For various reasons, I have only just got round to playing Eclipse properly. I had long been wondering whether to buy it based on others’ very positive views and my initial one hour try out. In all attempts I was stymied by either the high prices asked or unavailability. In a way, that was fortunate. I am glad I didn’t bite. I really liked playing Eclipse – three games now - I think there is a lot of clever stuff going on and the design is elegant. But given how many shots designers have taken at the 4X and Civ formats, perhaps we have every right to expect this.
Accordingly, Eclipse is the culmination of many, many evolutionary design advances. There is some excellent design: I could name the ship building, post pass actions, tech tree, resources, and expenditure track mechanisms off the top of my head. There are many more. It is very good, it is clean, it is accessible, you should play it. It wins a Sumo. But what puts me off a full blown love-in is that (with set up included) it is not a short game – I don’t get many four hour slots – and, to be frank, it hasn’t tackled the key issues of the multi-player game.
At heart, it is still a build up, squash your neighbour exercise. It would be nice if it wasn’t (it was sold to me on the basis that combat was not necessary to win), but the designers have taken the easy route and certain types of players will follow them. The first player attacked, or with poor luck, or poor resources, will always remain behind and unlikely to catch up. Ultimately there will be two (or three) on one situations, there will be players sandwiched and unable to expand, and there will be a curiously mad game end where everyone wants to fight and grab. This is not edifying and it would have been good if the design talent clearly on show in the systems had also been applied to the wider interactions. I could forgive much of this if the game was an hour long, a little less dependent on dice, and stronger on narrative. “Oh, it all went wrong here. I had those awful die rolls, I got kicked by the weak alien, it left a gap in my defences and Toby took the opportunity to walk through the hole and steal all my hard work. Game over.” That’s fine to explain away 90 minutes, but not 240.
Another disappointment is that one of those 4X’s is distinctly lower case. Given the choice, in this type of game I will always eXplore. I am quite happy doing that, and still want a game that lets me do it properly. In Eclipse, any initial exploration seems largely designed to establish lebensraum and routes and buffer zones between neighbours. There simply aren’t enough ‘external’ hexes to make exploration very useful as a long term strategy (or even medium term). I understand that it is promoting interaction – what fun is a game where all four players head off in different directions? – and that, anyway, most tables couldn’t handle the length of an explorer’s vapour trails. Still, one of the more disappointing aspects for me.
Balancing that is the really good news. As normally accrues from a decent game, I can see that Eclipse II or perhaps the expanded game, or of course another entrant to the lists, may move us a little closer towards the ideal. Which neatly brings me to Clash of Cultures. After a couple of turns I thought, and then voiced, that it seemed to be Eclipse meets Civ. The more I played, the more it appeared that this was the case. I have no problem with that; mainly I am impressed at how quickly the Eclipse model was absorbed, adjusted and returned to market with a new coat of paint.
You will know how Clash works because you have played all the previous Civ wannabee games. In this case it works a little better than all of them, and will take around three hours if you keep up a good pace. The downsides are that you can probably win or lose a game based on the objective cards you are dealt – Good fit? Easy VPs. Bad fit? Almost impossible! - but you do get quite a few cards to offset this. You can also get that common setup issue where someone is quietly turtling in a corner while rivals are at each other’s throats, again like Eclipse.
As much as I like the 4X/SF genre typified by Eclipse, I have to say I thought Clash of Cultures at least as good, if perhaps not as polished. It has a different approach to the overarching multi-player issues (not perfect, but good) and I felt the tech tree was more interesting (high praise given Eclipse’s clever subgame). I definitely want to play the designer’s pirate game, and I recommend Clash of Cultures highly.
This was a very pleasant surprise. When the box was opened, and the lovely artwork admired, I was expecting a lightweight, fun game. More Huber than Lehmann, if you will. In fact, this is a rondel based game that has a lot of interesting decisions, considerable depth and some clever design work. I liked it a lot and apart from some issues with the length, rules and timing of actions, it worked just about perfectly.
There is little new in the theme. Players are space traders, sourcing and selling various interstellar commodities. You have options to improve your existing ship, to buy more, and to do all those neat things that one wants to do in Merchant of Venus (but usually give up on while waiting). There are also further mechanisms that really up the ante. You can, for instance, put a hold on your resources allowing for guaranteed supplies and denying others access. You can buy refineries that enhance your profits. The destination mechanism is pure design class, if we read the rule right. The rondel confers a challenge in the timing of trades and actions – one is reminded of petrol stop strategies in motor racing. All good stuff. Ultimately though, all this comes down to the old business cycle – befitting that rondel – of acquire, sell, invest, expand, acquire more but also wedded with the choice of one, fast, vessel or several slow ones, or perhaps several fast ones!
The only negative comments I am going make are, firstly, it drags a bit. Try for two hours if you can. Secondly, the rules are not the best. Actually, they are among the worst I have seen this year. I know this is probably not down to the designers, but someone deserves a roasting. Thirdly, I know the designers quite well, and know their gaming preferences, but I would politely suggest that they look to move away from 18xx mechanisms, such as rusting, especially for a middleweight, public accessible game like this. It is a pain for those to whom rust forecasting is neither fun nor second nature and, in this case, it makes little sense. There’s no harm in innovating from time to time.
This will be one of the easiest, and shortest, reviews I ever write. 1989 is a re-theme and slight re-design of Twilight Struggle. Perhaps even a streamlining exercise, at heart. I believe that the changed mechanisms help the game no end, and offer some subtle strategy distinctions. I also much prefer the theme, largely because it seems to me a much better fit for the system. As you may recall, Twilight Struggle is a Top 20 game for me. As a result 1989 cannot really fail to gain a Sumo. The fact that I don’t own Twilight Struggle is no longer an issue as I will always play 1989 in preference. However, this does not mean I am now happy with the game length (still an hour too long) and the core mechanism of scoring regions known to only one player and understanding the resulting tactics! If you like Twilight Struggle (and I understand it has a few fans) then 1989 is a must buy.
