Game Night

This is my second playing of Power Grid with 6 players, and my opinion of the 6-player version of the game took a bit of a hit. There are two factors: first off, the playing time is definitely increased with 6, to about 2.5 hours. The first time I played with 6, when Power Grid was new, 2.5 hours was not that big a deal – but now, having played a number of times, it seemed to drag a bit. The 1:50 that the 4-player game seems to come in at is much more reasonable.

However, this is not the critical problem. The problem seems to be that with the lower victory conditions for connected cities, there is really only one viable strategy – buy one of the 2-valued plant out of the gate, make sure your second plant can power 4 cities (preferably, snag the first such plant that becomes available, even if you don’t need it and could be building useful connections instead), and buy a total of only 4 plants. It seems that the middle-game, the process of cycling through the mid-valued plants, has simply been eliminated and the game lost a lot of depth. Additionally, it seemed like the board (we were using the US board) was far too tight for 6 players – the cities would be completely filled up pretty quickly after the phase changes, and later players would have literally no build options, not even very expensive ones.

I don’t know if the original Funkenschlag had these problems, because I would never play the original with 6 players (far too long). I think, though, that I may have to strike Power Grid from the list of good 6-player games after all, although I’ll still be quite happy to play it with 4 or 5.

Ticket to Ride is a game I’ve enjoyed, but felt it had a minor balance issue – specifically, that playing all the tiny routes down the middle was a loser, just because they are so inefficient – they take the same time (one of your turns) to get down as a 6-length connection, but get you many fewer points. This had been backed up by the fact that every game I’d played had been won by completing big transcontinental routes using the large connections in the far north or south. However, at KublaCon I saw a player win decisively by developing the middle and completing lots of tickets.

So I tried this strategy myself this game. On the one hand, I didn’t win (I was in a somewhat distant second). On the other hand, I drew 6 tickets late in the game, and if I had drawn even a single one that I had any chance at all of completing, I could have won – as it turned out, I just had to keep the ones that lost me the fewest points. Bad luck, not even a single plausible connection.

Bottom line, Ticket to Ride is, I think, better-balanced than I initially gave it credit for. There is still a lot of luck in the ticket draws (especially your initial hand), and the lack of any easily identifiable “fun factor” keeps me from rating it in the top tier, but it’s definitely a good, solid game, which I now have on order.

While I was playing Ticket to Ride, Kim was trying out Dos Rios. No detailed report yet, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was a solid, interesting and quite different game, but had a bit of the Tikal Syndrome, i.e., somewhat calculational turns and not much you can do while waiting to go next. I look forward to giving it a shot myself.

KublaCon Day 2 – German Games

KublaCon runs a “Kniziathon” tournament which is best described as “all Knizia, all the time”. You get points for winning games, with bigger games getting more points. It’s a kind of neat idea, although I think the format puts too much emphasis on his little games and doesn’t reward winning stuff like Ra or Modern Art enough. As much as I love his big-box stuff generally, his card games often seem to me uninspired, regardless of how well-executed they are. Korsar certainly fell into this category. The idea is to take “tricks” of treasure ships, where each trick is evaluated on your turn – if you have the highest total of cards, you take it, otherwise it stays out, Taj Mahal-style. You don’t have to drop if you can’t raise, so a tied trick can stay available indefinitely, and the number of tricks out there can fluctuate (you can play to any available one). This actually is reasonably clever, but the version we played was a 6-player partnership, in which two adjacent players are partners and can look at each other’s hands and discuss play. This took what should have been a light, fast-playing game and bogged it down hopelessly and needlessly as partners endlessly discuss minor points of play. I would be tempted to try the 3-5 player version sometime, but would not play the partnership version again.

Ticket to Ride should be familiar to most readers at this point, and I do enjoy it. I’ve decided I’ll buy a copy, as a solid second-tier type game. Which ticket cards you draw does seem to have a needlessly random effect on the game, since the tickets are not terribly well-balanced (the payoff on short tickets is too low), but it’s still simple and entertaining if you don’t mind games of the less-interactive variety. For a simple, accessible game, it seems to lack the elusive “fun factor” that would give me confidence in selling it to non-gamer family or coworkers, but still very good for the gamer crowd, and the length is right for the content.

