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.

Game Night

I played a couple games of San Juan at Tandem tonight. I had heard a tip on how the Crane, a building I’ve dismissed in the past, could be used to good effect, so when I got one in my initial draw I figured I give it a try; and it worked out very well, cruising me to an easy victory. I love it when stuff like that happens, a previously unexplored approach to a game is a smashing success (this last happened in Goa, when I won by running up the money track). San Juan has been running behind in the poll, which surprises me a little bit – I like San Juan a lot, and while Goa and Fifth Avenue might be a bit ahead for me just on my basic preference for more substantial games, I think the 2nd place it got in the DSP isn’t too far off. Saint Petersburg is a game in the same weight class that made a larger first impression (not being quite as derivative a game), but it has recently really hit a wall when it became increasingly clear just how unbalancing a first-turn Judge or Mistress of Ceremonies is. San Juan, on the other hand, has had a lot of endurance. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s got turn angst, but it’s chaotic so it both rewards flexibility (I like that kind of game) and isn’t the undertaking that Goa and Puerto Rico can be, which is good sometimes.

The second game I was again dealt a great starting hand if I wanted to play my game centered around the Crane again. But I wanted to try something different this time, so I did, and didn’t win (I was in second, but only by a point, on a Guild Hall/Production Buildings approach). Maybe I should listen when I say it’s important to stay flexible.

Last was a quick game of Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers with 3. The game is a little slow, but it’s a workmanlike and solid game with some interesting stuff. A little too long, but fun for a light game.

I think we got all this in, plus a game of Can’t Stop, while the other guys were playing Giganten. My impression from the whining going on was that it was not very well received. One player commented that he could leave his copy in the shrinkwrap now. My impression of the game when I played it was not that poor; I enjoyed it for a few games, but it crashed really, really hard after that. After playing for the 5th time, I never wanted to see the bloody thing again. Not sure what makes a game that is interesting the first time or two crash quite so hard without being broken or horribly unbalanced (neither of which was the case with Giganten); maybe it was just inexperience with eurogames in general.

Origins – Day 2

I am happy to say I’ve actually met quite a few of the high-profile game designers, both euro and wargame, including Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, Francis Tresham, Alan Moon, Grant and Tom Dagliesh … if you go to a few of the bigger cons, it’s not hard to find them and chat. You know what always strikes me about them? They all seem like such regular guys. In a hobby that doesn’t always seem like it’s dominated by mainstream types, most of them are friendly, forthcoming, easy to talk to, and normal, whatever that means.

This was the 30th Origins (somewhat amusingly, all the merchandise was emblazoned with a 30th Anniversary logo, but of course the 30th event and the 30th Anniversary are a year apart – this was the former), and one of the themes was “play a game with the designer”. So we signed up to play Manhattan with Andreas Seyfarth. After some difficulties with the space, we finally located him and a place to play. Our fourth and a copy of Manhattan evidently had more trouble, so we started in with a 3-player San Juan. Andreas was a real pleasure to game with. When I met with Klaus Teuber and Reiner Knizia, I had no idea what to talk about with them. I mean, it seems so boring to say “Hi! I love your games!”, although admittedly you have to go with that at some point. I assume that I am like most people who write about games – I’d like to design a game someday and feel like I should get some tips from the masters, but I have no idea where to start. So this time, I just gave up and went with playing and enjoying the game. That’s why I’m in this whole business after all. So that’s what we did – played, chatted, commiserated about jet lag, swapped some gaming stories, and some fond memories of Puerto Rico, San Juan, and Manhattan. Andreas is a true gamer and a great guy, and playing a couple games with him was the highlight of the convention for me.

It turns out our fourth was Tom Vasel, of BoardGameGeek, so once he tracked us down and a copy of Manhattan arrived, we played that. Manhattan is a very good game, although decidedly less friendly than San Juan, but still a good time was had by all. For the record, Andreas crushed us all in both of his games.

After this, Kim went on to her D&D game, a swashbuckling genre game run by Amorphous Blob, who run generally excellent RPG events, and Kim and I have both had tremendously positive experience with them – the only problem is that their events fill up quickly, so you have to be fast. After only fair experiences with other RPG events, and no interest at all in the various “Living” settings that seem to attract the power gamers, we now sign up for their events exclusively. Kim is happy to report that this adventure did not disappoint. They also seem to draw a good crowd, one whose RPG expectations are in line with our own.

I had observed several games of Marco Polo, but never played prior to now simply because the 8+ age rating is a huge red flag for me personally. But this is Knizia, so I gave it a shot. It’s not bad, but I didn’t find enough there to engage me. It then didn’t help my estimation of the game when I won handily. It’s pretty much a classic race game, drafting and all, but with the catch that each space on the track has a very different cost, so you need to predict which spaces you’ll have to pay to enter and which you’ll be drafting through, and try to optimize your had to cover various different costs without a lot of duplication. Solid and a quite functional game – as one would expect from Knizia – but dry and a bit simplistic.

The last event of the day that we had scheduled was Hollywood Lives, a board-party-LARP hybrid game from Kevin Jacklin and Reiner Knizia. Each player plays the role of a Hollywood celebrity producing and starring in movies. You buy scripts, negotiate roles and salaries, produce and act in a 3-minute trailer for your fellow-gamers, earn money, and vote on Oscars. It combines the free-form party-game aspect of LARPs with the more structured context of boardgames. Not being a hugely outgoing person myself, I was both nervous and excited about this one, but it unfortunately requires 10 players and we only had 6 (perhaps in part because the event was scheduled in a remote and hard-to find location, although a quick query to the information booth and we had no trouble). Too bad. However, I was intrigued and will likely order the book and try to run a game at home.

