Hacienda, Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel

Back in the halcyon days of the late 90s, Hans im Glück was the go-to brand for meatier games: Euphrat & Tigris, Samurai, El Grande, Aladdin’s Dragons, and Die Macher were just a few of the classic games published under their label. alea stole their thunder for a while; but the 00s have seen a bit of down-market pressure, with alea losing some of their early magic, and with Hans im Glück moving more in the direction of Carcassonne than the next El Grande. Still, with alea having limited output and no longer doing much in the way of big-box stuff, Hans im Glück is still one of the more reliable names in gaming for the serious gamer; you just might need to apply a little more discretion than you used to.

So, what have they got for us this time?

Hacienda is a new game from Wolfgang Kramer, this time without a design partner. The theme is of farming and cattle-herding in Argentina. At least, I think it’s supposed to be in Argentina. Anyway, players play cards to build farms (which are a strong source of VPs and a modest source of income) and build up cattle herds to try to connect to markets (which are a strong source of income but a weaker source of VPs). Money is required to buy more land and animal cards, as well as to install Haciendas and irrigation, both of which significantly improve VPs. All the cards are acquired Alan R. Moon-style, drafted from 4 face-up cards or drawn blind from a deck.

Hacienda was a modest surprise for me. For a big-box game from a top designer and a strong label, I expected good things, but this was moderated somewhat by recent weaker games from Hans im Glück, like Attika or a lot of the recent Carcassonne milking, combined with the fact that Wolfgang Kramer, even though he is undeniably one of the three giants that dominate modern eurogame design (with Teuber and Knizia), often does stuff that isn’t exactly to my taste (like Expedition). But Hacienda exceeded these expectations, and I like it a lot. It’s odd in that it feels vaguely reminiscent of a few games (Reibach definitely for the drafting, Through the Desert maybe for the herds trying to reach markets/oasis before being cut off) without actually feeling derivative. This is probably because it adds the whole cash management element; you need to balance the need to acquire actual VPs with earning enough money to fund future purchases of cards. This sounds similar to the idea in Saint Petersburg, a game which had some problems for me; but the trade-offs in Hacienda are much more subtle. Each play has certain income and VP consequences, you have many choices and very few constraints, and Hacienda lacks Saint Petersburg’s multiplicative effects. Additionally, Hacienda has a very sensible playing time (an hour-ish), and is very easy to explain. I also like this new trend towards double-sided boards; Hacienda includes two very different setups on the two sides of the board. The sheet of variants is a nice touch too, as the game is clearly highly suited for them.

Hacienda was not quite my top pick for Essen, but it was a very entertaining game that left me thinking about alternate approaches, and after a couple plays I am enthused.

The Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel is interesting in that it is a more or less direct port of the boardgame. Most “card game” versions of popular boardgames (Settlers/Starfarers card games, San Juan, El Cabellero, King of the Elves) have changed significantly to adapt to the new format. Not E&T. Almost everything you know about the boardgame applies here: leaders, conflicts, kingdoms, treasures, monuments. The only fundamental change is that now we have an abstract, 1.5-dimensional board instead of the classic grid. The kingdoms line up in 9 consecutive “stacks”, and can be joined by placing a card between them. That, and the fact that scores are secret … even your own. So you need to remember what you’ve got.

I liked the E&T cardgame, although it didn’t have a huge “wow” factor. It’s short and very easy to teach to anyone who’s familiar with E&T, so it was good for about 5 rapid plays. That’s pretty good. But each time I played, I couldn’t help feeling a nagging suspicion that something was out of whack. I can’t quite identify what it is, and that bugs me further. But something feels vaguely off with the rhythm of the game, or maybe the density of the playing field. Part of it may be that the cardgame is so similar to the boardgame that I have phantom pains for the tactical tile-laying game that is missing.

Regardless of these ephemeral doubts, though, I did enjoy the game and I do still think it’s good, especially given the lower price, low complexity, and short playing time. I consider it $15 well-spent. But if you already own Tigris and Euphrates and are a major fan, this version doesn’t bring a lot new to the table. On the other hand, if you find you would like something shorter, check it out; it does manage to capture a chunk of the good stuff in a smaller package.