Power Grid – still good. We played with 6, on the US map. Still a possible balance problem, as the player who started out west felt kinda hosed by the high connection costs, even without much competition as 4 of us started in the east and we eliminated the New England region. But it was fun, and even with 6 players moved quite briskly and the whole thing didn’t take more than 2.5 hours. It looks like another good game to add to the list of good 6-player games, always welcome.

Favoriten is a game from 1989 by Walter Müller that can be best described as Royal Turf without the quality. Bidding is intermixed with racing, but instead of everyone rolling a die in turn, the first player rolls the dice 5 times and moves all the horses one at a time before rotating the start player and doing another betting round. Little control, and the player going first has an immense advantage – but there are no rules on how to rotate the start player between races. Royal Turf takes this basic concept and make a game out of it, but Favoriten is just not there. Perhaps not bad for younger kids who might not get and/or be frustrated by the subtleties of Royal Turf, but for the 10 and up crowd, one to avoid.

Finstere Flure is a game I actually kinda liked, but it’s a design that seems deeply conflicted. The players have teams of individuals who are trying to navigate a monster’s lair without getting killed. The monster moves in a programatic way, going after the closest target he can see, and there are a variety of obstacles and special movement rules for various terrain types. On the one hand, this wants to be a fun, light monster game, and Friedmann Friese’s propensity for comic gore is good for a laugh. On the other hand, there is very little luck in the game and playing well requires visualizing a large number of possibilities and moves and counter-moves, so once people start playing to win things can bog down into lengthy analysis. While I admit I enjoyed playing this one, I almost found myself wishing for more constrained play and more chaos, so that it could better fulfill its obvious destiny as a lighter, amusing game.

Last was Age of Steam. I do like this game. In fact, I might like it quite a bit; but it’s also a somewhat frustrating game. It’s frustrating because even though it’s good, it’s got those obvious, nagging little issues that mean it will never be a real classic. For example, the Producer role – this role is far, far too weak compared to the others, almost useless; yet it appears that the designer anticipated people taking it, because if you don’t the endgame gets a bit dull as few goods cubes are available and player rankings are very unlikely to change over the last turn or two. Or the final scoring of 1 point per track tile (vs. nothing for remaining cash), which is incredibly tedious to count up and encourages gratuitous and annoying track-building at the end of the game – yet has basically zero impact on final scores. I think the final significant criticism one might make of the game is that it has a bit of the whack-the-leader problem, since one often has an arbitrary choice of one of a couple of players’ track to use when making a delivery. In extreme cases, this could lead to some nasty endgame problems. While I don’t think it’s a huge issue, certainly the better, longer multi-player games (1830, Power Grid, even basic Civilization) seem to manage to avoid such basically arbitrary choices. It’s easy to wish it were a little more robust. Now, all this said, I still like Age of Steam and might buy it. It’s certainly the best Martin Wallace game I’ve played. But it’s not hard to visualize a very good game with these little problems fixed up.

Game Night

Power Grid just came out last week, and the fact that the new games have been at best a trickle showed through in that this was apparently “all Power Grid, all the time” night with no less than 3 games going by 7:15. We played on the US map after I had a few mild concerns about the Germany map last time I played. We played with 4, so we eliminated the western-most areas which left mostly cheaper connections, and lead to a shorter game (under two hours, actually) and a slightly easier game for the new players. This map seemed to play a little more cleanly with 4 players than the German map with the “continental divide” down the middle. The under-two-hours playing time was also a huge relief after the 4-hour marathon my first game was; two hours or so is where this wants to be, I think. All in all, I remain impressed by Power Grid and feel it’s an improvement over the original. There is still can be a touch of arbitrary hoseage – one of our players got hammered when the remaining decent plants refused to come out in late phase 2 – but not enough to derail the game for me, especially now with the shorter playing time.