Two games I have played recently have been rather offputting, yet eventually proved to be good, solid, very enjoyable games. I just wonder if they could have been made better through development and downsizing. The games in question are Terra Mystica and Robinson Crusoe. By the time we had set up the myriad piles of cards, counters and markers, and read the rules, I was ready to abandon both there and then. I was having a Fantasy Flight moment. Peer pressure (Terra M) and intrigue (Robinson) kept me on board. What was the issue? Essentially that there was way too much clutter and at least one or two mechanisms too far. In short, they are overwhelming when they should be accessible and welcoming. I cannot help but think that both titles could have used the Alan Moon policy of “when you think a game is finished, take something away.”
I go way back with Phil Eklund. I reviewed Lords of the Sierra Madre in 1993 very positively and, with the odd exception, I have revelled in and supported his games ever since. For instance, Lords of the Spanish Main is right up there in my all time favourites. So, all in the garden was rosy. Until recently. First there was the move to boxed games and higher prices – if nothing else, Phil’s games are somewhat experimental and experiential, so lower prices ease us over that speed bump. Second, there was High Frontier (rules that could make a non-engineer weep) and Bios: Megafauna (rules and development that were so poor I called a halt on Sierra Madre altogether, particularly because I had bought the game twice already.)
In fairness, Eklund games have always been challenging on the rules front but this was a case of proper production values with rules that made the experience painful. For me, a major fan and evangelist, it was simply the last straw. For two years I refused to play the games, and I stopped following one of my game design idols. That told him! But I was not alone, and even if I was keen, finding players to try Phil’s games was an increasingly difficult job. Most of my regular opponents did not hesitate to use their veto if the idea of an Eklund game was mooted. For those that didn’t buy into his experience game ethos, there had just been too much pain for too long. Was it all up for our favourite quirky rocket scientist?
Then along came Pax Porfiriana. Small box, reasonable price, and – hallelujah! – a very tight set of rules. This may or may not be down to the co-designers who worked on this one. Given that I knew the theme already – this is Lords of the Sierra Madre in card form – I decided to lift the embargo and pre-order. In truth, I would have bought and played it anyway as a card adaptation, but it turned out to be a game that also solved the major issues of LotSM while reducing game time by about 70%. Things were looking very positive. We played. We played again. At the last count I am at twelve games in two months. Almost all the former cynics have enjoyed it. I really like it. And best of all it has done something to unlock my design process such that I have cracked at least three sticky problems over the holidays.
So for those who don’t know what I am on about... Pax Porfiriana is a multi player card game concentrating on Mexico in the early years of the 20th century. Revolution is in the air, the U.S. is keeping a watching brief. You are a powerful landowner looking to topple the president and, ideally, make a lot of money in the process. There are wooden cubes but there is usually plenty of military action in the game mixed in with the economic and political systems. Be ready to deploy local militias, rail guns, Federales, banditos, U.S. Rangers and Apaches (among many others) in ploys that will deny rivals their income, encourage American intervention or prompt a revolution. The game runs around 60 minutes, sometimes a bit longer depending on the president’s fate, and I have to say it is an absolute gem. Not perfect, definitely tweakable, and I have some concerns over the calculable toppling procedure, but different every time, very chaotic, excellent narrative, great fun and already being hailed as one of the best of the year.
Secondly, we have Polis. This is a Spanish designed two player game about the Peloponnesian War and the surrounding decades. Again, as with Pax Porfiriana, there is a distinct economic and political element to this one. Indeed, the first two turns of four do not even allow for battles – you are assumed to be indulging in strategic manoeuvre, trade agreements and border skirmishes. The scenarios include both naval and land considerations for Sparta and Athens, providing a nicely asymmetrical situation that I am sure you will find interesting. Control of the sea lanes is almost a game in itself. Elsewhere, you will approach and besiege neutral city states, or perhaps send a diplomat, in trying to build your population, resources, power and military strength. As if the strategic considerations weren’t enough, you must also ensure your cities are fed and nurtured – you will find yourself scavenging desperately for wheat, trading, building temples, holding festivals and erecting statues to keep your campaigns on the go. It is in many ways like nothing I have ever played, and the design is first rate. The jury is out on the history, but it is certainly not too far adrift. Whatever, the ludic challenge in Polis will not disappoint. It takes around two hours, and it is intense, rewarding gaming. Based on three plays, this is my favourite game of the year.
It is not difficult for me to open this column with my current bugbear. In fact, I can feel a rant coming on. At our recent post-Essen convention we endured three days of dodgy rulebooks and resulting problems. It was either just a very bad batch of games, or standards are dropping. Whatever, we may have spent a good 20% of the gaming time struggling with rule comprehension and interpretation. Not good enough.
I am going to blow my own trumpet here (usually far better than sucking it, I find). I am pretty darn good at working out rules. I think this is based on solid English comprehension, knowledge of game systems (and even how certain designers do things), on having written several sets of rules myself and developed/edited loads more, and, I suppose in truth, some empathic guesswork. I am aware of the dangers of the latter approach, so it is only used in dire situations!
I feel this obscure superpower gets us through most games, hopefully playing something at least related to what the designer intended. Combined with Ken Tidwell or Charles Vasey at the same table, we are almost invulnerable in crushing poor drafting, sloppy thinking and fuzzy logic. Nevertheless, this recent batch of games was beyond our combined skills. There were rule sections that were not finished. There were unclear rules. There were rules that said the opposite to what was intended. There were clear rules, clearly contradicted by later rules. There were rules contradicted by examples. There were rules hidden within examples. There were rules that weren’t needed, and rules that were just missing altogether. There were games where the rules were on the cards. And finally there were rules that were so poorly drafted that they rendered the game unplayable and raised blood pressures around the table.
Okay, I concede that sometimes this problem is down to translation and one can often get the real meaning by referring to the French or German rules. I am less competent if those rules are in Spanish, Russian, Serbo-Croat or Polish... Sometimes, as I know, it is not possible for the production to allow for much time to finalise rules. Living rules help here. I have known rules to be re-written just before release without the designer seeing them. And I am also totally aware that rules drafting is not an easy task in the first place. But come on guys, as a minimum, let’s at least try to get the final ruleset in front of some blind testers and see if they play the game correctly. Note to self: possible business opportunity, even if gruesome work.
