Toledo

Toledo is Martin Wallace’s latest game from Kosmos/Mayfair, and before I played, it was variously described to me as unlike other Martin Wallace games, or what you get when you give Martin Wallace a professional developer. I’m not generally a fan of his games, but a couple friends who are generally much pickier – and who like Wallace games less than I do – liked it, so it came out for a spin.

Toledo is well-put together and a decent game. It’s light but fun. The two-phase game of setting up shops and then collecting materials and manufacturing swords is clever and ensures variety of play (the first phase is admittedly quite short). It feels more solid than a game from Warfrog and is certainly more attractive. But I think I finally figured out at least one big reason why Wallace has such a hard time selling me on his games; I figured this out because by chance I ended up playing Modern Art and Toledo back-to-back.

Themed games like this are about friendly competition, but if that’s all we wanted we’d be playing Go or Bridge. Games are also about entertainment and story-telling, and as such require many of the same elements that other entertainment media require. One important thing is good management of tension, or pacing. We wouldn’t be entertained by a James Bond flick where Bond whacks the henchman in the first 15 minutes, finishes off the big bad gun by the half hour mark, and then spends the remaining 90 minutes rolling up the lower levels of the criminal organization du jour. Or a romantic comedy where the couple gets married in half an hour and spends the rest of the film doing housework.

But this is essentially what Toledo asks us to watch. We’re competing to build swords out of steel and pretty them up with some gems. There are a very small number of extremely high-valued swords that use a decent amount of steel and gems. Then there are a bunch of low-valued swords that use less of each (or are not enhanced with gems at all). The game is a mad scramble to build the couple big-point weapons right away, and then the rest of the game is spent building low-quality swords to fill out a few points. In our games, the players scored 75% or more of their points in the first half of the game.

This is not a reasonable way to manage tension. You want the stakes to increase as the game progresses for a ton of good dramatic and game-play reasons. I can see no good reason to justify stakes getting lower and lower as the game goes on. And yet, this is what many Martin Wallace games do. In Tinner’s Trail, the big points are available on turn 1, not turn 4. In Age of Steam, the high-stakes decisions are made in the first few turns, not at the end where all reason says that they should be. Brass allows the tension to drain out of the game as late-game decisions become less and less relevant.

Compared to the skillfully-managed and escalating tension and pace of a game like Modern Art, the mid-game fall-off in Toledo seems particularly egregious. I actually kinda liked the systems of Toledo. I want to like the game. I even do, sort of. But I can’t help but imagine a so much better game which is basically the same, but where the players start off as apprentices building simpler, lower-scoring swords and work their way up to the big points as they gain skill and experience, instead of doing their masterwork first and then inexplicably settling down to crank out schlock.

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Tempus, Fury of Dracula

Tempus: For me personally, Martin Wallace’s games seem to fall into two categories: games that basically work, and games that don’t. Interestingly, I actually think that some of the games that don’t represent some of his best work, in that the interesting and unusual gameplay overcomes the obvious problems: Age of Steam would be a prime example, as would Der Weisse Lotus and Empires of the Ancient World. On the other hand, his games that seem more polished, from a systems perspective, have usually completely failed to engage me: La Strada for example is a perfectly well-executed, but rather boring, game.

Tempus falls into the latter camp. It works, there is no equivalent of the dysfunctional draft in Liberté or the weird endgame of Age of Steam or the unbalanced scoring in Empires of the Ancient World or the defective endgame of Tyros. Everything is in order here; there are no pointy edges to Tempus, no game systems that are seriously out-of-kilter, and all that’s good.

But on the other hand, there is also an almost complete lack of any tension, any interesting decisions, or any theme to drive the game. You push pieces around, not as much of what you’re doing matters as you might expect, and at the end of the game you score. The game has action cards, which usually drive a game’s theme, but here they are totally banal, with each game action having a matching set of action cards which basically give you a minor +1 enhancement – they could be deleted and it would cost the game almost nothing. They contain no surprises, no theme, no excitement, no impetus to plan or organize. Plus, of course, this is fundamentally a multi-player king-of-the-hill wargame, and as I’ve ranted time and time again, it really hasn’t successfully solved the problems inherent in the genre (more). Because all players get a fixed number of actions, the “compound interest” thing isn’t too bad, but since the only scoring you do is at the end, everyone has the opportunity to pick the winner on the last turn.

Before that last turn, though, the game is rather damped, with little real skill being applicable to the proceedings, so that even though the pace tends to be glacial (not because the game is long, but because so little is happening at any one time) the outcome will usually be decided by a) who got the better setup area, b) who people choose to attack, and c) the usual egregious last-turn free-for-all. It makes me cast my mind back to Nexus Ops. Nexus Ops wasn’t a great game, but the nicely-done mission and event cards gave the game some drive, some focus, and some momentum. Tempus does play with less downtime than Nexus Ops, but on the other hand, since so much of what you do in Tempus is either obvious or doesn’t really matter that much, it’s a legitimate question as to whether that’s an advantage.