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Old Games: Tigris & Euphrates, Traders of Genoa, El Grande: King & Villain

Fresh from my last game of Tigris & Euphrates, I was looking forward to playing again, but also curious if my new, slightly greater appreciation for the game would hold, or if I just liked the last game because I was lucky. I was able to win again, and this time I felt I did it without great tile luck, when viewing the game as a whole. But there were still some dramatic turns of fate. This particular match hinged on a number of rather improbable conflicts: I lost a major red conflict when Rich made a perfect red draw from the bag, but then turned around and won a huge blue one because I had been lucky enough to draw 4 blue tiles in my last refresh. If these two conflicts go the other way (both times the attacker was up 4), it’s a whole different game and Rich probably wins. I think Tigris & Euphrates is an excellent and absorbing game, but this sort of thing is why I don’t rate it as an absolute top-tier game, as many do.

Next up was Traders of Genoa. I really like this game, maybe even my favorite in the alea line, but negotiation games don’t seem to get quite as much play as straight tactical games, so I’m always glad to get a game in. And I won; I think for the first time in a serious game, and Traders of Genoa came out in what, 2001? Usually I am drawn to games I have a hard time winning out of the box, because I found them challenging; but there is a point at which this stops being the case. Puerto Rico, for example; I won a few of the early games, but then must have gone at least 15 games without a win, and it just got frustrating and annoying. Traders of Genoa, though, I almost always enjoy it seems. And now I finally have a win (although the game was extraordinarily close). Play tip: the Privileges are not very lucrative, but they’re high-profile. In both my recent games, the player who based his strategy around privileges has been hosed. I’d stay away from them – this game I only picked up one, and only because I had nothing better to do that turn and aimed to trade it away. Pick them up to sell to the player(s) collecting them at a markup. I won on a pure good/contracts strategy, emphasizing small orders; but as always, it depends on the quirks of the group you are playing with, what they are over- or under-valuing. Another thought I had, since owning those central buildings which compliment your strategy is so helpful, but getting to the Cathedral is such a pain, it might be worthwhile to use those 1:1 trade tiles to trade a good or something for an ownership marker as soon as possible – it would be a little more expensive in terms of actions, but might be easier than the expensive trip to the middle ring.

I also played El Grande with the King & Villain expansion. Back in the late 90s, I used to use this expansion much more often, but since then I’ve played mainly “straight” El Grande. On the one hand, the customized player decks don’t seem quite as elegant as the basic game, and you can really hose yourself by picking a bad mix of cards (usually, this means clumping your choices at one end or the other of the number spectrum, not picking enough variety). On the other hand, this expansion eliminates one element of basic El Grande that can seem awkward: the 1-13 play. Since going first on the round before a scoring round is rather powerful, you find El Grande develops into a rhythm where people try to player their “1” cabellero card one round followed by the 13 to go first and lock up the King. In King & Villain, going first before the scoring round is far less of a big deal, because the 160 card (move the King one space) is always out there, ready to undo the King’s advantage. This means the game seems to have a slightly smoother texture, without the emphasis of setting up to go first before the scoring round. This can make the game much more interesting. It gives a bit of these gains back because the single combined caballero/event card play isn’t quite as interesting as the “bidding” for event cards, though. But all in all a very nice expansion. The deck construction aspect does require some skill with the game, though. If playing with relative El Grande newbies, or the first time you play with this expansion, I’d recommend throwing out all the cards not divisible by 10, and then telling people they basically have to take the 10, 160, and 180. I actually have a complete set of all the cards published for this format in my box, including some German-text cards that were only published in the Player’s Edition and the promos, but some of those cards get really, really weird.

Classic Games

Inspired somewhat by my recent appearance on GeekSpeak, I’ve been going back to some classics of late.

