Australia, Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion, McMulti, Big City

Australia: Despite what you may have heard from some quarters, I generally like games. Even weak games like Conquest of the Empire II, or games that don’t personally appeal to me like Caylus, can provide some entertainment value for one game at least as I try to win, work out the systems, and try to figure out where it went wrong or what it’s missing for me. Granted, I absolutely wouldn’t play Conquest again, but once through, the process of playing it wasn’t too bad.

Playing Australia, though, had me – for the first time in recent memory – absolutely bored me out of my mind. Not only did I not care about playing the game itself, I couldn’t even be bothered to care why it was crashing and burning. I just wanted it to be over.

Part of this may just be that I’ve been taking a harder line against lower-quality games of late, so it was easier to think of what I could have been playing instead. But the main part is probably the dysfunctional theme. I rip on games from Colovini and Schacht for having tenuous or incidental themes – which they do, generally – but Australia goes way past this into having a theme which is positively tortured and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Lessons learned: a) add Australia to the list of “veto” games; b) the Ravensburger label is not targeted at people like me; c) it’s time to reinforce that line again.

Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion: I’ve had harsh things to say about Doom, in the main due to frustration with what might have been, given the fundamental underlying cleverness of the game. In light of this, I wanted to try the game with the new expansion.

All I have to say is: now we’re talking. Finally! Most of the new stuff – the new monsters, equipment, map tiles, etc. – don’t matter. The new “Deathmatch” and “Capture the Flag” methods of play hold no interest to me. What matters is that it looks like somebody actually spent some time thinking about the scenarios this time. No more 4-5 hour railroad jobs in which the marines are screwed and there is no ammo. We played an interesting scenario in about 2 hours which was closely run, with the marines pulling it out with only one “frag” left.

After playing through the new scenario, I went back to the book included in the original to review the scenarios there. Did anyone spend more than five minutes on those? It almost seems impossible that they had even been played before they were shipped, never mind playtested. Anyone with any experience with the game at all should have been able to look at them and tell you that they’re going to take forever to play, there is way too little ammo, and as a result the marines are going to get slaughtered. Something went badly awry here in Fantasy Flight’s process, and I’d be curious to know what it was.

Anyway, I still have some minor complaints about the game. The primary one is that the monster graphics on the reference cards and in the scenario book are too blurry and indistinct, especially once you’re playing with the expansion. If you haven’t played the computer game, or aren’t that familiar with the boardgame, you’re going to need to puzzle things out sometimes. The marine skill cards are much too variable, which as a result can screw up game balance, which is not good given the game’s length. The “respawn” rules are hokey and can produce weird situations. And there is nothing in the system to prevent the invader from repeatedly pounding on a single marine, if there is someone with a particularly weak or strong skill card mix. But I still quite enjoyed playing Doom with the expansion, and look forward to playing again sometime. It actually got me curious about Descent: Journeys in the Dark. We’ll see if that little bit of insanity passes.

McMulti: This is an old game which I play about once a year. It’s rather clever and an obvious precursor to The Settlers of Catan, with dice rolls activating your production facilities to drill for oil, turn it into gasoline, and sell it to consumers and their gas-guzzling SUVs. It’s a game I’ve always enjoyed, albeit in moderation. It is, after all, not very interactive – there is no trading, and very little competition. And it can run long. The fun comes in building your little oil-producing island empire and coping with the turns in the economy (which are very well-done) and random events, rather than competing directly with your fellow-players.

I think McMulti has been hurt for me personally by the fact that Settlers has now been out of primary circulation for a while amongst my friends. When Settlers was current, McMulti was a nice change of pace. With Settlers now being played rather infrequently, I just found myself thinking “you know, I’d rather be playing Settlers”. Settlers is shorter, more elegant, faster-moving, and more fun, while retaining a lot of the same production management elements. The two aren’t directly comparable games, but for me the elegance, pace, theme, and chaos of Settlers trumps the planning, math, theme, and chaos of McMulti. For the things that McMulti does better than Settlers, I think I’d rather play Schoko & Co.

None of which is to say that McMulti is a bad game. Far from it. Especially for its time. Even though I lowered my rating a touch, I still think it’s a nice second-tier, “good in the right spot”-type game. It’s just that the competition these days is so much tougher than it was 7-10 years ago.

Big City: This has been sitting on my shelf for ages, and it had been hovering in the back of my mind of late. I think it’s been at least 5 years since I played, but I have fond memories of the game. So when Matt suggested it as a good three-player game, I jumped.

A sometimes-complaint back when the game was new was that the City Hall presented a problem. Playing it earned you no money, but substantially increased the values of surrounding plots of land, some of which probably belonged to other people. But, playing the City Hall was required in order to open up the game with more neighborhoods, streetcars, and special buildings.

So I decided that I was going to test this theory (even though I never quite believed it myself). I gathered up a few plots in one neighborhood, plopped down the city hall, followed by a business and a shopping mall, then cruised to victory. Now, I still think you could, in theory, see situations where nobody is going to want to play the City Hall, which might lead to a very truncated and unsatisfying game. But I think that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the game works quite well. Certainly with smaller numbers of players (2 or 3), there is nothing to worry about.