As far as I am concerned, it is a brave man that releases a game in the same slot as Football Strategy, one of the finest games to grace my table. Ever. Okay, so I am not entirely sure that one can get hold of Football Strategy these days, and some would point to its near perfect symmetry and complete lack of team flavour as a drawback. So, after consideration, perhaps I can see why someone would do it.
1st & Goal is an excellent game: slight emphasis on game. I approached it with a completely open mind, and in truth it is some years since I played either Paydirt, Statis Pro or Football Strategy anyway. Ninety minutes later we had learned it, played it, and were sitting there discussing a gripping 14-13 win for the Mortlake Tossers over my Fenland Eels. I had a last minute 60 yard drive, only to fumble within the five. Earlier, I had slotted a long field goal and almost landed a long bomb. We had some exciting punt returns. I could go on.
In short, the whole game was completely immersive and full of narrative flavour. I find it helps to put on a bad American accent. It is fun to grab and roll the dice. The magnetic chain gang is genius. The playlength is just about perfect. I like the fact that I can go and buy team expansions. It is tense, and a little draining. Most importantly, it is an awful lot of fun. And I don’t get to say that much these days.
I love rallying. I used to go and watch them, still watch them on tv, I even like playing the console games. Predictably, I would love to design a boardgame that evoked the speed and excitement of this underrated spectacle. I had though that it would be a tough task, but I have to say that Rallyman has come very close. It suffers from that boardgame issue of depicting a high speed sport at a much slower pace. Inevitable, but Rallyman does a clever job of concealing the join.
Otherwise, it is a very good game. The highlight is the cornering mechanism, which pretty much captures the very different approach to the racing line, compared to say, Formula One or Nascar. The fact that the mechanism changes depending on the surface in the expansion just made me even happier. Accordingly, one gets the feel of the various surfaces, the key tyre choices, and the time trial nature of either setting the pace or chasing the man in front. I thought it was very good, and like Powerboats or Snow Trails, I would always play if the opportunity arose.
As I mentioned above, the rules (especially in the Rallyman: Dirt expansion) are a little woolly. The games took a while because of the rules discussions, not helped by ‘an expert’ on another table misleading us every half hour... I think it is fair to say that in a race stage consisting of six major corners, we played each of them under different rules! That said, I am not going to let the rules get in the way of a neat system. On the buy list.
Since the earliest days of my gaming life, I have been looking for a good trading game. You know, one that would evoke the excitement and flavour of the East India Company, or Hudson Bay, the Hanseatic League, stellar empires or even just wheeling a cart of potatoes around Germany. We have seen many attempts. Many. And I like to feel I have played almost all of them. At least it feels like that. The problem was always that the games took a long time, and that the trade off was usually a loss of atmosphere.
Merkator is the latest candidate to shuffle into the interview room. I liked it. A lot. Yes, it is dry and not very flavoursome, and by the end of the game you feel you are going through the motions. But it is clever, it has most of the trading elements I am looking for, and - importantly – it is quick. Possibly too quick. The reason I am writing it up is because the Merkator system can easily be built upon, adding back some of the flavour that has been taken away in the pursuit of playing time targets.
Martin Wallace dropped Gettysburg on us, a little out of left field. He often does military based game themes, but this is an out and out tactical wargame. Of course, because it is area based (hurrah!) and spiced with Martin’s clever ideas on how command and control should work, it pretty much sets itself apart from the army of hex and zoc clones. We usually play the first day as the main event, and push on in to the second day only if the situation demands it. As such it cuts down the play length to a reasonable time frame. Unusual, but we liked it a lot.
I had heard very good things about K2, and I was hoping for something in the vein of the excellent Safe Return Doubtful. I was not disappointed. For once, here is a game designed by an aficionado of the sport that does not sink under factors, chrome and boredom. The designer has extracted key elements of climbing, made a challenging and innovative game out of them and, frankly, has done an excellent job of balancing the difficulty of the task. To make it an effective multi-player outing is just icing on the cake. And I really like cake.
Fate is a funny thing. At the Eastbourne convention in November, we were at a loose end. As usual, I dug deep into a friend’s crate of new games and, unusually, came up short. Then, by chance, I spotted his bag behind a chair. I rummaged, not hopeful of finding anything apart from ziplocs. Nestling forlornly at the bottom was Sentinels of the Multiverse. I swerved round the loud cover artwork to read the box blurb and, oddly, immediately wanted to play. We gave it a run, and another, and another. So, who would have thought that a co-operative game with an automated opponent could grab our attention like that? The explanation is that this is a well designed, well tested game with tons of atmosphere. As a first design, it is rather good.
The enemy is an arch villain, their evil deeds driven by a card deck. The players are a team of super heroes, each with different skills, again represented by a unique deck of cards. There is also an environment deck (Megacity, Mars etc) which provides welcome variety and flavour (let’s call it the stock in this recipe). The game provides a decent selection of all three types of deck (nearly 600 cards in all) and you can bet that more will be coming along. You can guess the theme – all the heroes work together to defend against, and then overthrow, the villain.
I have three concerns with an otherwise impressive debut. Firstly, the game does not scale too well – playing with one or two heroes is tough; three and four is usually a bit easy. You can work out the approximate sweet spot, which at times (new players, weaker villain) may be an advantage in disguise. Secondly, the game is based on dishing out damage. Yes, I know that is a comic staple. There are however several types of damage, and you are always thinking about how your hero and team can deliver it in a clever way; it is not mindless fighting. But in the end you are simply reducing a pile of hit points to zero – there is no way of plotting downfall by other means. Or at least none I have yet spotted. Thirdly, the font on the cards is not exactly the clearest – especially for numbers. Otherwise, it’s all good.