Tigris & Euphrates is a game I’ve always thought well of, but perhaps not as highly as others. I liked Joe Gola’s perspective on the game here (and for completeness, here is the Siggins review). After a long break from the game, and coming back to it with a fresh perspective, and playing with experienced players, it impressed me more than my memory of it. I’ve always thought of Tigris & Euphrates as pretty much a short-term optimization game, but today I really felt in the zone – I was visualizing what I needed to do this turn, and the next, and next, and how to set myself up for points, and how to manage the strategic board position. It helped then that I won. For me, the criticism of Tigris & Euphrates is that I have found it a somewhat chaotic game for its weight class. So it’s possible that either this particular instance of the game everything was just falling into place for me. It’s also possible that I after all this time, it just took a break from playing it for a while for me to have the clarity to really understand the game. Either way, I’m looking forward to playing it some more.

In another blast from the past, we broke out the Settlers of Catan – plain vanilla basic Settlers – which hadn’t seen play in quite a while. Actually, I had never played on this copy, which is the new German version featuring plastic pieces, and which is possibly the nicest of all the incarnations of the game (although still in German – why couldn’t they use iconography on the Discovery/Entwicklung cards?). Unlike Tigris & Euphrates, Settlers is a game for me whose brilliance is fairly obvious. It’s amazing how experienced you can be and still make mistakes and generally play poorly if you take the game too lightly, or don’t stay alert and flexible, as was my fate in this game. I made a rather basic error in my initial placement, then went on to not trade very well. But what the heck, it’s a 45 minute game. Once again, this just whetted my appetite for another game, always the mark of the true classics – and I must have played Settlers well in excess of a hundred times, even if not recently.

Lord of the Rings is more recent than either Settlers or Tigris & Euphrates, so it is still in circulation to some degree – this was my third or fourth playing this year. This is, for me, a game that is just a lot of fun. We started Sauron on 10, and then got absolutely hammered in Moria with both Frodo and Fatty moving up to corruption 8 almost right away. But we hung in there, scraping by each board and constantly fighting off disaster. Frodo and Fatty both bought it in Shelob’s Lair after hanging on by their fingernails for a surprisingly long time. Sam got whacked early in Mordor, but Pippin and Merry held out right to the end, with Pippin fatally absorbing the final die roll so that Merry could coast to the Cracks of Doom and fairly comfortably pass the final corruption check.

Because of all the randomness in the system, Lord of the Rings certainly is a game that sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t, like Settlers at some level. Sometimes you get completely toasted by the system, and sometimes you waltz to Mount Doom quite easily, even starting Sauron at level 10 (being toasted can be entertaining; the cake-walk usually isn’t, which is why I so strongly recommend starting Sauron on 10 after you’ve won once or twice on each of the previous levels). Much more often, though, the game produces a tough, tense game with lots of wrenching choices, which is a lot of fun for a change of pace from the usual euro fare. I enjoyed this game, and while it didn’t leave me craving another play the way Tigris & Euphrates did (admittedly I’ve played Lord of the Rings more recently), it did leave me with a desire to break out the expansions, Sauron and Friends and Foes, which I never got to play as much as I would have liked.

Lots of Games

Here are just a few random comments on some of the games that got played today (I wasn’t in all of them):

Carabande: We played on one track plus one expansion set, which is really the way to go. People get sucked into these huge track layouts because it looks so cool, but game-wise, one set and three laps really is ideal, and even that might be just a touch too long.

Atlantic Star: One of the few really good games for 6. On the one hand, it is pretty serial and so can be a touch slow, but on the other hand you get to groan as the good ships/actors you need come and go before you get a chance to snag them. And there are really painful choices almost every turn. A fun game, if not quite top-tier.

The Dream Game: I don’t know how many readers will be familiar with this, as I couldn’t find a reference for it online (perhaps it has a different “official” name?). This is a party game, the basic idea of which is that topics are chosen (say, U.S. Presidents), and then each player writes down some words for that category (say, Fred Washington). You then get points for how many other people write that word/name/phrase/whatever down, regardless of correctness or any other factors. Fairly weak as these things go, certainly nothing on Celebrites or Apples to Apples, two popular “gamer’s” party games. It lacks any inherent fun value. Play Personal Preference with a group of friends who all know each other, or Time’s Up/Celebrities with a mixed group.