Big City is mainly a light, fun, thematic game in which you get to build a cool-looking city. There is a fair amount of luck, and any plans you might have are routinely thwarted by the Parks, Factories, and your opponents re-routing the streetcar. That said, however, you can plan, and the right mixture of looking ahead and opportunism is the route to success. You want to put yourself in a position to take advantage of opportunities. But you also want to be lucky. And for me, Big City finds a good mix of all these factors combined with a sensibly short playing time.

Theme can make or breaks a game like this, and Big City has very good theme. Certain plots of land are desirable for certain uses, and while it’s not a simulation, you still find yourselves developing business districts, looking for ways to route the streetcar nearer to your properties, and looking out for undervalued real estate. And the wonderful plastic buildings certainly don’t hurt.

I really enjoyed playing Big City again, and it’ll easily keep its spot in my collection, even if I don’t manage to play it again for another 5 years.

Final notes on Big City: definitely play with the original German rules, which are the “no branching streetcar lines” variant in the Rio Grande edition. I’d also suggest that 3 is probably the optimal number, and I don’t think I’d play with 5. It would probably also be quite nice with 2.

Further Reflections on Doom

After my last session I had some pretty harsh things to say about Doom: The Boardgame. Now, with a little more time to reflect on things, I wonder if I’m sending the right message here.

I stand by my opinion that Doom is, at best, unbalanced. And with 3 Marines, the game seems quite seriously out of whack, both in terms of play balance that is quite probably completely broken and in terms of keeping everyone in the game all the time. I also still think the scenarios included in the game, with the exception of the intro scenario, are significantly too long and/or too unfocussed and/or too repetitive (there is stuff you know you should do – like go back to pick up a big weapon in an area you missed – but you just can’t bear to do it because it’ll take too freaking long and be boring). And the game is definitely more fun for the Invader.

That all sounds kind of harsh; and maybe it is. But I am still conflicted because Doom: The Game System really is rather good, and it’s a game concept that is appealing and deserves to be done well. Had the final stages of development and playtesting been better managed, this could have been a very solid game. The first playing (with 2 Marines) was a lot of fun, and in fact that version of the game may be not be totally out of control, play-balance wise (it still seems to heavily favor the Invader, but it’s close enough that I can also visualize reasonable fixes that might work – just pick some good Marine cards and give the Marines some extra ammo), and it does a better job at keeping everyone in the game at that number, so perhaps Doom just needs to considered an exactly 3-player game. Maybe. And the new scenario on FFG’s web site actually looks like a substantial improvement over the ones in the box.

To use the lingo from my 2004 in Review article, Doom is definitely a serious choke. But it’s also got a core of a rather good game. This was brought to mind while I was reviewing some content for Wizard Kings, a game I love but that also has some serious scenario problems out-of-the-box. Now, Doom is no Wizard Kings – Doom does have some systemic question marks while Wizard Kings does not – so I feel no compelling need to cut Doom the same kind of slack. But, like Wizard Kings, once Fantasy Flight or the net has developed some more scenarios that address the balance issues and cut down the playing time, Doom may well deliver on its potential. The new scenario FFG has published may be the first step in the right direction.

Doom: The Boardgame – 1x2p, 1x4p

I’ve now had a chance to play Doom twice more, once with 1 marine and once with 3 marines.

I didn’t talk much about play balance in my last entry, because everyone enjoyed it well enough, and one playing wasn’t enough to really guess as to the ultimate balance. With two more games under my belt, though, I can tell you that the critics are right – this game has serious balance problems.

We played last night with 3 marines. I had a suspicion that this was going to have issues, so we gave the marines the following handicaps: instead of 2 skill cards each, we gave them 4 and allowed them to pick 3; and when respawning, we allowed their ammo to get bumped up to 3 bullets/shells if it was lower. This is a pretty substantial boost, and all the players had very good marine cards. Plus, as the invader player, I really didn’t hammer them as hard as I could have.

At least, not in the beginning. By about halfway through the module, I thought “hey, they’re doing pretty well, I better stop slacking off”. The game wasn’t as close as it looked, though – they made it to the last room with one frag left (but badly wounded and only a couple rounds of ammo left), but they had no chance at all to get even one player out. Well, they actually did have some chance: if they had played an excruciatingly tedious game of sniping and running away they might have made it, but nobody had the stomach to go through that.

The two player game wasn’t much better; I had weak marine cards, and made it only two-thirds of the way through the level. Kim generously gave me an extra life so I could get killed by the Cyberdemon in the last room.

The bottom line here is that I don’t think in any of the games I’ve played the marines have had even a remote chance of winning – and we’ve always given them some sort of balance (even in the very first game I played, we were giving them extra ammo). The play balance is clearly way, way out of line. This really is not a deep tactical game; there simply isn’t enough room for tactical skill to improve the balance. I felt that in my most recent games the Marines were playing quite well for the most part until they got bored right at the end.