The game scores highly in several areas. It feels fresh, it all works seamlessly, it is not overlong, it is an unusual topic done well, it engages the players and they work as a team without reservations, it is full of comic book atmosphere and I thought the rules were excellent despite the mixed rules/flavour text layout (although others have disagreed on this). The best part for me is choosing, playing and gradually discovering the heroes and their interactions with the villains and environments. You will not see all the cards in every game, and almost every card adds an interesting aspect to your character and the battle. Different environments can adjust these aspects in subtle or greater ways. Multiply this by the different hero decks on offer, whose skillsets really are diverse, and you have a lot of fun just running through the decks in the basic set. This aspect is so good that I am moved to design my own deck, and it has been a while since that happened – with Middle Earth: The Wizards, since you ask. Sentinels comes highly recommended.
As good as Sentinels is, my favourite game of 2011, by some margin, is A Few Acres of Snow. Designed by Martin Wallace, this is a two player card game loosely based on the French Indian War, thus offering scope for establishing settlements and forts, sparring for key Canadian terrain and drawing on trade resources and Indian allies over a wider period. How good? Well, I really must get hold of another copy as this one is having a hard life.
Like Dominion, to which it gives a tip of the hat, this is a deck building system – you start with a very small hand of cards, and add cards as the game progresses, expanding your options but reducing the access to any one card – usually the one you need. The major difference from Dominion is that this game has a theme, and I am happy to play it. Actually, make that a lot of theme and very happy. It isn’t perfect – there is a curious middle game where one marks time waiting for certain cards – but that is a minor quibble.
It is possible to approach the game in several ways (aggressive, passive, military, settling, naval, economic, besieging, raiding, fortifying etc), each of which adds a fascinating new slant to the experience. Then when you think you have mastered it, you can change sides. Big deal you say, but the twist is that Acres is asymmetrical. The French have subtly different cards to the good guys, which is not immediately apparent. Add in the geographical positions, plus the naval imbalance, and this is a game that offers many, many hours of strategy to explore, test and experience. The telling factor is that when it comes to adding up the VPs, it doesn’t really seem to matter because the game has been so enjoyable.
A Few Acres of Snow, Bulge 20, C&C: Napoleonics, Die Fighting, Gettysburg, Hammerin’ Iron, Might and Reason, Strike of the Eagle, Test of Fire, The American Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, Zouave II.
What with the economy, work, stress and illness… I had a really bad year. Sorry.
My worst game experience of the annus horribilis was, by quite a margin, Innovation. Let me qualify that. This was easily my most anticipated game for at least five years, possibly more, based on early reports, buzz and designer pedigree. The rules confirmed my estimation. Even now I admire the ideas, the flow, the combos, the clever card mechanisms. I want to love it, and I still like it a little tiny bit. I may even buy it. But overall here is a game experience on a par with Fluxx. Actually, worse than Fluxx. There is so little control; it is very easy to get hosed and effectively eliminated, often by nothing more than bad cards, timing or situation. And I write as someone who champions both chaos and innovation (ironically). If the process were a huge amount of fun, I could accept the premise. In reality, it is pointless and dull; an arrogant exercise in design theory, failing to produce enjoyment. Carl Chudyk will design more games, and I suspect all will be better games. I hope, in time, he (or someone else) returns to Innovation and re-uses the good bits. Meanwhile, if you must play it, make it two player and don’t get your hopes up.
Conversely, one of my best game experiences was Key Market, but since I was involved with that one, and you can’t currently buy it cheaply, I’ll shut up. Either way, this is probably the best Key game for me. Not by much over Harvest and Dragons, and not Reef Encounter in stature, but still very, very good. Congratulations to David, and Richard, who both put in a hell of a lot of work.
Because I am getting old and therefore predictable, I am going to give an mention to Sierra Madre’s High Frontier. I think it is common knowledge now that I am a huge Phil Eklund fan. I realise there are many dissenters, and that some of you believe I should be banned from mentioning him or his so called ‘games’ again. Each to their own, but I am the one hovering over the keyboard and the editor isn’t paying attention.
Okay. Brass tacks. On the downside, High Frontier is only half a game, displaying many of the Eklundian traits I know and usually love. Like most of the others, it is nothing if not an experience. A big criticism is the slightly contradictory rulebook/walkthrough and the steep learning curve which are typical Eklund – read seven times, mentally edit, start play, lurch forward, realise you are wrong, re-read, repeat. Those of us without rocket science PhD’s get there eventually. Engineers (and I know a few, a few too many) just giggle at me and get on with it.
For Eklund veterans, the core system is the same old, same old. Auction the cards, do things based on the cards, keep the pace up. But money is so tight there is an all too familiar slog at the start, even with the optional kickstart variant. Crucially, you can’t do high tempo because you are consulting the rules all the time and trying to grasp the game. But it was ever thus. This painful early game is compounded as once you have all launched your rockets (this took us over an hour of play), there is every chance that your flight will be something of an anti-climax. There is a strong possibility of choosing the wrong route or planet, dying, running out of fuel (dying), exploding (dying) or being decommissioned (yep, dying). And that is just the basic game.
The main appeal, and oddly also the problem, is what you actually do once in space. In management speak, it is lacking structured goal attainment paradigms. We just flew around happily until one of the above death conditions applied, organised a couple of rescue missions, and in one delirious case, managed to return safely to Earth orbit having achieved a fly-by of Mars. On the plus side, it is good, solid Eklund experience game design with a great theme and a genuine ability to get one interested in the subject matter. It offers very few ludic qualities, but the price of admission is that you make your own fun. Doubtless we will willingly fly onto the expansion board in due time. Go on, you know you want it!
You may remember my earlier comments on Japanese games. There are lots of them, they look lovely, they are quirky, the rules are comical, they cost a lot of money, and they hardly ever function. In fact, one might argue that there are less than ten that work at all. Here is one more. This is a straightforward card laying game that I suspect most people bought because it has pretty Alice in Wonderland artwork (by Tenniel?). In play it is in the Six Nimmt family – you can hold off taking pain for a long time, but eventually you will probably be forced to accept some. In Parade there is a very nice Hearts/Black Maria shoot-the-moon quality in there as well. We all enjoyed it, and most of us added it to our buy list. Oddly, the game feels as if it might be a traditional game, possibly tweaked to include a German style scoring system. It may derive from Europe where short or tarot decks are common. I say this as a compliment. On balance, it is either an existing game that I now know about, or the designer has come up with a clever and original system right off the bat. Either way, a playable Japanese design which is, as I said, something to be welcomed. Recommended.
