Euro Roundup

Die Weinhandler: If you remember, the first time I played this I had reasonably good things to say about it. I’ve played a couple times since, and it’s been taking a few body blows. This is, admittedly, not a huge shock – these small-box games rarely have that much staying power. I think the frustration with Die Weinhandler centers on the initial deal. Your initial purchasing power is random, and the difference between a rich hand and a poor hand is huge. Getting a strong deal, then being able to acquire the first lot of wine if it’s rich, can allow you to coast the rest of the way out, while a poor initial deal can put you in a hole it’s hard to get out of. This wouldn’t necessarily be too bad in a shorter game, but this is a 45 minute game or so, and I think ultimately the length sinks it. Anyway, not bad, a good try, clever to play a couple times, but a far cry from Money!, to which it is quite similar in feel.

Fairy Tale: This is another game getting some repeat play. Despite enjoying my first play, the second play (this time with 4 players) fell surprisingly flat. Part of this was certainly that we didn’t use any of the “advanced” cards, which do add to the game significantly in my opinion. But part of it too was that this time I just wondered where the game was. After the first round or two, you just pick the card that scores you points, or pick a card that you must deny to your neighbor. This time it just felt like all the choices were obvious. Now, this sort of game can be fun or not based on how the cards come out, so given I enjoyed it the first time I won’t judge it too harshly, and would like to play again. But it’s gone off my “buy” list.

Einfach Genial: This has been getting a ton of play since I first brought it to my game groups a few months back. It’s got that combination of elegance and subtlety – just the right touch of randomness so it can be played as a fun game, yet with enough depth to challenge you – that Knizia is the master of. I haven’t yet played the 4-player partnership version, which I will do next time we have 4 because I have become a little unsatisfied with the straight 4-player version. It seems a bit chaotic, a bit more prone to the luck of the draw as regions of colors will close off more rapidly, and with occasional problematic kingmaking. But Einfach is a brilliant 3-player game, and I hope the solution to the 4-player dilemma is the partnership version. I see this has just been released “in English” as Ingenious, and it remains a top pick from 2004.

Colossal Arena: Speaking of my top picks from 2004, it is inevitable when making these things that something will slip through the cracks. In my case, there were three games worthy of mention that were inexplicably omitted: this, Tongiaki, and Wings of War. Anyway. This time I wanted to check out the new creatures, so we used the Daimon (gotta get that funky spelling) and Seraphim. I had heard some complaints that the new creatures were unbalanced, but they didn’t seem too bad on inspection. In our game, the Seraphim (whose power is the coolest of the new ones) was whacked right off, and the backer of the Daimon was never able to use his power because there were never any open bet slots, which does of course seem the usual course of events. Interesting that all the other creatures’ powers will always give you something, at least after the first round, but the Daimon frequently won’t. It may be a while before he comes out again. On balance, the special powers largely give the game flavor and interest, along with a little bit more depth and a little more chaos at the same time, so since none of the new ones seem too bad, more is better as far as I’m concerned.

Mall World: I’ve written about Mall World a couple times, and played a few more beyond this. It’s been holding its own well over repeated play. It has that elusive property of revealing interesting little tidbits with each new play. The bit with the most subtlety is the auction process, in choosing which cards to sell – you can play cards you want played and try to get other people to do your work for you, you can play cards you think other people will bid for to make money, or you can play conservatively, trying to make money offering cards that can’t hurt you. The effort to score your special orders is a game-long process of taking small opportunities one at a time as they are offered, and managing the risks of potentially dangerous auctions. And of course there is the Union Pacific-esque tension between developing areas and actually scoring. All good stuff. I think the key thing to bear in mind when playing this game, though, is that while there are lots of little things you can do to improve your chances, Mall World has a hefty chunk of just trying to manage risk and opportunity – so you can do all the right things and still do poorly because someone developed the mall in an unexpected way, or the last card you needed to cap your multiple-special-order scoring simply never became available. It’s a clever and challenging game, but it can also be a chaotic one. I like games like this (as evidenced by my tremendous fondness for Republic of Rome), but some may find it frustrating.

Himalaya, Mall World, Fairy Tale, Keythedral

Fairy Tale: I had been somewhat intrigued by this game since I heard about its “booster draft” format. Basically, the idea is you play cards in different suits with different icons. Cards can provide straight points, or points if you get other suits/icons/cards in various combinations. Some cards also allow or force you to “close” (deactivate) cards belonging to you or other players bearing certain icons, or “open” (reactivate) previously closed cards. You are dealt a hand of 5 cards, then pick one to keep and pass the rest around, until everyone has selected 5, then you play three. You play 3 or 4 hands (I forget exactly).

