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.

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Game Night

Megallurgie is a new game from Argentum, the folks who brought us the Garden Gnome game. This is basically a tile-laying game in card game format. You are trying to form contiguous areas of like-typed metals (iron, copper, silver, gold), but the trick is that copper always has to be stacked on top of iron, silver on copper, and so on, so the game has a layered feel. Once you complete a group, you score a point, and have to remove some of the cards from that group, leaving new metals revealed (except for iron, which will shrink the playing surface). It’s listed as 2-4 on the box, and I had played once before with 2, which I think is the ideal number. With more, you have the problem that if you screw up, you benefit the player to your left, which is a little awkward always. It’s kinda neat, it’s different, and I don’t regret the $5 or so I spent on it as an Adam Spielt throw-in … but not a great game by any stretch. The $12 FunAgain is asking is too much.

Zwergen Ziehen is a kid’s game. Not bad, but as card games go, it’s just a silly diversion for the 12+ set. I enjoyed the 10 minutes or so we spent on it, but would not have wanted to invest more. Better than How Ruck! in the tug-of-war games genre, but that’s not saying a lot.

After a second time out for Reef Encounter, I remain really impressed. It’s a great management/tactical game. This might have a shot at the best German-type game of the year. I even managed to win, on the strength of a big score in a dominant (5-point) coral. I was nervous because I had invested a lot in that one reef, spending inefficiently to grow it and lock in the big points; but it turned out to be worth it. Again, a few more games will be required, but this seems much better than Keythedral, so hopefully there will be a reprint.

Addenda on Ys: I forgot to point out after my last game that I actually discovered we had been playing slightly incorrectly. Collected gems are supposed to be open, while we had been intuitively putting them behind the screen (why else is there a screen?). Even after the mistake was discovered, we continued to play that way. Next time I’ll try to play the “right” way, but I seriously doubt it will change my opinion much. Open vs secret scoring is often a matter of personal preference, and 99% of the time I’ll go with keeping things secret, and it usually seems the right thing to do (the sole exception I can think of is Acquire, in which I prefer open holdings). It depends on what degree of analytical heavy lifting you want. I guess my feeling is that German-type games are usually pretty casual by nature, on the scale of these things.

All Essen Games, all the time … almost

OltreMare: This is a new trading game from Mind the Move. You try to acquire commodities in sets, much as in Bohnanza, Civilization, or Zubercocktail. The gimmick here is cards that serve a variety of purposes. Each turn, you load goods that determine the parameters of your next turn – so if I load a cloth, say, it will have a set of icons determining my hand capacity, number of goods I can load, number of cards I can draw, and how far I can move my ship. That’s about it. I think the problem with the game is that it’s basically like the other good, simple trading games (Bohnanza or Chinatown), with some extra stuff added in that really doesn’t quite work; there is no functioning “second idea” here, and the primary idea – trading for cards with escalating values – has already been done better. The “board” element of the game is almost completely gratuitous and adds little (and may in fact subtract due to the serious imbalance in the harbor tokens). Each player has a “pirate” stack of discarded cards that I am hard-pressed to explain the purpose of. As a whole it’s not bad – it’s fairly hard to make a terrible trading game at this point – but it’s a classic small-press game, decent but with too much extraneous stuff, significant rough edges, and a balance that feels off. In this case, there just aren’t enough meaningful player choices and the trading is somewhat desultory. I certainly wouldn’t veto the game if people wanted to play it – the game basically works, which is something – but for me this was not close to a buy (even assuming I could).

Garden Gnomes: Again, this game got a slightly mixed, but overall still reasonably positive, response. This is an experience game, something that you enjoy the process of playing, because while you can definitely play well or poorly and feel like controlling your destiny, there is still a big luck factor. But it’s a lot of fun to play in my opinion, an interesting blend of a serious and light game. We played with 5, and verified it’s a bit better with 5 than 4. And it played very differently with a different set of people, always a reasonably positive sign.

