Euro Quick Takes: Ostia, Jenseits von Theben, Elasund, Ursuppe, San Juan

Ostia: This is a new bidding game from Mayfair, Pro Ludo, and Stefan Risthaus. The advance word hasn’t been great, but I’m a sucker for bidding games and Roman themes, and the price point ($25 retail) was pretty reasonable. It’s a straight auction game: each turn you’re dealt a hand of commodity cards, which you then pick one to save and then auction the rest off in pairs in once-around bidding. Everyone then secretly allocates the commodities they’ve bought either to the Senate (which brings victory points) or the Forum (which brings in money). Forum goods are worth more when the supply of that type (i.e., the number sold) is low, while the players who commit the most valuable goods to the Senate get VPs. The values of the goods the Senate wants are given on cards that are revealed a turn in advance. Or, you can invest money in warehouses that allow you to store goods from turn to turn.

Ostia was quite a pleasant surprise I thought. It’s been compared by some to Medici, but I found it to be quite dissimilar: the secret and simultaneous allocations are clever and add some guesswork, and there is a nice tension between wanting to acquire diversity (for the Forum) and specific goods (for the Senate). You can plan a bit because what the Senate wants this turn and next turn are both visible, and the pressure on money seems right – money is tight, but not ridiculously so. The system is clean and plays well. It’s probably just a little too long – the auctions get a touch samey because the stakes on any particular auction are never that great and don’t increase as the game goes on, and so there are few opportunities for “power plays”. But for me, it wasn’t off by enough to be a big deal. I felt like I was learning interesting things about how the system worked throughout my game, and am looking forward to giving it another try.

So I liked Ostia. It works, it’s a bidding game that is different, and while I doubt it’ll be a long-term keeper, I’ll get my $25 worth easily. To answer my original question, it feels like a Knizia from about 1996. Knizia’s recent stuff, like Beowulf, Palazzo, or Amun-Re, are definitely much superior by almost any analysis. But Ostia isn’t competing head-on with them, for me it’s different enough to be worthwhile. I easily liked it better than Medici, although as time has worn on it Medici has admittedly become one of my least favorite Knizias, and Ostia is easily one of the best auction game from someone other than Knizia that I’ve played in some time.

Jenseits von Theben: It appears I may have to correct some of the things I said when I last wrote about this game. I complained at the time that the Congress cards were overwhelming and that the endgame didn’t work. This was at least in part because we missed a rule, or at least I think we did: artifacts are supposed to count their face value in VPs at the end of the game. In my defense, the rules are not very explicit on this point. They mention it, but in a somewhat oblique way. Regardless, there is no question the game plays a lot better this way. The Congress cards are still too powerful in my opinion, but they are not overwhelming. The endgame is still rather weak, but it’s not outright pointless. All good. Unfortunately, the exhibitions are now greatly de-emphasized, since the points for doing them are comparatively minor. This robs the game of some of its flavor; before we were desperately shuttling back and forth between digs and exhibits, with tons of pressure to find stuff and get back; now you just optimize your digs, spend the maximum allowable time, and if a well-timed exhibit comes along, that’s an added bonus.

I guess what I’m saying here is that the game still creaks a bit, but played this way it’s a much more satisfying experience, and instead of Jenseits von Theben being a few tweaks away from being functional, I can now see it is a being a few tweaks away from actually being good. As it is, I still wish it worked better, but it’s a nice, flavorful game, very random but probably good for a couple plays – nothing to really set your world alight, but different and nice for a change of pace.

My previous post has been updated.

Elasund: This game has held up well to repeated play. The new variant buildings you can find online are a nice touch, and help vary the flavor of the game. I still like this one a lot; it’s the best new Teuber game since Starfarers.

The thing I find funny about Elasund is that I now consider it a long game. A long game! Elasund is only about 90 minutes, which I would have considered an average-length or even a shorter game not that long ago. And really, Elasund does justify its length, and I think it’ll come down with play. But Reiner Knizia has just been putting so much pressure on game length, with shorter games that pack a lot of gaming value into a smaller package. Beowulf is only 45-60 minutes. Palazzo, Ingenious, Tower of Babel, and Blue Moon are all games that provide a satisfying challenge and are played in comfortably under an hour. Throw in San Juan, Hacienda, and Louis XIV and it’s tough being a 90+ minute game these days.

Ursuppe (now Primordial Soup): This is a game I’ve been wanting to get off the shelf again for ages, but have never had an opportunity to do so. Usually there is one person in the group who is not a fan, and I have a couple color-blind friends for whom this is probably the most egregiously color-blind hostile game ever made. But I was finally able to play.

Ursuppe is a game I had pegged in my mind as a second-tier classic. A game that’s not totally compelling, doesn’t provide the complete package, but does enough well to get long-term replayability: it’s got the fun empire-building type thing with the genes, an excellent theme, and great art.

Having played it again, I must confess to some mild disappointment. It still does have all these nice features, but almost ten years on, the flaws in the game now bug me more. There is a real problem with being able to catch the leader; those who get ahead, stay ahead, generally. Some of the genes are definitely mis-priced; Streamlining, even at 5 BPs, is a great deal, while Defense at 4 BP is not so much. There is also a huge rules ambiguity, with the interaction of Struggle for Survival, Holding, and Escape being totally unclear (and a situation which is not exactly uncommon).