I thought Fairy Tale was pretty clever and I enjoyed it. The cards are nicely illustrated, and there is a bit of strategy, even though it’s still fairly light. It’s a little pricey at over $20, but not too bad. I don’t think that there is really enough control or depth to keep me interested long-term, but it is short, and I’m always looking for good short games. I’ll probably pick up a copy.

Himalaya: This is I gather a professional publishing of a DIY game, Merchants of Empire (which I had never played), done this time by Tilsit, a company known primarily around here for its appalling train wrecks like Vox Populi. Himalaya is basically a pick-up-and-deliver style game, but with the twist that you have to pre-program things well in advance. Goods and contracts appear randomly, and you have to decide where to go and when to try to sell, bearing in mind your opponents may beat you there. You can get temples, advisors, or money for delivering goods. The victory conditions are then vaguely Knizia-esque, with three layers: if you’re last in temples or advisors, you can’t win. Of the players still left, most money wins.

Again, I rather liked Himalaya. It’s somewhat random and a bit control-light, but the decisions are interesting and there is very little down-time due to the simultaneous planning. Deciding whether to cash out for influence or money is always tough. It’s a simple game, not terribly deep – usually what you want to do is pretty obvious, you just need to worry about other players – but it works out OK because it’s short and the process is interesting. It’s also got significant randomness, but again, this seemed to be well-balanced against the game’s modest length.

It’s another in the “disposable” category of games, unlikely to ever make it to 10 plays for me anyway, but clever and rather good for that class. Not quite a buy I don’t think (maybe if I could get it for $20-ish), but one I’d be happy to play again.

Mall World: This game is still holding up quite well for me, and is still tough on first-time players. There is always one rule you’re going to miss, forget, or otherwise screw up, and it’ll hose you. But I still quite like it. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s best not to get hugely wound up about this one because there is a fair amount of chaos. But there is a lot of skill too, and for me it still sucks me in despite the head-banging use of colors. It’s up to about 5 plays now, and definitely a keeper.

Keythedral: This is about my 3rd or 4th play on Keythedral, and it’s still doing pretty well. It strikes me as significantly the best of the “Key” games, the least convoluted and most interesting, and of the most appropriate length. But … I found we had been playing it wrong. I had played before that the Laws on offer were face up, when they should be face down. I think I might like my way better. There is major variance in the strengths of the laws, from stuff that hugely helps you (Work Order) to ones that minorly inconvenience one other player (Price Increase). This would be a bit frustrating in a game that really makes you think in the worker allocation phase, but when the laws were face up, there was some time pressure to get the really good ones, as players would be willing to end their turns much earlier than they would otherwise to get them. On the other hand, if they’re face-up, everyone knows what’s out there all the time, which might bog the game down. For me, though, the hefty chunk of randomness added by giving the laws out randomly seemed a bit out of line with the depth of the rest of the game. But overall, still a solid game.

Last Gaming of 2004

Igloo Pop: This game has the distinction of having just about the most bizarre backstory ever. The box says it’s for ages 7+, but I don’t see why this couldn’t go as young as 5. Anyway. As a fairly serious gamer who likes eurogames, and who has many friends with young children, I am often asked to play kids games – even when no kids are present. Most kids’ games don’t work for adult groups. But every so often you get one which does, and I have to say the Igloo Pop was 15 minutes of solid amusement – and there is even a game in there that engaged me for a time, as it’s something of a probabilities game (you really can’t tell most of the time how many beads are in an igloo, so you can take either a low-risk guess, one of 3 numbers, or a high-risk, high-payoff single number guess). Would I ever suggest playing Igloo Pop again myself? Very unlikely. But if we were going to play one of these kids’ games, this would be my choice.

PitchCar Mini: I got this on something of a lark. I’m a big fan of Carabande/PitchCar, but I really didn’t know if the smaller track would work. Wouldn’t the lighter car be more prone to going flying? Would the effects of unevenness and joins that weren’t quite clean in the track be more pronounced? As it turns out, I actually felt that PitchCar Mini had a better feel than regular Carabande. We had no problem at all with the track, which was very smooth and played cleanly. And it takes up a lot less space. I liked it a lot. And I’m wondering if maybe I should replace my Carabande with a PitchCar, if the larger set is of similarly high quality.