Coming up tomorrow … Nexus and FFG’s War of the Ring! Plus the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, and the death of wargaming at Origins.

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.

Game Night

Just a few quick notes on tonight’s session.

The “big” game we played was a 5-player Carcassone H&G with the King & Scout expansion. It’s odd that I am actually quite fond of the H&G version while being decidedly lukewarm on most other editions. Anyway, I remain somewhat undecided on the King & Scout expansion. While the player tile effects are generally minor, they don’t seem terribly well balanced. The Scout himself (reject a draw for a new one) seems quite useful, while the Shaman (reclaim a pawn from the board) is much harder to use – in fact in the two games I’ve played, I’m not sure I recall that ability ever being activated. The flat-bottomed canoe is also good for a bunch of points, while the other playable tiles can be marginal. Fortunately, the effect of even the strong tiles is quite minor but are nice for flavor, so the expansion is still OK … but doesn’t quite feel “tight”, as it were.

The other games we played were Ra and San Juan, an old and new classic from alea. San Juan is now definitively a winner. In Ra, I suffered a humiliating defeat for the first time in a long time – I had been on a strong winning run for the last year or so after spending a couple years figuring the game out, but I just wasn’t in the zone this time. A great game, though, one of the best.

2-player games, including Blue Moon

Just an update on a few two-player games Kim & I have been playing.

We’ve played at least half a dozen games of Blue Moon recently, all but the last one with the two decks in the basic set (Vulca and Hoax). After the first game, I wasn’t quite taken – it’s one of those games that seemed neat, but it wasn’t clear where the game was. There are lots of interesting cards, it feels like you’re doing stuff, but it wasn’t immediately clear if any of it mattered, or if it was just about doing obvious stuff and making sure the cards came out in the right sequence. On repeated play, though, this game has really grown on me and I like it a lot. It still doesn’t quite rate as highly as Starship Catan or the Settlers Card Game for us, because it’s a highly tactical game and lacks those games’ strategic element, but it’s a challenging game and there are a lot of meaningful tactical choices. I just picked up the Flit deck, which we played the last time out, and it’s cool just how different all the decks are. The Flit seem to be a bit more interesting to play than the Hoax or the Vulca; they have a few more hold vs. play decisions.

San Juan is a game I didn’t expect to be that great 2-player, but it worked out better than I expected. Well enough, in fact, to play two games in immediate succession. It isn’t as interesting as the 3 or 4 player version, and it does have more of a runaway leader issue, but it’s still pretty good. The Guild Hall certainly seems more and more powerful with fewer players in the game. Ideally, the deck should be thinned a bit with 2 players (maybe 2 of each violet building, one of each 6 building, and reduced numbers of production buildings), but this would be annoying to have to do.

Finally, Scrabble is a game I didn’t have high expectations of (I hadn’t played in several years), but I got a fairly nice set cheaply a while back. Granted, the case has a design problem which makes it impossible to get open if the components get stuck in a bad state, but after destroying the box to get into it we were able to play. This was a very entertaining game, which I enjoyed. Like the better games of this type, there are quite a few tactics and some strategy. You want to take advantage of the multipliers, make sure you aren’t setting up your opponent for a triple word score, realize which letters are valuable, and make choices about when to spend and when to save those letters. Very nice, and a lot of fun. However, the insert with the rules demonstrated why I will never be serious about this game. They had a strategy tips session, in which they list all the words that have Q not followed by a U. This includes QWERTY(S), QAT(S), QOPH(S), and several others that are not in my dictionary and, quite frankly, I don’t actually believe are English words. They’re in the Scrabble dictionary, though (apparently). Still, as long as you’re playing with people who haven’t gone off the deep end in terms of being insanely competitive, and have a sensible dictionary, a very fine game.

Game Night

Just a quick night for Kim & I, as I’ve been struggling with spring allergies and some sort of bug.

Chris had brought his son Tristan, so we were looking for something we could play with the kids. Clash of the Gladiators scores with me in this area, so we played that first. Yeah, it’s a dice-fest, no question about that, but there are some simple and some not-so-simple details that you can manage in order to play well, in addition to making sure you roll lots of red hits. I like this game as a fun filler, and I think it’s a great game to play with younger kids because it’s pretty easy to grasp the basics and play competently, but there are enough subtleties to engage the adults (although I think Milton would disagree with me on that last comment).

Next up was Zankapfel, a game from 1993 which Mike Siggins reviewed here. Time has not been kind to Zankapfel, I guess. This was much too chaotic for my tastes, and seemed kinda klunky. From where I was sitting, too often I was in a situation where every play was very painful, and there was little I could do about it. To me, not terribly elegant, the selling procedures for apples doesn’t quite work, and all in all I have no idea why you wouldn’t play Adel Verpflichtet or Basari instead these days. Rated for ages 8+, but I can’t even see it having much appeal to that age group. At least it’s (reasonably) quick, but on the other hand due to the way apples are sold (high bidder sells their apple for money, low bidders also lose their bids and apples but get nothing) once you’re behind you’re totally screwed.

Last for the night was San Juan, which Milton had not played yet. Kim (Guild Hall) and Milton (City Hall) tied at 29, and Milton won on the tie-breaker. I seem to have repressed the game already, so I can’t tell you which strategy of mine didn’t work. San Juan is still going quite happily, and so I think rates as the first really good game of 2004.