation/bidding to focus on cash management and the tactical game makes for a much more satisfactory game. I now feel pretty good about giving it the top slot on my “best of 2003“. And hey, I can actually win at the new edition of the game, so how bad can it be? I could never do well in the original.

This was the first play of Puerto Rico for me in something like a year, and probably only the third or fourth since the game was run into the ground around January 2003 (we had a guy in our game group at the time who only ever wanted to play Puerto Rico, so it just got a lot more exposure than it could handle in retrospect). I do think Puerto Rico is a good game but I’ve never been really blown away by it. It’s also a game that I am really horrifically bad at. I was discussing with Kim after the game why this might be. My theory is that I tend to like games with a strategic component, stuff like Settlers or Traders of Genoa or the wargames I like. Puerto Rico taunts you with strategic elements, but it’s really just a brutal short-term optimization game with a minimal strategic component. Being who I am, I tend to latch on to the strategic elements, which tends to lead me astry.

Perhaps due to my frequent poor showing at it, the one thing I like least about Puerto Rico is how early the game ends for some players. It was clear to me by two thirds of the way through this game I had lost, and there was absolutely nothing I could do at that point to improve my position. Sort of reminds me of Civilization. That last 20 minutes or so of going through the motions can be frustrating. San Juan is a lot better in this respect, which is why I think ultimately I find it to be the more enjoyable game.

Anyway, I don’t want to be too hard on Puerto Rico on account of my own incompetance, because it is a good game. I’m going through a phase of playing more classic games now as it becomes clear (as usual) that the Essen games are mostly not going to pan out, and Puerto Rico is definitely a classic.

Game Night

We had 7 people for our New Year’s Tandem Gaming session, so lots of 3 and 4 player stuff except for a giant 7-player Bohnanza at the end.

Kim went off and played some 4-player Flaschenteufel while Jeff, Scott, and I broke out Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers and tried out the new King & Scout expansion. It had a surprisingly negligible effect on the game. Jeff got the Scout, which allows you to bring people back to your supply, but he never had a chance to use it as he never got all his people onto the board at once. I got the flat-bottomed canoe which gives you bonuses when rivers close as part of a big river system, but my system got shut down early and the tile scored 1 or 2 points at the cost of losing a person for the whole game. Scott never played his bonus tile. All this being said, I can see that if we played again the bonus tiles would be used a little better, but they are quite a subtle effect on the game – which is good, I think. A nice twist, a few little player-specific options without upsetting the game. Hunters & Gatherers remains by far my favorite multi-player version of Carcassonne, and I’ll definitely keep throwing in the King & Scout expansion until a problem occurs.

Then Kim & Jeff swapped, with Milton and Jeff teaming up to play Chris & Linda in Tichu (I hear Mitlon & Jeff didn’t do so well, losing by over 1000 points … in a game that is only played to 1000 points). Scott, Kim, and I played the new Die Fugger from Adlung (by the same designer as Carcassonne, interestingly). The basic idea is that you have a deck of commodities, and each turn you alternate playing a commodity card until 5 are out. Then commodities that are more numerous go up in value (with a wraparound, so you go from being worth 9 to worth 1 if you go up too far), and the losers go down. You then cash out the commodities you’ve played, and play another round. Vaguely reminiscent of Modern Art without the bidding, although definitely more entertaining than that sounds. Some neat choices although you will often be hamstrung by the cards you draw, some definite skill but not hugely challenging … a neat game, I thought, definitely solid filler, if not hugely inspiring. Adlung’s games are still too expensive in the US, though.

Kim, Scott, and I then went on to Domaine, one of the best games of 2003. One of these days I’d like to play Domaine and Löwenhertz back-to-back, just for comparison’s sake. I do like Domaine a lot better, but I am sensitive to people’s concerns that there isn’t as much long-run strategy; if, say, you buy heavily into Knights early, you can’t know whether or not you will draw enough expansion cards to make it worthwhile; in the original you know what the deck looks like and can always bid for what you want. Of course, in the original you’re still hosed if someone else is going after Knights also and you bleed each other to death while the other two players go on to crush you.

Last was a big game of Bohnanza with everyone. This game works surprisingly well with bigger numbers all the way up to 7. The 7-player game is always a bit shorter than I expect too, which is good. I own La Isla Bohnita, which doesn’t ever get played because it’s lousy, but every time I play Bohnanza with 7 I always remember midway through that I’d like to use the 26s (and maybe even the 28s) from that expansion sometime in a big game, just to see how it would affect things, never mind so that I could actually get some use out of them. The default 7-player game works awfully well as is, though.