Shadow of the Emperor: I have played this twice recently, once with 3 and once with 4. First time was with 3, and I feel the 3-player game doesn’t quite work – too much space, and the elections for Emperor are pointless – the uninvolved third party just takes a VP and chooses which of the two competitors should be Emperor. I didn’t know if the game would be good, but it certainly seemed like it would be a lot better with 4. And I think it was.

Shadow sort of feels like a cross between El Grande and Kremlin. Each faction has nobles that are vying to become sovereigns of 7 different provinces. These provinces all convey special powers of some kind. These sovereigns then elect an Emperor, who gets some points and the ability to break ties in sovereign competitions. The neat thing is that Nobles age, and have a basic life expectancy of four turns (often shortened by the activities of one’s opponents) – so you seem to get waves of nobles coming and going. Player will put out a maximum effort to prevent their nobles from aging and to get them into positions of power, after which there will be a big die-back.

I liked Shadow of the Emperor a lot with 4 players; not so much with 3. It’s not a deep game on the level of Taj Mahal, but it’s an interesting game that gets a bit out of not too many rules, and the theme is very rich. It might be a touch long for what it delivers, but I’m looking forward to trying it again.

Oltremare: If you remember from last time, I was pretty nonplussed by Oltremare. Well, it turns out we had one rule wrong that made a major difference: when you move your ship, you lose your existing special power chip, whether you get a new one or not. This is a big deal, because one of the chips (cheap cards) is vastly more powerful than the rest, so you could pick one up and keep it for the rest of the game by just driving to empty spots, which is not legal. Getting this right solved the obvious apparent major balance problem in the game.

I was almost thinking maybe I should pick one up, if I could get it for $20 or something. But towards the end of the game, another significant imbalance was becoming fairly obvious: the low-numbered commodity cards (spices, fabrics) appear rather underpowered. The payoff really isn’t significantly more than the much higher-quantity goods (compare to Civilization or Bohnanza, where a good that is half as common pay off at over twice the rate), and the rare goods all have a set of icons which lets you load only one or two goods on the next turn. Ouch. Meanwhile playing in Grain or Lumber gets you about the same cash per card but vastly more flexibility (and, in one of the more bizarre aspects of the game, you can play a single 20-frequency grain to get a buck, while a single 8-frequency Spices gets you absolutely nothing!). This seems a significant problem.

And there still really isn’t enough interesting trading going on.

Oltremare has some neat stuff, and it’s not actually broken like I initially thought it might be. But it’s definitely not quite there, either. It might work its way closer to the top of the play list if I ever finish playing out all the Bohnanza expansions.

Mall World: This was my third play of Mall World, and I like it. It’s like a handful of other games in which I think that while good play matters a lot, overall control is actually less than it appears, and I think it’s important to realize this so you don’t get frustrated or locked up. But there is a lot of neat stuff in there, the play is quite interesting, and it’s not too long. It’ll be interesting to see if it can make it to 10 games. Generally, I’ve enjoyed the game a lot more than most of the people I’ve played with.

Tanz der Hornochsen: This is the board game remake of the 6 Nimmt card game. It’s essentially just like the card game, but now different piles have different characteristics – some will give you points just for playing to them, some will force all players to play two cards (chits) at a time, and some will reverse all scoring – taking away points – as long as they are active. While all that stuff is neat for flavor, on balance I don’t think it added anything fundamentally interesting to the card game and may in fact have taken away some control (!). While I really don’t think this was a terribly interesting game, on the other hand it’s good schadenfreude – you get to watch other people frequently get reamed with big points, and in some sense it’s just a game of avoiding catastrophe, which can be amusing. But the original card game delivers the same thing with less playing time, less overhead, and a lower price.

Leapfrog: With time running low in the countdown to midnight, we played this kids’ game. This is a simple race game, a cousin perhaps to Formula Motor Racing. You’ve got chits 1-6, and each round you play one. If you play higher than the guy in front of you, you get to move ahead (possibly several times). The gimmick is that you can only move forwards or backwards a number of positions equal to the number you played … so if you play a one, you will almost certainly fall back – but only one space, and the people behind you will then be blocked from advancing past you. Without this rule, there would be no game at all … but it also turns it into a very chaotic guessing game which is basically random. Even though it was pretty short, it wasn’t short enough for me and I won’t play it again. The really good 15-minute game is elusive, but there are always good short card games. Kim did like the colorful frogs at least!

Mall World, Razzia!, Weinhandler

If you remember, last time I played Mall World I was somewhat uncertain. Stuff in there intrigued me, but we had a lot of trouble with the rules, and the balance seemed slightly off with 5. Having played it a second time now with 4, I’m much happier with the game.