But no sooner has the Parade passed by, the old warhorse returns to centre stage. 13 Nimmt is a belated, but very welcome, development of 6 Nimmt, a game which has probably sold several million copies by now. Actually, it is quite a large development in that it uses the familiar ox cards, and the same key idea, but is a much much better game. It is also very clever indeed. If you liked 6 Nimmt, you will definitely like 13 Nimmt. Get it.Karl-Heinz Schmiel and Klaus Jurgen Wrede for Hans im Gluck
Note the D. We were sitting at a games day recently and one of the players kept suggesting Carcassonne. I was forced to refer to my excuses book several times. Turns out she was saying CarDcassonne, which we played and I liked. Forget Carcassonne. Apart from the logo and some graphical and mechanism references, there is very little similarity. This is a card game, something of a Coloretto/6-Nimmt hybrid, with a bit of extra push-your-luck. Quick, fun, light, but not without some interesting card play. One would expect nothing less from the master, Karl-Heinz Schmiel.
On the wargame front, it was a very good year. In truth many of the best games I played involved miniatures rules and/or figures, and I certainly expect that to continue into 2011 with Command & Colors: Napoleonics. On the boards, the truly excellent Maria rode high as a three player marvel, helping to fill that difficult slot. Yes, it has the silly card system but that is tolerable for most, and the rest is wonderful. I finally got to grips with Gettysburg, and thoroughly enjoyed it – far more than I did Waterloo. For those of us who stupidly sold We the People, you should save the pennies and buy GMT’s Washington's War pronto. I much prefer it to the original. As ever, the Columbia block system and its successors continue to provide balanced, tense, exciting games: I am going to tip Julius Caesar over Wars of the Roses, but there is really nothing between them; both are hard fought fights and quality design work. A game that slid in under the radar was Dos de Mayo. This was a pleasant surprise, and is quick, interesting, and fairly light. Finally, God's Playground could easily be in this category as well, given the right type of players.
And some of the better ones….Martin Wallace for Treefrog
I really enjoyed Brass, so it is logical that I would like the cleaned up, slimmed down, streamlined second edition that is Age of Industry. It is quicker, more logical, and has lost that slightly uncomfortable feel of some of Brass’s rules. On the downside it may have been sanded a little too much, and we have lost a bit of character. Still, doesn’t stop me getting Brass out again does it? I think that is all I have to say, except that despite the box legend, it doesn’t seem to work with two players. I look forward to the expansion maps.Ugo di Meglio and Sergio Guerri for Nexus
The widespread success of Command & Colors: Ancients, seemingly throughout both the boardgaming and miniatures hobbies, has inevitably seen related games in other periods. We have had WWII, Medieval/Fantasy and ACW, and now, belatedly, we have Napoleonics. I say belatedly because I have had the C&C Nap rules for over a decade and, as a right minded individual, Napoleonics should clearly have been first choice! But the long awaited GMT game has not reached me yet, which has given its rivals a chance to perform unchallenged. To be honest, C&C is going to have to work a bit when it finally appears.
The first rival game on the table, just beating out Worthington Games’ 100 Days, is The Eagle and the Lion by Nexus, out of Italy. I did have a slight involvement in this one, as I helped get the uniform research underway, but that was such a small role it doesn’t even merit a credit. So my conscience is clear! The game is huge and looks a treat. It comes with four large, thick card hex maps which will fill a decent sized table. The maps are double sided and also have overlays, thus adding to the terrain options. There are full colour unit and tactical cards, rules, scenarios, dice and markers and, tadahhh, rather nice hard plastic figures with stands – French and British, just as it should be (!). Some of you may wish to paint these. I couldn’t possibly comment.
I think I can sum up the game very quickly. It does exactly what C&C does – battles at a high, fairly abstract pitch – but it does it all at one level of complexity and detail higher. This is not far from a basic set of Napoleonic miniatures rules. Not only is the game good in its own right, it is different in feel from C&C (mainly manifested in the orders mechanism), and it also allows gamers to decide on a more involved (dare I say realistic?) game system. I think it will fit right in above C&C and I think it will do very well.