It’s still a fun game, just one of somewhat more limited appeal than I remembered, I guess. I still like it, and I think if alea remade it and balanced out the gene cards as well as they did the buildings in Puerto Rico, maybe it could live up to my fond memories. As it is, it’ll stay on my shelf, but probably come out less often than it’s successor, Urland, which always surprises me by being better than what I remember.

Puerto Rico and San Juan: When I did my year-end article, I commented that San Juan had gotten a ton of play for a long time but had started tapering off a bit of late. It seems to be back. I’ve played half-a-dozen times in the last month or so, and I found myself asking, “OK Chris, when are you going to break down and recognize this game as an all-time classic?” The answer would be, apparently, right now. I must have played San Juan at least 50 times and it’s still fresh. So I went over to BoardGameGeek and kicked my rating up to a 10. By contrast, when I played Puerto Rico again recently, I found myself saying afterwards “you know, I don’t really have any desire to play this again”. That’s probably an overstatement – I’d play again, although I’d probably insist on some of the variant buildings – but still.

Now, part of the problem here is that San Juan and Puerto Rico were on vastly different power curves. We literally played Puerto Rico absolutely to death when it came out. One of the guys in our group at the time wanted to play nothing but, and we played at least a game a week for a long time. San Juan has never been subjected to that kind of stress. On the other hand, San Juan has now comfortably passed its second anniversary with a lot of play, and I still like it a lot. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, barely creaked out of its first year.

What can I say? I’m not going to call San Juan a technically superior game. But it does capture a lot of the good stuff from Puerto Rico in a vastly more streamlined package, and the vagaries of the card draw both make for more excitement and keep it from becoming stale the way Puerto Rico ultimately did. For my tastes, San Juan finds a much happier balance point amongst time and effort investment, variety, play-balance, and fun. Maybe we can get some expansion cards for San Juan, and maybe add a 5th player. It might convince everyone to go out and replace their worn-out basic set while they’re at it.

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Domaine, Puerto Rico

The original Löwenherz (which came out in 1997) was an interesting game. It got good reviews and was well-respected. Many people, including me, thought it was a top-tier type game. But as time went by, I had to keep knocking my rating down, because it just never hit the table, unlike the true classics like El Grande or Modern Art or Through the Desert. I think it was just perceived as too much work for not enough fun. And so my opinion settled on it as a good, but second-tier, type game.

When the “new” Löwenherz (known in the US as Domaine) came out, I thought it was a nice game but wouldn’t replace the original. I was wrong; for me, it has replaced the original. Domaine has been played quite a lot in our groups over the past year and a half, when most games, even many good ones, will last only a couple months – it has that elusive combination of elegance and depth that few designs seem to achieve. Streamlining the game by eliminating the negotiation element has done wonders for it, slimming it down to a much more reasonable play time (especially given the cutthroat nature of the underlying system). In retrospect, it seems like the original perhaps was trying to do too much, and eliminating the negotiation/bidding to focus on cash management and the tactical game makes for a much more satisfactory game. I now feel pretty good about giving it the top slot on my “best of 2003“. And hey, I can actually win at the new edition of the game, so how bad can it be? I could never do well in the original.

This was the first play of Puerto Rico for me in something like a year, and probably only the third or fourth since the game was run into the ground around January 2003 (we had a guy in our game group at the time who only ever wanted to play Puerto Rico, so it just got a lot more exposure than it could handle in retrospect). I do think Puerto Rico is a good game but I’ve never been really blown away by it. It’s also a game that I am really horrifically bad at. I was discussing with Kim after the game why this might be. My theory is that I tend to like games with a strategic component, stuff like Settlers or Traders of Genoa or the wargames I like. Puerto Rico taunts you with strategic elements, but it’s really just a brutal short-term optimization game with a minimal strategic component. Being who I am, I tend to latch on to the strategic elements, which tends to lead me astry.

Perhaps due to my frequent poor showing at it, the one thing I like least about Puerto Rico is how early the game ends for some players. It was clear to me by two thirds of the way through this game I had lost, and there was absolutely nothing I could do at that point to improve my position. Sort of reminds me of Civilization. That last 20 minutes or so of going through the motions can be frustrating. San Juan is a lot better in this respect, which is why I think ultimately I find it to be the more enjoyable game.

Anyway, I don’t want to be too hard on Puerto Rico on account of my own incompetance, because it is a good game. I’m going through a phase of playing more classic games now as it becomes clear (as usual) that the Essen games are mostly not going to pan out, and Puerto Rico is definitely a classic.

Game Night: Modern Art & Puerto Rico

Just a quick visit to SVB for me this week, enough time to fit in games of Modern Art & Puerto Rico. Man, these are tough games to play with a mix of experienced and inexperienced players. Both are great games, but when players start bidding more than the painting could possibly be worth in Modern Art, or when the first player in the first round of Puerto Rico takes the Mayor, you know it’s going to be one of those games. The cool thing about these games, though, is that I still enjoy them even when the outcome is made rather random by the newbies. So I did enjoy them. But I have to remember I like Modern Art more with people who’ve played some before 🙂