The rules were easier to explain now that I’d played once, and I was able to do so pretty quickly. Once we got going, the game played smoothly. This made a huge difference.

Mall World can feel a bit chaotic, mainly due to the way the contract cards come out. Sometimes you get good ones, sometimes you’re facing down lousy ones. The good thing is that you always feel like you can make progress. You can be working towards your special order (which requires a lot of work), or doing your best to develop the contracts you have. So it feels constructive, and even if you are behind, you feel like you’re doing stuff and if you can get a big late-game special-order payout, you can feel like you’re still in it. All good stuff. And like Andrea Meyer’s other games, I guarantee you that you have nothing quite like this in your collection, even though it shares some mechanics with other games like Union Pacific, Traumfabrik, and Show Manager.

The first play is the toughest. The learning curve was described by one of my fellow-players as being more like a “learning cliff”. In order to get you past that first game, I will try to offer some practical advice. First, you may just have to pull out the rules and the set and play a round solitaire to get the feel for the game (perhaps an enterprising Geek could upload a blow-by-blow session report to BGG). Because it’s not highly intuitive like a Saint Petersburg or Ticket to Ride, and is so unique, it’s a bit harder to just sit down cold and start playing. Secondly, you’re going to have to crack down on any “rules interrupters” you have in your group (you know, the guys who break into your rules explanations trying to get you to explain things in the order they want to hear them for whatever reason). This is a game that, while not difficult, can be tough to explain and these people are going to do a lot more harm than usual.

I don’t know if Mall World will gain classic status, but like the better smaller-press games, it’s clever, it works, and it gives you something rather different, something that you just aren’t likely to get from the bigger brands.

Razzia! is, of course, Ra – a game that is amongst my favorites. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed Razzia!, except for the lack of an (easily-provided) token to indicate who is auctioning and therefore where the turn order is. Sure, you lose a little depth compared to the original due to the lack of disasters and the smaller card set, and it’s slightly less well-scaled to different numbers of players (due to the constant number of Razzia! cards required to end the round, as opposed to the variable number of Ra tiles). On the other hand, it also delivers a more straightforward game; slightly more functional graphics – the indicator that tells you which cards to discard between rounds is very helpful for new players, although neither the graphics overall nor the theme are as appealing or as effective as in Ra; and a non-trivially shorter playing time. If you’ve got the time and energy, you probably want to play Ra by preference, but when you want something a touch shorter, lighter, or more accessible, or if you want something you can easily carry around, Razzia! scores. It certainly won’t supplant or replace Ra, but I’m happy to have both.

Weinhandler is the new game from the designers who brought us Santiago, a clever game that for me anyway was fun but didn’t have staying power. It’s a bidding/set collection game, in which you are swapping bottles of wine in several suits to try to build up like-colored sets. The bidding has been compared to Money!, which I think is slightly misleading because while the view from 10,000 feet might be similar, it actually plays very differently. If you recall, in Money! the high bidder gets to choose any available set of cards (either in the pool, or in front of another player), which he swaps with. In Weinhandler, you have no choice – you must take the pool if you are the high bidder, second place gets the first player’s bids, and so on down the line. So, if you like the wine another player is offering, to get it your bid has to come in directly under it – sometimes tricky. Also, because you only have to “stay in” when bidding – you don’t have to overbid – there is a certain trickiness – you can duck, duck, duck, until everyone has passed, and then splurge to win.

I like Weinhandler. It’s clever, it’s different, it’s pretty simple yet reasonably challenging, and it plays quickly. I was nervous at first that the points for scoring bottles in the correct order would overwhelm the points on the bottles themselves, but that appears not to be the case. It’s not quite as tight as a Knizia, but at the price that’s OK. This one will come out again.

Bay Area Games Day XXXVI

Mall World is the new game from Rio Grande, Bewitched-Spiele, and Andrea Meyer. Two of Meyer’s previous recent designs are the rather clever ad acta and Schwartzarbeit. I’d been pretty happy with those two, and they are very unique, so Mall World was a definite pickup.

After one play, I’m not quite sure about it. It definitely has a horrid rulebook, something Rio Grande seems to be having trouble with of late. The problem here is one of terminology; it seems that all the game terms were selected in order to be confusing. And unlike her previous games, the theme here is a bit tortured, which always makes the game harder to learn.