I am doing a good selling job here, but there are some drawbacks. The first is that the ‘gravestone box’ (description based on size and weight) and quality components attract a chunky price tag. Definitely try before you buy. There are a few odd rules (immobile lines for one) which are, of course, tweakable. It is not the quickest system out there – reckon on around two hours per scenario. And finally, a certain something is not quite there. It is that experience of playing a new rule set in your favourite period and thinking, mmm, I wouldn’t do it quite like that… So, nothing more than we usually encounter. Recommended.Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews for Jolly Roger
I am impressed that two designers would set out to design an interesting game on this subject, but as someone still grappling with Negro League baseball and 1980’s Rallying, I should just… empathise. That they managed to make a very good multi-player game out of it is impressive. Think Credo, think Campaign Manager. You are playing cards to sway opinion and votes to crystallize the Constitution. As with most such games, this is an enjoyable exercise but with weak control (I suspect rightly) and some ‘take that’ card play, it is probably best to go along for the ride rather than hope for a skilled victory. In truth, the game is not as polished as either Twilight Struggle or 1960, and there are some rocky moments – don’t get tied down in the repechage committee room! - and even worrying moments in the case of some of the heavy handed cards. But it works, it engages as do most CDG’s, it is highly flavoursome and I found myself wanting to read up on the history – always a good sign.Richard Sivel for Histogame
Friedrich was very good game indeed, and was in some ways exactly what I had been seeking for many years. Okay, so it has its quirks, the playing cards, and the balance was a bit off, but I think most people enjoyed it. For whatever reason, after taking fifteen-odd years on Friedrich, Herr Sivel ‘rushed’ out Maria, made some tweaks, ignored half the historical war, and gave us a little gem. It gets a ‘Siggins 9’, which is a 14 in most people’s purview.Mac Gerdts for PD Verlag
Yes, it is another rondel game and have we not now seen enough of these? Well, no, because while the circular mechanism stays pretty stable, the games hanging off it are getting better. I think this is the best yet, although I still have a soft spot for Hamburgum and the pleasing financial chaos that is Imperial. In Navegador you are all done in 90 minutes, there is plenty of decision making and just about everything is tight – the race for the East, the money, the ships, and if you are not pipped at least twice in the game I would be surprised. On the downside there is a feeling that if you are successful in one area of victory point harvesting, someone else will certainly be beating you hands down in another. And there are huge swings in the luck of the draw of the face down chits. I didn’t mind this, partly because I was on a run and gun strategy. Overall this is a good, solid game design that I will play again.Antoine Bauza for Asmodee
I know a lot of you are getting very excited (again). Don’t worry, I am not going to knock it. Even I played this one repeatedly on first encounter, and that is a rare occurrence. I like it a lot, but I currently don’t love it. There is not much wrong with the game, but it is what it is – a very clever, and synergistic, combination of existing mechanisms which works well, quickly and is fun to play. In some senses it is too quick, and certainly most of the sense of theme and narrative are lost in the rush. It is also a filler, even though it has decent depth, and after the initial foray of five games I thought it might fade as quickly as it plays. Still, I know I will return to it many times, and teach others, even if I have suspicions about the science score weighting. I also thought the card symbology was very well handled in exactly the same way that Race for the Galaxy wasn’t. I think when the inevitable expansions arrive it could easily go up a level - I just hope they are fairly priced. Good stuff, and a definite buy for large game groups as it scales very well.
And finally, two year’s worth of Sumos for your enjoyment.
Special Retrospective Yokozuna
I have said too many times that I can become disenchanted with German games. This almost always follows a period where I play a lot of new titles and they are all average or worse. It happens, but not as much as it used to, and a restorative menu of old trusted favourites and good friends normally cures me in a hurry. Then again there are those sessions of gaming where it seems every new game is a winner, and even somehow fresh and exciting. This time I have three such games to describe, all fall into the ‘about an hour, sometimes much less’ slot, and all have deceptive weight. Sort of Super Fillers, but a little bit more.
First up is Peloponnes, a neat, lean little game from a small German company - Irongames. The drawback here will be sourcing a copy quickly and cheaply, but everything else is positive. This is a straightforward auction game, but one that offers new angles and, it must be said, makes the boring old Amun Re mechanism interesting again. Well, at least for a week. You are trying to build your ancient civilisation (yes, I know…) and achieve this by avoiding disasters and buying civilisation tiles. Each tile offers either buildings or land, and brings something different to the party – for instance population, powers, or income. Some tiles will be hotly contested because they will ‘fit’ better for some players than others, while others have fairly obvious use only to you. Tiles acquired, after just eight turns you assess your civilisation for balance, add up the points, and that’s it. Because there is an asymmetrical element early on, and because you can’t always get what you want, there is a constant decision level throughout with some recognisable strategy, neatly countered by a good sense of actually building a Greek city state. I think that is impressive in such a short game. It needs a graphical overhaul, perhaps a bigger publisher, and I would make the disasters uncertain. But apart from that, stick it on your Christmas list.
I was a little slow to get hold of a copy of Roll Through The Ages, but I have made up for it with several plays since. Like Pandemic, I will play three or four games in a short period, and then put it on the shelf. Unlike most games, it comes down again a few weeks later and impresses me, and any new recruit that I foist it upon. By now you know the score, and I have to say it is a very clever game with surprising amounts of narrative – hard to believe that a simple roll of a few dice can depict an empire with starvation or years of plenty or booming trade. In short, it is Yahtzee, but it is Yahtzee with soul.
Next is Endeavor (I will suffer the spelling mistake in the cause of world peace). Strangely enough, there is a similar feel to Peloponnes here. There is a lot to do, but you are fully aware that the game is short, and that your actions are precious. Given that, here is a game where you feel you achieve a massive amount of expansion in no time at all, and from choosing a single building at the start, you are managing a worldwide empire by the end. Yet, only an hour has passed. Very clever. This is probably, but only just, my favourite of the three.
All three of these games, along with Hansa Teutonica and even the lighter Tobago reviewed last time, offer a credible gaming challenge in a short and, importantly, appropriate period of time. In fact, in some respects, they can run out a little too quickly. We already have a widely played variant for Roll Through, and it would not surprise me to see spin off expansions for Peloponnes as well. As ever, if you start with a quick, solid, streamlined chassis you can always add some more accessories without affecting performance too much.
As you have probably gathered I like this style of game. I don’t want to play them all the time, preferring a balanced diet of card, short, medium, and longer/flavoursome games, but I like their utility, their clever design, I can see that their creators have made sure that they are ‘finished’ before publication, and I am more than happy to spend an hour or so with them. Like no other type of game, they make me think and analyse. I put this down to their transparency and economy of mechanism. Predictably, I would like to see more of the same and, I hope, the designers feel the same way. Hobby affirming games – I like ‘em!Friedemann Friese for Huch
A slight oddity this, a party style game designed by our old mate FF. In truth, Friedemann and I have drifted apart in recent years. The decline started with Fresh Fish, and was compounded by that awful rolling board monster game Fearsome Floors. In short, I haven’t liked any FF games for what seems like a decade. Felix was okay, and I hope to enjoy Factory Manager, but generally, in Friends terms, we are ‘on a break’.
