Old Games: Tigris & Euphrates, Traders of Genoa, El Grande: King & Villain

Fresh from my last game of Tigris & Euphrates, I was looking forward to playing again, but also curious if my new, slightly greater appreciation for the game would hold, or if I just liked the last game because I was lucky. I was able to win again, and this time I felt I did it without great tile luck, when viewing the game as a whole. But there were still some dramatic turns of fate. This particular match hinged on a number of rather improbable conflicts: I lost a major red conflict when Rich made a perfect red draw from the bag, but then turned around and won a huge blue one because I had been lucky enough to draw 4 blue tiles in my last refresh. If these two conflicts go the other way (both times the attacker was up 4), it’s a whole different game and Rich probably wins. I think Tigris & Euphrates is an excellent and absorbing game, but this sort of thing is why I don’t rate it as an absolute top-tier game, as many do.

Next up was Traders of Genoa. I really like this game, maybe even my favorite in the alea line, but negotiation games don’t seem to get quite as much play as straight tactical games, so I’m always glad to get a game in. And I won; I think for the first time in a serious game, and Traders of Genoa came out in what, 2001? Usually I am drawn to games I have a hard time winning out of the box, because I found them challenging; but there is a point at which this stops being the case. Puerto Rico, for example; I won a few of the early games, but then must have gone at least 15 games without a win, and it just got frustrating and annoying. Traders of Genoa, though, I almost always enjoy it seems. And now I finally have a win (although the game was extraordinarily close). Play tip: the Privileges are not very lucrative, but they’re high-profile. In both my recent games, the player who based his strategy around privileges has been hosed. I’d stay away from them – this game I only picked up one, and only because I had nothing better to do that turn and aimed to trade it away. Pick them up to sell to the player(s) collecting them at a markup. I won on a pure good/contracts strategy, emphasizing small orders; but as always, it depends on the quirks of the group you are playing with, what they are over- or under-valuing. Another thought I had, since owning those central buildings which compliment your strategy is so helpful, but getting to the Cathedral is such a pain, it might be worthwhile to use those 1:1 trade tiles to trade a good or something for an ownership marker as soon as possible – it would be a little more expensive in terms of actions, but might be easier than the expensive trip to the middle ring.

I also played El Grande with the King & Villain expansion. Back in the late 90s, I used to use this expansion much more often, but since then I’ve played mainly “straight” El Grande. On the one hand, the customized player decks don’t seem quite as elegant as the basic game, and you can really hose yourself by picking a bad mix of cards (usually, this means clumping your choices at one end or the other of the number spectrum, not picking enough variety). On the other hand, this expansion eliminates one element of basic El Grande that can seem awkward: the 1-13 play. Since going first on the round before a scoring round is rather powerful, you find El Grande develops into a rhythm where people try to player their “1” cabellero card one round followed by the 13 to go first and lock up the King. In King & Villain, going first before the scoring round is far less of a big deal, because the 160 card (move the King one space) is always out there, ready to undo the King’s advantage. This means the game seems to have a slightly smoother texture, without the emphasis of setting up to go first before the scoring round. This can make the game much more interesting. It gives a bit of these gains back because the single combined caballero/event card play isn’t quite as interesting as the “bidding” for event cards, though. But all in all a very nice expansion. The deck construction aspect does require some skill with the game, though. If playing with relative El Grande newbies, or the first time you play with this expansion, I’d recommend throwing out all the cards not divisible by 10, and then telling people they basically have to take the 10, 160, and 180. I actually have a complete set of all the cards published for this format in my box, including some German-text cards that were only published in the Player’s Edition and the promos, but some of those cards get really, really weird.

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Trendy, Tongiaki, El Grande, Samurai

It seems odd to me that wargames have so dominated my gaming of late; maybe it’s just that last year’s eurogames were modestly disappointing, while the new wave from Nürnburg is just starting to arrive. Anyway, Kim & I finally got a solid afternoon of eurogaming in.

Trendy is a game I haven’t played in ages, but I remember as being pretty weak, especially given it’s a Knizia. But it’s short, so I gave it a try again … I wasn’t wrong. Now, it’s far from hideous and it does work, but it’s sort of Modern Art without the auctions. With a pitch like that for a game Spiel Spass did publish, I’d hate to see the rejects. Now, it’s not going to make it to Chris’ banned list just because it is so short and simple, but it’s no For Sale, that’s for sure.

Tongiaki is the new Schmidt Spiele/Überplay title that just hit stores a couple days ago. It’s by Thomas Rauscher, his first game in the strategy game area that I’m aware of. My first instinct is to say that it reminds me vaguely of Carcassone, but I think that’s not actually true. Each player plays a tribe of native Polynesians, setting sale on dangerous voyages to distant islands. You can direct the expansion of the board through the directions in which you set out, but there really isn’t much choice in the tile play. Where the game is, is in the direction of your colonization efforts. As explorers reach each island, they are placed on beaches; when those beaches fill up, the explorers are forced to move on, either on previously-charted routes to existing islands, or into the unknown. Trips into the unknown can usually only be successful when multiple players work together; just how many is dictated by the route turned over. You can find a fuller review here.