All that said, there are elements of Mall World which are actually quite interesting. The idea is that you are developing a Mall. The Mall can have four types of shops, Food (Green), Hobby (Red), Sports (Blue), and Clothing (Purple). These can be further customized by targeting children (Blue), teenagers (Red), Men (Purple), or Women (Green). The players acquire orders, which can pay off when shops of the various types get placed in the Mall in the proper configurations. There are three tiers: the first pay off for just having non-customized shops adjacent to each other in various configurations. The second type pay off for just having a particular customized shop anywhere. The third tier (the special orders, for which each player has one) pay off for having two particular types of customized shops adjacent to each other. In all cases, you multiply the payoffs by the number of times they appear.

As in Union Pacific, each turn the player has to choose between playing an order (which will score) and expanding the Mall. Expanding the Mall is done by auctioning or paying for various development cards, which allow specific configurations of shops to be created. The auctions are quite unusual, and how they go depend on how many cards you play – the more you play, the more money you will received, but the less control you have over the development of the Mall. If you play just one, you use it yourself, but have to pay the bank (which is redistributed at the end of each turn as in Traumfabrik). Rounds end when a certain number of payoff cards have been played, at which point those cards pay off.

What I liked: I liked the auctions for developing the Mall; the choices there are quite interesting, and I suspect 90% of the game is in there. I liked that the game isn’t too long; again, your analysis paralysis folks can really torpedo the playing time (as in ad acta), but in general it shouldn’t be too bad. At least with 5, it was a rather chaotic game, so people should be encouraged to move along – but there are players who are going to look at the board, try to analyze all the options, and get hopelessly locked up. But inherently it’s not a long game.

I think maybe the big potential issue with Mall World is one of stability. Even more so than in Fifth Avenue, I think it’s easy to misapprehend the economics of the game. In our game, it was the case that folks always wanted to be the last to play order cards, so it took a while to get them down, and the game felt a bit uneven and slightly protracted as a result. Just like Fifth Avenue, it may just be a game you’ve got to play twice.

We played with 5 players, which felt a bit chaotic to me; I’m not sure this is the optimal number. I never felt like I had much choice on the acquisition of orders, I would just pick up the one fairly obvious one, and I only acquired one or two more orders than I could play, which is why I say that I think the bulk of the game is in the auctions and tile laying.

The bottom line on this one was that there was definitely stuff in there that intrigued me, but another playing will be required (preferably with 4) to see if it really works.

Senator is the new game in Fantasy Flight’s Silver Line game line. This is not exactly a bastion of quality gamer’s games, so on balance Senator was a pleasant surprise. It’s basically a bidding game; you bid to acquire political “agendas” which then give you one-shot special powers, and can be later turned in to victory points if you can win a Consulship, assuming you can avoid having other players foist off conflicting agendas on you (war and trade, for example).

This is a nice, short, nasty little game. Between the assassins wiping out your bidding cards and other players torpedoing your agendas, it is actually surprisingly hard to get anything done (just like the real thing, I imagine). Between the special powers of the agendas and the special rules that apply randomly to each turn (Gladiatorial games limit influence expenditures as everyone is distracted; Spartacus makes Rebellion agendas easier; the Social Wars mean you lose your influence when you bid, whether you win or not; and so on), the auctions are always different and there is stuff to consider. The clincher is that it’s short; our game (4-player) weighed in at about 40 minutes, which was just right. It’s not likely to become an enduring classic, but I liked it, and will definitely play again. The only criticism is that the components may have had the usability internationalized out of them; the agendas’ special powers (of which there are about 6) are not indicated on the counters in any way and no reference is provided, so a cheat sheet will need to be created I think.

I also played some more Reef Encounter. For my first few games of this, I played the game much like I would Tigris & Euphrates – pretty much a short-term optimization game, doing the best I can do to improve my position this turn and for the near future, without worrying too much about long-term strategy.

This time, I tried to be clever. I tried to set myself up for one massive score, an 8-9 sized reef with a value pegged at 5, by slowly accumulating grey coral in front of my screen and occasionally locking it in on a few tiles for the whole game, then dropping a big reef all at once at the end. Meanwhile, I’m rapidly going through three other small reefs to put time pressure on the other players.

It didn’t work out so well. The big score just couldn’t compensate for the paltry points I got on my other reefs, and I ended up in last. So I don’t think I’ll try that again; I think you need to make sure most of the polyp tiles you score are worth something.

The game is still going strong; I enjoy it, it seems about the right length, there is significant subtlety, and it’s got interesting management and tactical decision. It’s a bit short on interactivity, but so are many classic games. I’ve played twice with 3 and twice with 4, and while some have said 3 is preferable, I find it good at both numbers. I’m still not sure whether it fall into the “very good” or “great” categories, but I like it quite a bit.