And then along came Fauna. I really like Fauna. It puts a new spin on the trivia game staple, and it sits proudly as one of my most fun experiences of the last year. I will play it when I can and when there is an English version, will buy a copy. It is this simple: a card is drawn which lists an animal. It is our job to identify its habitat(s), guess how much it weighs and how long it, and its tail, is. In turn, and turn order is crucial, you place your bet markers on the board – either on the world map, or on the weight/length tracks. If you are bang on you get points, if you are close you get points too, but not as many, and if you are way off you lose a marker for a round. Play a few rounds, have a laugh, have your head swell as you recall some dim and distant facts, feel that all is right with the world. A simple idea very well executed, and great fun for kids (like me).Corne van Moorsel for Cwali
The latest game from Cwali, who are a bit hit and miss, but for me have delivered for the last few years with Factory Fun and Powerboats. This is an auction game – not my favourite beast these days – but this works well enough to overcome Auction Ague and has some clever ideas to boot. You build your basketball team from five categories of player, with an eye to height, form over several future seasons and income potential. In time your squad and income should improve, but may also decline, while you try to win as many titles as you can over six years. The season is resolved by having the highest team value – no games are played, so it is rapid fire stuff and it is all over within an hour. A degree of variety is added by choosing coaches, referees and agents to help the cause. Fun, light and for those that are worried it is NOT a replay game! Another success, but I would say mainly suitable for the late night finisher slot. On a par with Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice, World Cup, the much underrated Hockeyswap! and similar fun games – and if you like those, you will certainly like this.Michael Reineck for Kosmos
This co-operative game immediately looks like a slimmed down version of Arkham Horror but is in fact based on a successful series of German novels. The novels seem to use the Arkham mythos, and we get the same Old Ones and most of the monsters, so people seem happy enough to regard it as the real thing. At least it saves me having to bang on about IP for a paragraph. Either way, I think all this game will do is offer a quicker, leaner version of Arkham Horror for those that are willing to give up on the plot cards, immersive play and characters. Hexer is essentially the exact same plot (discover rifts, seal them up, don’t get eaten by an Old One in the process) boiled down to the essentials. You can play it in an hour, and frankly I can see many more opportunities to play this one than the Elder Game. Obviously there will be times when I prefer the longer, richer form. A classy piece of downsizing, beautifully presented.
Block games and I go way back. I like almost all of them, and in some respects they can provide the optimum gaming experience. This year I have greatly enjoyed the very limited run Pax Baltica (currently awaiting a reprint by GMT) and, more recently, Richard III. This latter game started life as War of the Roses (now reduced to a mere strapline) and has often been tagged as Kingmaker for the new century. I think that probably presses all the buttons for me.
The first comment, in case you were flinching at the mention of Kingmaker (games of that old warhorse could, and did, last many hours and/or hit painful stalemates), is that the playing time has been hauled down close to two hours. This in itself is a decent piece of design work. Perhaps as a trade off, it is now two player only which seems fitting as we are still dealing with the Wars of the Roses – Yorkists vs Lancastrians, get your pretender established on the throne to win – but as befits a block game we have strayed over towards a wargame rather than a 1970’s gamer’s game. Think Hammer of the Scots, or Martin Wallace, in weight.
In short, there are twenty one turns split into three campaigns of seven phases driven by a simple, rather bland, CDG system. Between each campaign is a political phase where the King may be usurped. In this way, players take turn to be the King and the Pretender. In each phase you can move your forces (including your valuable heirs), or recruit more nobles and armies. The most nobles on the board when the political phase is reached either holds on to the crown, or takes it over. You can quickly see that killing enemy heirs and nobles, preferably by risking only bog standard troops, is a key element. This is fortunate because when two armies end up in the same area of England or Wales, there can be, and usually is a battle. This follows the usual pattern of block games and is fine, if a little drawn out sometimes.
Overall, Richard III feels slightly more game than wargame. You have a limited number of actions, and – Euro style – you always have more things to do than you have action points. This is solid decision making territory. Combine that with the restrictive geography of the map, no sieges, nicely handled treachery, and a decent fog of war element, and you have some interesting situations to encounter. Wider, there is definitely some depth of strategy to explore. I certainly felt I wanted to play again to correct my first game errors (protect your heirs!), and I could see that once into games two or three, four and five should soon follow. At that point we have had the value from the game, and it is all free fun thereafter. Is it fun? Yes, in that Wallacian way where one is negotiating a number of different obstacles and considerations under limited time and action point restraints.
Against this, I am not yet convinced play is balanced, and there is a definite sense that big killer stacks are the way to go, and that there isn’t an awful lot of strong history here. Frankly, for this type of game, and game it is, I don’t think the latter matters too much, but the two former comments do. We do have a feel for campaigning and noble power bases, a sense that there might be two or three decisive battles and several smaller actions in the duration, and a decent stab at the heraldry, names and atmosphere of the period. Some of this fits well, some of it doesn’t – we still have plague cards as a hangover from Kingmaker. But it’s a good game, commendably quick, fairly challenging, and I suspect many will like it as a complement to, or perhaps even replacement for, Hammer of the Scots. Good stuff.
It has been a while. Too many reasons to explain, but apologies. What you have below are my thoughts on games recently played at the Eastbourne convention here in the UK. Next time, and I promise it before Christmas, there will be another batch of new games written up, plus (probably) The 2009 Sumos.Paulo Mori for Z-Man
I don’t think I have ever seen such a good game come out of such a small box… Pocket Battles is right up my street. A quick, easily learned game that is both reasonably historical and fun. To be honest I wasn’t at all hopeful after reading the rules and play sheets, which have some small holes and fuzziness, but in play it all came together well.
This is how quick it is: choose your army up to a set number of points, take 10% of that number in command chips which are depleted when hits are taken. Set up the armies. Attack. Win by killing 50% of the enemy points. That’s it. As a result, a common complaint is that the game is over too quickly (oh, what a disaster!). We had games that were over after a handful of turns – this is a decisive system. So play best of three, or just choose bigger armies. Problem solved.
Pocket Battles is one of those games that punches above its weight. The best guidance I can offer is a game somewhere between Battleline and Command & Colors: Ancients. This first set is Romans vs Celts. But I suspect we will see more armies, more periods and, inevitably, fantasy battles before too long. Assuming, that is, everyone likes it as much as I did. Some units have traits, such as fury for berserkers and command for Roman generals. These give a good feel for the different troop types even if some (Druids) do stretch the historical envelope.