While the game isn’t mind-blowing, I rather liked it. It’s got interesting choices – you have to decide where and how much to explore. It’s nicely strategic; getting your boats from where they are to where you want them is often a rather involved process. It’s got a nice element of risk – it’s good to explore the unknown, but if you don’t bring people along the boats can be lost – but bringing people along shares the wealth. Then again, if you set it up right you can hose other people by sending their boats off on doomed expeditions. All good fun; in the end, it falls comfortably into the compete-for-areas genre but it’s unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a standard compete-for-areas games, so that scores lots of points with me. And though it does have a potential analysis paralysis problem in the wrong hands, assuming you can get around that it comes in at a quite sensible playing time, around 45 minutes. All in all, I thought it was a very solid game, and one I’ll be happy to play some more.

Next up was El Grande. This has been coming out more in recent weeks, and I’d just like to point out once again what an amazing game this is. But more on this later.

Last game of the afternoon for Kim & I was Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, a game which I actually haven’t played in quite some time. I remember when it first came out, it was perceived as being the last entry in a “tile laying” trilogy along with Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates. At the time, it was the general consensus (with which I concurred) that it was the weakest of the three. While that may be true, I’m not sure I’d say it unequivocally. It’s a very simple game – the simplest of the three – yet it has a lot of depth. It’s a very attractive game. And it has stood the test of time very well; taking it off the shelf again today, I was no less impressed with Samurai than I was when it first came out.

Which worries me a little at some level. While others are agog with Puerto Rico, or Age of Steam, or Carcassone, for me it seems like eurogaming is now past it’s prime, at least for the serious gamer. From Modern Art through Taj Mahal and Aladdin’s Dragons, the mid-to-late 90s were a veritable flood of incredible games. While the quantity of releases was substantial, it wasn’t as much as it is today, and yet whenever I break out El Grande or Ra or Union Pacific or Modern Art or Settlers I am always impressed by the coherence, the streamlined and sleek designs that seem to me to have great elegance. While some of the recent stuff is quite good, it always seems much more disposable to me.

Now, as Mike Siggins once said about a previous Nürnburg, what we may have here is just a problem of timing. These things go in cycles, and while the last really great year for eurogames was 2000, the next one could be just right around the corner. The German economy is having problems these days; maybe that’s it. Who knows. But for me anyway, despite a solid flow of decent enough games, it still seems like the lean years are becoming a bit extended.

Game Night

We started with 4 tonight, and unsure when anyone else would arrive, we went with some filler – For Sale in fact, the king of auction game filler. I hadn’t the heart to tell everyone that we’ve actually been playing this game incorrectly all these years, in that instead of having to top the previous bid to stay in, you have only to match it poker-style. I like our incorrect play method better, it gets to the point faster. Nobody does the lighter stuff better than Steffan Dorra, although I rarely have much desire to play the games twice in a row, even For Sale of which I think quite highly.

When we still had four after For Sale, we went with another light game, Sticheln. This game seems as if it was designed simply to be the opposite of standard trick-taking games, so you never have to follow suit, and everything is trump except the led suit, etc. Kind of a neat game, although it degrades in my opinion with more than 4 players, since it is such an immense advantage to play close to last. With 6 players, only players 5 and 6 can realistically attempt to actually take the trick, other players are just asking to be slaughtered with high-point cards. This is a game I liked a lot for a few plays, but as I’ve played more and worked out the patterns of the game I’ve become noncommittal. I find the game to be decent with 4, but less appealing with more, and in the end it’s a long game if you play it out and I’d rather spend the time on something more substantial. Interestingly, I find it similar in feel to Flaschenteufel/The Bottle Imp, even though they are not that similar in mechanism – but I find Flaschenteufel to be much more interesting. Anyway, when 2 more people showed up, we played one hand with 6 players and then moved on.

With yet two more new arrivals, we then split up into two games – the obligatory Tichu game and Attika. I played Attika. I won this time, for the first time since my very first game, but it was, I admit, somewhat unsatisfying – at least two other players could have and should have blocked me, but just didn’t realize I had a winning play (I had been hemmed in pretty badly from early on and had fewer buildings on the board than anyone else – but I was able to make a 4-hex run with 4 streets and an amphora). Given I have been somewhat critical of the game in the past, you may be surprised to see me still playing it, but I’m still willing to give it a go when others who haven’t played it want to play. But the end is near … soon, I think, I’ll be well and truly done.

Lastly was the all-time great El Grande. I don’t play it as much as I used to, partly because it’s old and there is always a bias towards the new stuff, and partly because most of my eurogaming buddies seem to have a preference for lighter games these days. But wow, this is an amazing game. You know, there have been plenty of this “compete for areas” style games made – from Europe 1945-2015 (or whatever) to Mammoth Hunters to Liberte to San Marco, and quite frankly I don’t think any of them hold a candle to El Grande. As a game, it is remarkable for being so interesting, so hugely variable, and yet so well-balanced and so straightforward, really no more complex than Settlers. It is a game that gets huge mileage out of just a few bits, and this is why it tops my list of great games. After all these years, the basic game is so good I have rarely used the expansions – even though they are excellent in and of themselves.