The Wrath of Rohan: This scenario is one from The Two Towers, in which the Rohirrim attempt to run down the fleeing Uruk-Hai. Chase scenarios have issues by default, and despite promise, I think this scenario just doesn’t quite work after all – the Rohirrim just don’t have enough time to catch up and make things interesting. Not one I’ll play again without some modification, I think.

Titan: the Arena: Great game – simple, fun, yet subtle, and it has stood up quite well over time. Looking forward to the re-issue this summer.

St. Petersburg: This game is still holding up pretty well, and I like it. Sure, it certainly isn’t a top-shelf type game – not something that will still be played a lot next year – but it is fun and interesting, and it is at the right price point given all that. Tough choices throughout, yet not so tough the game gets bogged down.

Tigris & Euphrates: I played this with one friend who had played many times before and two more who had never played. I like this game quite a bit, but it is terribly difficult to play with people of differing experience levels. There is a couple-game learning curve in which you really just have no idea what you are doing and are just trying various things to see what happens (one of the great things about Settlers was that it was a subtle enough game to be quite engaging, yet familiar and approachable enough that smart new players who are paying attention can play well).

Game Night: Silicon Valley Boardgamers

For Sale was a quick round of filler as 5 of us had shown up, and we were sure more were coming, and For Sale has about the best bang for time investment of any short game I’ve played. And I won, proving that you can win just about anything if you’ve been playing off and on for 5 years and your opponents have never seen the game before (auction games are usually not my forte).

Speaking of which … Amun-Re is a game that I like a lot. This time must be about my 10th play, and it’s still going strong, still revealing new depth, and still playing in different ways each time due to the vagaries of the order in which the provinces come out who is playing. I did horribly this game because, for some reason, I was finding it hard to concentrate. I don’t know why. But like Taj Mahal and Tigris & Euphrates, this is not a game you can play on autopilot and expect to do remotely well, so I came in last. I find the early game very difficult, and usually get reamed somehow by committing to some element of a strategy (usually farmer-light vs. farmer-heavy) only to find things going the other way and everybody else zooming past me. I know it’s heresy, but Amun-Re might actually be better than Tigris & Euphrates and on par with Taj Mahal (*).

Last of the night was Urland with the new expansion. I think Urland is really a very nice game, better than its predecessor (Ursuppe) actually, rather underrated, and I think the new gene cards are much better than the new genes that came with the Ursuppe 5-6 player expansion. Mutation came out in our game, which is an interesting gene, as did Photogenic and Nocturnal (the latter too late to have much impact as it turned out). We played with the guidelines in the rulebook, which adds only a few of the new genes in a game; next time I think I’ll just mix up all the expansion genes in with the originals.

(*) Endnote: Although I like my Best of the Knizia Boardgames list on BoardGameGeek, I must admit it contains something of a white lie – I don’t actually think quite that highly of Tigris & Euphrates, and succumbed to it’s popular acclaim in ranking it #3. While you’d hardly go wrong with it, in my heart of hearts, I think Taj Mahal (#7) and Tigris & Euphrates should probably be reversed. If you think swapping #3 and #7 doesn’t make any sense, well, I didn’t want the top of the list to be dominated by all “big” games (T&E, Taj, Amun-Re). I might be coming to the conclusion that Amun-Re is better than Tigris & Euphrates, actually. But, I’ll be cautious on that for the moment.

2014 Footnote: I’ve been reposting these articles verbatim until now, but I feel like I have to add here that 2004 me was pretty wrong about this. Amun Re and Taj Mahal are both great games, and would likely be the crown jewels of any designer other than Reiner Knizia. Taj Mahal is even an almost-classic which still gets occasional play. But Tigris & Euphrates is the clear masterpiece which I’ve come to appreciate more over time. It also doesn’t help that Taj Mahal has been sort of supplanted by Beowulf, while Tigris & Euphrates has never been emulated.