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.

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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

Ticket to Ride is the new Alan Moon game from Days of Wonder, another train game. It feels a bit like Transamerica meets Alan Moon; you’ve got secret routes you have to connect by building track, which you do by melding sets of cards from your hand. You acquire those cards, of course, by drafting from a set up 5 face-up cards; each connection on the map has a difficulty (number of cards you need to build it) and a color, indicating the suit of cards you need to play. During your turn, you can either build a route (meld), draft new cards, or acquire new destinations. That’s about it. Still, it’s actually not bad I thought. It’s certainly easily identifiable as an Alan Moon game, but it’s different enough from his other stuff to be worthwhile, and it’s reasonably short with sensible numbers of people it seems (3-4). I think the game goes up to 6, but I absolutely would not play with that many; there are lots of chokepoints on the board where only one player can build, and with lots of players it would seem very easy to get shut out and much more random, and also that the game would take much longer to play. But all told still not bad, it’s got the classic Alan Moon tension between making build-up and actual scoring moves, the tension over when the game is going to end, and the fact that watching what people draft can give you a sense of what they’re trying to do and give you a little more control. One I’ll happily play again.

Oasis, on the other hand … the others had not played this one, and my recollection from the last time I played was that it was uninspired but not actually bad, so we gave it a try. Early on in the game I was thinking, “OK, this seems like it might be all right after all”. Well, actually, no. This has no officially been downgraded from “uninspiring” to “pretty weak”, on account of being far too control-light for the amount of work involved. Give me Reibach any day instead.

Last was Mü. Several people here love it, so I still play it occasionally, but it’s interesting the degree to which it just doesn’t move me at all anymore, even though I used to be a big fan. I know a lot of people grew up playing cards a lot, which I did not, and so while I like some trick-taking style card games in a casual kind of a way, I guess I’m more of a boardgame guy.