Gärten von Alhambra: This is just not my kind of a game. In the draw-one play-one genre, I’ve come around to Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers, but that’s about it (except for the classic stupid-but-fun game Nuclear War). This reminds me of Dirk Henn’s Iron Horse (aka Metro), in that you do a lot of fairly uninteresting work to figure out where to play your one tile, but lose anyway because there is such a big variance in the quality of the tiles given a certain game state. Never mind the big kingmaking problem. On balance though it’s definitely not a painful game, as long as people don’t take forever and the game comes in at a sensible 45 minutes or less. You can play it with friends and have fun if you have nice friends, but not my cup of tea as a game.

Einfach Genial: I had somehow managed to not play this game before now, even though it’s been pretty popular amongst people whose judgment I trust. It is of course completely abstract, but the Tigris & Euphrates-style scoring, combined with the fact that’s it’s interesting but still straightforward, and challenging but not a huge brain-burner, makes it a rather engaging game. I liked it, and Kim liked it even more; we’ll probably pick up a copy. As is usual with Knizia’s bigger-box stuff, this will take a few plays to come to an understanding of.

Ys: Remember when I said it was cool to play Garden Gnomes with a new group and see how it played very differently? Well, it was modestly disappointing to play Ys with a new group and see it play almost exactly the same. I seem to be in this odd state of enjoying my games of Ys reasonably enough, approving of it as a solid enough game, but I can also see clearly that once it loses it’s “new game” appeal, it’s going to fall off a cliff.

Reef Encounter: Now, at last, we’re talking. I bought Reef Encounter with some reservations, since Richard Breese’s games published under his own label (R&D) have been close so often without ever quite making it. After playing a bunch of Essen stuff that has not managed to deliver – Garden Gnomes is overall a win but would ideally be a bit less chaotic; Ys is lacking spark; Heart of Africa is probably just bad; OltreMare is OK but rather rough – now we have one that, on initial impressions at least, can finally deliver the goods.

Reef Encounter feels like a throwback to the great tactical/resource management games of the mid-to-late 90s, a genre that seems to have faded a bit – stuff like Tigris & Euphrates, Union Pacific, Ursuppe, El Grande, or Lord of the Rings. You’re managing colonies of coral, protecting them with your shrimp, and trying to grow them in size so that they can feed your parrot fish. You can strengthen your species of coral so that they can encroach on your opponents … but the situation is quite fluid, so quickly your coral will be gone to feed your parrot fish, but the coral species you strengthened is now being used by your opponents to beat you. It is certainly most similar to Tigris & Euphrates from the 10,000 foot view, in that you are using different color tiles from behind your screen to grow colonies of coral (kingdoms), then claim them with your shrimp (leaders). Here, though, the conflict is much simpler and rarer (it’s more border skirmishes than conflicts, and shrimps once placed can’t be evicted), but the resource management is more interesting – you draft tiles instead of picking randomly, and need to manage “energy cubes”, acquired through drafting or successful conflicts, that you need in the right colors to perform almost every game actions in addition to just tiles.

I really liked Reef Encounter. Obviously, this is a fairly involved game so one play is not enough to judge, and can even be deceptive – but it sucked me in in a way that the other big box games of the year, with the exception of Goa, haven’t quite managed to do yet. It’s not overly complicated once learned – significantly simpler than Tigris & Euphrates I think, although the rulebook doesn’t make it easy to learn. Also like Tigris & Euphrates the board state changes a lot, so I’m not sure there is a huge amount of long-term strategy on offer, although there clearly is some, but that just seems the nature of the genre and there are a lot of choices and tough management decisions throughout. And the theme and variability that is so lacking in Ys is solidly delivered here. R&D games have always had basically solid themes, but usually with some weird stuff thrown in (like the bizarre resource allocation procedures in Keydom), but here it’s without glitches and is consistently well done I think. And the game is quite pleasingly colorful – not to be sniffed at.

Anyway. More play will be required to see if this is just solid, good, or if it’s even great. But I’m glad I bought it after all, and am fairly optimistic.