Recall I did say that Tempus basically works, so that’s something. That would have been enough for me 10 years ago, I suppose. Today, though, this joins Il Principe as a “blender” game: some game bits were thrown together in a perfunctory manner and pureed. What you end up with is a flavorless paste. It’ll work if it’s all you have, but it’s not satisfying.

Now, I know they’re fundamentally different games, but the stark contrast between the imaginative and flavorful Fury of Dracula and the generic and boring Tempus was impressive. Both games are fairly incremental (each turn is a comparatively small chunk of activity) and have a fair amount of process (once you’ve made some tactical choice, you have to go through a few steps to actually do it), but Fury of Dracula has, from a gameplay standpoint, two major advantages.

Firstly, the real choices you make in Fury of Dracula are more frequent, pay off quickly, and matter a lot more. Deciding where to run and how to use the limited special actions (Wolf Form, Hide, Feed) for Dracula, and how to manage your dragnet for the Hunters, really drives the development of the game, something that is entirely absent from Tempus. In Fury, the game goes through interesting and distinct phases (locate, concentrate, isolate, eliminate) based on the choices of all the players, while Tempus just wanders around a bit, and then you find out who won.

Secondly, like Tempus, Fury of Dracula has action cards. Unlike Tempus, Fury of Dracula’s action cards are interesting. Instead of just being incidental modifiers to things you’re already doing anyway, Fury’s powerful cards open up new options, new directions, and fundamentally alter the flow of the game in interesting ways; but the power level of the cards seems consistent enough, and the players retain sufficient options and control, that it doesn’t feel arbitrary.

I rather liked Fury of Dracula. It’s not an every-week kind of a game, or even an every-month game, but it is a lot of fun in a lot of the same ways that Lord of the Rings + Suaron is, with reversed roles (the cooperative good guys are the hunters, the single bad guy is the hunted). It’s clearly a game with a fair amount of luck, which Dracula has to cope with moreso than the Hunters – random rumors of his presence spreading at the wrong time can clearly spell doom for him – but the luck gives the game flavor and variety and interest, and is far from overbearing.

I’ll end with just one tip for Dracula, since reports that have reached me have been of Dracula having a hard time in this game. Look, I know the games has Fury next to your name in the title. I know you’ve got cool combat cards you’re dying to try out. I know that several of the hunters sound like wusses (how old is Van Helsing anyway?). But you should never, ever voluntarily engage them in combat personally. Even at night. Even if one looks isolated and vulnerable. Remember, for the hunters, nailing down your position is most of the battle. Slowing down even for a moment to fight them is the sort of thing that can come back to haunt you. Also remember, combat is just a competitive d6 roll, so no matter how cool your combat cards sound, you can still go down to bad dice. Now, a lot can happen in a game of Fury of Dracula, so I won’t dispute that in the right set of circumstances, you might go for it. But I think you’d want to really, really know what you’re doing and be absolutely convinced it’s right. Instead, just send one of your minions after them.

Game Night

We started out with what has to be the closest game of Can’t Stop in recent memory. All 3 players closed two columns, and Kim ended up winning on 2, 5, 12. This game has served us well as an opener when we have 3 – the fourth person to arrive just jumps into the game wherever we are, which is a handicap to be sure but not as critical as you might think. Last week, Chris won after jumping in on the second turn.

Way out West is one of the two games (with Empires of the Ancient World) which has kicked off Martin Wallace’s recent ascendance. This is definitely a game I enjoyed the first couple times – enough to buy a copy – but which has worn out its welcome surprisingly quickly after that. The shootouts are just too powerful, it’s too hard to defend your very valuable holdings from a determined opponent I think. There are also serious ergonomic issues with the game (a scoring chart printed on the board, an annotated turn track, some income indicators – all would have been immensely helpful). Anyway, far from a bad game, one I’ll play again, but the enthusiasm has waned a bit after the initial quite positive response.

Edel Stein & Reich is the Basari remake of course, and I’m a big fan of Basari so it stands to reason I’d like ES&R, especially with its greater flexibility in terms of numbers of players. I’ve played it almost exclusively with 5, and think it works quite well. Some players complained about the number of 3-way matchups, which seem to happen more often in ES&R than in Basari, but I would argue that they are less damaging. I like the event cards too, they add a nice edge to the game. Anyway, probably not a game with the same elegance as Basari, but still very good I think.