I remember watching a promo movie for Halo 2, in which one of the Bungie guys talks about how Halo is 30 seconds of fun – sneak up, melee, throw a grenade, firefight – stretched out through 8+ hours of gaming. That’s fine for a console game which has many other selling points (and he may have been oversimplifying – Halo is a very well-designed game). But I’m starting to feel that the tactical problems in Doom are just not interesting enough to sustain replayability, especially given the game’s long playing time. Both of the last two games I’ve played had played themselves out by about 75% of the way through. That’s not good. You want the game to end before that happens. I think the problem is mainly one of pacing – there is just a bit too much fiddling here: open a door, clear a room, gather the goodies, lather, rinse, repeat – if the action was more continuous and less predictable I think it would be more fun. While I think this last game was enjoyed by the players for the first hour and a half or so, the enthusiasm was really tailing off towards the end, and by the time we were done, I don’t think anyone was very impressed by the game.

So Doom may well be relegated to the niche of a game I play with my D&D buddies, where we can get into the flavor of the dungeon crawl thing and not be thinking “hey, I could have been playing Lord of the Rings”.

I dunno. I still hope to give it another shot or two; we did rather enjoy the first playing, so it would be good to see if the game can get back into that happy zone, perhaps with a few house rules. But I may yet have to take it up with Rick Thornquist 🙂 (Never mind putting Fantasy Flight back on my “make sure you try-before-you-buy” list).

Doom: The Boardgame

If this game goes wrong, I plan to personally blame Rick Thornquist.

Why did I buy this game? Being a Macintosh guy, I never thought much of Doom (Marathon came a little later, but seemed to me a much superior game). I think I played HeroQuest once 10 years ago and didn’t think much of it either. I was fresh from my modest disappointment with War of the Ring and its overdone plastic. Doom had a lot going against it.

For the one or maybe two people out there who are unfamiliar with the premise of this game, you are a Space Marine battling demons who have escaped into our dimension. You do this in classic dungeon-crawl format, with 1-3 Space Marines teaming up against 1 Invader player. You shoot stuff, read some flavor text, and try to find colorful keys. The core good idea here is a set of dice that allow you to settle matters of weapons range, ammo consumption, and damage by simply rolling the appropriate dice for each weapon. A green die provides range but not much damage, a blue die give you damage but not much range, and a yellow and red die give you some damage (the yellow a little more range and less damage, and vice versa for the red) and can potentially consume your ammo. So, for example, the pistol has a yellow and green die, which gives it range but not much damage, while the shotgun has a red and blue die, which makes it lethal but short-ranged.

I was the invader player in this game. In your first game, I think the invaders are actually easier to play than the Marines, and so I might recommend that a less experienced player take them. You don’t have quite as many options, you have fewer resources to manage, and generally you’re just looking for opportunities to play cards rather than hoarding for the right moment, although you do want to save a few powerful cards for clutch situations. The Marines have a lot more tough choices, with more tactical options and a lot of pressure on the by-now legendary tight ammo supply.

With a couple rather minor provisos, I quite enjoyed the game. It’s very simple but provides interesting tactical decisions. At least with 2 Marine players, it was definitely tough on the Marines, but tough in a way that left me hankering to try again, rather than just feeling like the Marines were roadkill. The story may be different with 4, and we’ll have to see if the Marines can improve their play enough to make it a game, but for now it’s in a good zone.

Downsides? For me personally, I could live without the testosterone-fueled “my gun is bigger than your gun” Doom theme. The descriptive text the Invader player is reading is thick with death and implied gore that really seems more embarrassing than evocative to me as an “older” gamer. The game is just a nice dungeon-crawl shoot-em-up, and this flavor isn’t adding a lot. I always felt the whole Doom II computer game ambiance was a little adolescent (Doom III may be better – I haven’t played), and would have been on balance a lot happier with a theme based on Bungie’s far classier Halo, or even Marathon. But I assume (and can only hope) Doom was cheaper as a license.

My only other complaint (and it’s fairly minor) was that it seemed like there was a bit of overkill in the weapons selection. True to the computer game, you have some 10 weapons available, but some of them seem superfluous. You’d have to be awfully desperate, for example, to waste your incredibly valuable ammunition on the pistol since it uses the same ammo as the shotgun and assault rifle (and at the same rate) and does negligible damage. There isn’t that much difference between the assault rifle and the chain gun, and you would simply never use the plasma gun if you have the BFG. The problem is, I think, that there isn’t enough variation in ammo consumption – virtually everything consumes ammo at the same rate. If there were a couple ammo symbols on the high-damage blue die, things might make more sense, with weapons that do more damage consuming more ammo. But there isn’t, so there just isn’t much trade-off between some of the weapons, and some could have been deleted I think.

Anyway, more so than many games, another couple plays will be needed to make sure it isn’t too tough on the Marines (I’m highly suspicious this would be the case with 3 Marines), and to make sure the game holds up. But I enjoyed it and look forward to trying it again.