New Essen Games

Each year I buy a couple fewer games from Essen. This year there were quite a few that were tempting, but I didn’t buy too many in my first round of direct-from-Europe orders (and I should say that with the dollar worth so much less than it was just 3-4 years ago, things are not the deal they used to be). There was an interesting bit on record collecting on NPR (“Lost in the Grooves”) Wednesday in which one of the guests mentioned that in order to keep her collection under control and keep from buying everything, she had to have three reasons to buy a random record that she came across (they don’t necessarily have to be good reasons – cool cover art or an intriguing track name were OK – just reasons). We can now see if I can retroactively come up with 3 reasons why I bought these:

  • Reef Encounter: Appealing theme, Richard Breese is reasonably reliable for functioning game, limited edition which will probably represent a reasonable investment. Richard Breese self-published games are reliably decent but never great, so as a designer he’s right on the bubble – if this had been another “Key” game, I probably would have passed, but the reef theme sucked me in.
  • Ys: Well-produced, derivative from Aladdin’s Dragons which is a personal favorite, limited edition again. Really only one of those reasons counts for anything, but it’s a major one. This is one that I have genuine optimism for (i.e., it might end up hitting 10 plays).
  • Garten Zwerge e B – Truly bizzare theme, new company with an interesting lineup, bidding game. The game design itself is actually not unusual, but it’ll be interesting to see if the theme (breeding garden gnomes) is too weird for people. Game number two that I have genuine optimism for, actually.
  • Metallurgie – small (I need more good small card games in my collection), cool graphics & theme, by the same company (Argentum) that did the above and another interesting-looking game. This was a throw-in.
  • Telebohn – Wierd, I own all the other Bohnanza stuff, and, uh, it was cheap. I think that third reason doesn’t really count. But once you own 8 Bohnanza expansions, and the the last couple (Bohnaparte/Dschingis Bohn) were good, you feel sort of compelled to keep picking them up.
  • Sole Mio! – Again, small and cheap; and I was a fan of Mamma Mia! for quite a while before it just hit the end of the road and I never played again. I was hoping this might give me some enjoyment out of the game again, but it was probably a borderline call.
  • Revolution – I have great respect for Francis Tresham’s designs. I still play 1825, and even Civilization occasionally, so while this wasn’t a no-brainer – his best stuff is no less than 10 years old – I wasn’t going to pass on this. Unless it turns out to be terrible (very unlikely), it’ll be a decent investment.
  • Out of Africa – It’s a bidding game, cool graphics, and Phalanx is improving somewhat although I’d still like their games to be better than they are. I’ll give Ted Racier’s upcoming WWI game a shot, but these probably represent Phalanx’s last chance with me. If one of the three doesn’t hit 10 plays, I will approach their stuff with much more skepticism in future. I’ve cut them a lot of slack for games that just weren’t as good as they should have been, because the graphics are excellent, the games certainly haven’t been bad, and their hearts are in the right place. But that only goes so far.

I really like this whole “three reasons” concept, but obviously I’m still working on what it means to me. Either that, or I shouldn’t have bought a couple of those.

Stuff I would have picked up in previous years but didn’t:

  • Antiquity – Splotter is just too unreliable. Roads & Boats was great for a very niche game, but so much of their other stuff has been great concepts that they couldn’t take the last bit to a decent game. So this is a wait-and-see.
  • Im Shcatten des Kaisers, Mall World – I’ll wait for the English versions.
  • Candamir – Tempted. Mayfair hasn’t announced an English version, and it sounds reasonably internationalized except for the flavor text (but don’t quote me on that). I’ll hang on and see if an English version is announced sometime soon, but this will be a must-buy eventually.
  • Carcassone schlock – I’ve got The Castle and Hunters and Gatherers. How much more does one need?
  • Sea Sim – Again, Cwali disappointed with Logistico so they are no longer on my must-buy list. Another wait-and-see.
  • Razzia, Geschenkt, die Weinhandler – In my never-ending search for small-box games that last more than a couple plays, I’ll pick these up eventually I think.

Anyway, looking forward to giving a bunch of these a try (especially Garten Zwerge, Ys, and Revolution). I’ll let you know how it goes.