Traders of Genoa is one of the absolute great negotiation games in my opinion, and after playing again after a bit of a hiatus I may have to go over to BoardGameGeek and up my rating to a 10. If there is a German-style game that is a more intense, constantly engaging way to spend 90-120 minutes, I don’t know what it is. This is a game that forces you to keep thinking and adjusting literally constantly. It’s a wonderful economic/risk management game, and I actually think it manages to capture the spirit of its theme remarkably well, the many unknowns of the renaissance trading market. That said, this playing frustrated me a little bit. Early on, competition for Goods was intense, with actions at those buildings being bid up to 20 Florins and over – so I got out and went after the privileges. This started out well – but after I had quickly wrapped up all but 4, I was still left with 4 disjoint groups and a rather weak position. At this point, the rest of the table started over-valuing the privileges and not being willing to work any sort of deal with me for the remaining privileges. This was frustrating because I knew at that point I was sitting on a last-place position, but it was one that appeared stronger than it should have (the odds of having a killer group of privileges when there are still 4-5 out there is still pretty small). One thing I definitely neglected, if you’re going to go the privilege route, you need to accelerate the game by using the “any start space” tile to start in the center as often as possible. They just peak too early compared to the large contracts. Also, I just became too focussed on acquiring those last couple privileges – once it was clear nobody was selling at any price, I should have been diversifying much more aggressively than I was. This is a game that, while a definite strategic focus is required to win, brutally punishes tunnel vision. A great game.

Vacation Gaming

I had originally intended to go to MonsterCon 4.0 this year, but I was a late scratch due to the significantly increased cost and the fact that the “open gaming” signups were a bit thin. I’d done big OCS games (GBII, Sicily) the last two times I went, and I’ve decided that while it was fun to try, there are practical difficulties with the biggest games which seriously limit how much I can enjoy them at cons.

So I didn’t go. Kim & I went to Seattle to visit our friend Doug, and hit Mt. Rainier (absolutely stunning) and Victoria, BC (a little touristy for me, but nice). If you are a member of the Thursday night gaming group that meets in the game shop in downtown Victoria, sorry I missed you. I stopped in briefly but couldn’t stay, as Kim was not feeling well.

Anyway, all this hardly means we didn’t play any games. San Juan came out a few times, and we played a couple more games of Scrabble. I also got to play Bridges of Shangri-La and the new Power Grid.

Bridges of Shangri-La I actually kinda liked. Leo Colovini has to be one of the more overexposed game designers in Germany these days – after his very good debut game (Carolus Magnus), he’s had a big run of pretty uninspired stuff, to the point that I avoid him anymore for the most part. But Bridges was pretty solid. It’s ludicrously dry, as all of his games are, but it makes it up a bit by being simple and limited enough not to devolve into endless pure calculation. Again, like most of his games, it has a serious endgame problem since all the scores are open and usually close, so players not doing so well can still feel like they’re picking the victor with an arbitrary play late. So there are some issues, and thus I’m not sure it’s worth the $25-ish and the chunk of shelf space it would require, but I enjoyed it well enough.

Power Grid is, of course, the remake of Funkenschlag. Funkenschlag was one of the better releases of 2002 (admittedly not a terribly inspiring year), and one of Friedmann Friese’s best, but there were some minor issues. The game ran a bit too long, it was a little bit too uncomfortable being in the lead, and the power plant market was close but didn’t quite work (it could get badly gummed up and stop working properly late in the game). Power Grid has addressed both problems. On the length side, the least interesting element of the game – the drawing of track on the board – has been eliminated in favor of a much simpler set of pre-plotted routes a la Silverton or Medieval Merchant. The payouts have been made a bit richer, which both shortens the game somewhat and makes it less painful to be in the lead – in the original, once you cleared 12 cities or so powering additional cities made virtually no additional income, but you got reamed on everything from resource costs to building routes due to the turn order. Finally, the power plant deck has been thinned out a bit, which helps the plant market to work a lot better.

All this still adds up to a game which is little distinguishable from the original in play feel – it’s almost the same game. The play time is down substantially in general, although slow players can still kill you since it’s a fairly serial game. On the other hand, I feel the overall balance of the game is substantially superior – you spend more time managing the interesting stuff (managing your plants and resources) and less time trying to figure out how much it costs to connect two cities. The backlogged plant market problem appears to be solved. And it’s not so ridiculously painful to be first in the turn order, since you’re probably making more money. All in all, a very solid upgrade to an already very good game.