Overall we are talking deadly, fast and fun here, with army choice, set up and play in about thirty minutes or less. Think below C&C:A’s complexity level, but much quicker. The game can indeed turn on a bad or good die roll, but that rather adds to the narrative appeal with a sense of making your own luck. The historicity will be the test for some hardcore wargamers, but we had some believable stuff going on at the combat level if not the command, and it would be very easy to tweak the setup and add on further rules. On my buy list, and a nice surprise.Andreas Steding for Argentum
While he has produced some oddities, Andreas Steding always comes up with an interesting game. Hansa Teutonica, as befits its name, is a dyed in the wool German Game, riffing on the network building/trader theme. While we have seen many of these network games - some good, some bad – I think I can now say, after four games, that this one is among the best. It solves a lot of the common issues and, with the right people, really rattles along. There are several ways to score VPs, the game end triggers add a pacing dimension, and it has that lovely, ‘Can’t wait for my turn’, quality. My first game was excellent, the second marred by being kicked a lot by rival players, the third and fourth games returned to form. I was impressed and so were all the others that played.
This is a game you will learn by instalments. The early play is quite leisurely and friendly. Even fun. Later in the game you will experience the pain of interaction, and needing to pronounce escritoire all the time. Then you start to work out new tactics and strategies, for this game has many. By the second or third game you will have realised how tactical, cutthroat and just plain nasty Hansa can be. Some players take this sort of thing well, others get very stubborn, and some are genuinely hurt. Because the game will drag with slow gamers, you need to choose your opponents well: thick skins and fast brains should do it.
Hansa Teutonica is hampered by some woolly rules; the drafting is poor throughout and, worryingly, some German words remain untranslated…). The play aids aren’t much better (fancy Latin terms in games never really work), but we were there by game three. The board is nicely rendered, but the white Germanic text on pale grey is a disgrace – town names can’t be read, so much historical and geographical flavour is lost. But overall this one has struck a chord and I am putting it right up there in my favourites of the year so far. I wouldn’t want to be playing for more than 90 minutes with five, and I have a nagging doubt about something indefinable lurking, so I am really hoping this has been tested to destruction. That slight caveat aside, highly recommended.Hanno & Wilfried Kuhn for DDD Verlag
I like this company and, by extension, these designers. Last year I played their earlier effort - Die Wiege der Renaissance - and while it wasn’t quite there, I saw enough clever ideas and differentiation to make me sit up and take notice. When I finally got a chance to play Uruk recently I was hopeful, even a bit excited. Fortunately I was not disappointed and managed three games in the same weekend. That doesn’t happen very often. Plus, I now have Seidenstrasse to hunt down…
Uruk is another game from the Civilization-lite school. It is a small box game, is reasonably priced, and gets the best out of its limited components. Clever use of cards and cubes, and an hour or less duration, makes this a game that can be played on a train, and we did exactly that.
The game is simplicity itself. You have five slots in which to place inventions, or Civilization cards if you prefer. Think bean fields, but there is no planting in this game. You start in Epoch I with a basic skill and, fairly quickly, you build more low level cards. Soon you will be able to purchase a settlement which validates your slot for more VP’s, and later these upgrade to cities which double the slot value. Time passes, Epoch II and III come along, and you start to overlay your original slots. You will now be looking at more powerful cards, useful combinations and even game winning coups. In the later stages gods appear, as do disasters, and the game accelerates to the endgame. While cards buy cards, which can generate resource cubes, and cubes buy settlements, Uruk somehow manages to avoid that conversion game ennui that many of us are now suffering.
After the third game I started to pick up some concerns from other players. Firstly, there was a suspicion that the game could often be close overall, and a marginal win may come down to a lucky run of card draws, or timing and focus of a god or disaster. For me, given the speed of play and the weight, this is okay. If anything it is a plus. I can’t see myself levelling the same complaint at Roll Through The Ages, for instance, which has similar victory points/turn considerations. Also, Uruk can finish quite quickly. Epoch III in particular can disappear in a blur. Perhaps, as with all these lite games, we are left wanting a little more.
Secondly, interaction is undoubtedly low, and in some cases minimal – the whole thing is a race, you keep an eye on the other players’ actions, count cards if you wish, and sometimes you get a chance to make a build that affects them, or pushes on the game tempo to your advantage. But in the main you are building your own empire, as quickly and efficiently as you can. There are no armies, and so no combat. There is not even trading (there may be, as we haven’t seen all the cards). Again, the game length mitigates this criticism but it may bother others more than it does me.
As you can tell, I was impressed with Uruk. As soon as you start playing it is clear that the designers have grasped the problem and made a decent fist of cracking it. It felt quite fresh and, like all these new fangled fast and solid games, it gives me confidence in seeing some really classy games in a year or two. Another firm buy…Stefan Feld for Queen
I like Stefan Feld’s games; even if he does sometimes run against my preferences, the designs are always good quality. That said, I don’t have much to say this time as apart from new cards and some minor play tweaks, this is much the same game as Roma, still one of my favourite two player games. In fairness to Queen’s marketing team, Arena is both a stand-alone game and an expansion to Roma, which rather covers all the bases. It isn’t very expensive either. In an ideal world I had hoped it would take Roma to the multi-player level, but that treat hopefully lies in the future. Meanwhile, this delivers exactly what you might expect and all fans of Roma should buy Arena immediately.Richard Sivel for Histogame
Another short review, because there is no need for a longer one. Everyone who played raved about this follow-up to the excellent Frederick. This time, the three players have well balanced armies and options, and there are some minor improvements to the system. The map is gorgeous. So, it would seem difficult to go wrong here. Another buy for me, even though I didn’t get to play it. I don’t expect it to be cheap when I get the chance.Dirk Henn for Queen
The latest from Queen and Dirk Henn, a designer who once sold you games from his backpack, but who now has probably made it to the elite group of designers. Seemingly Queen will publish anything he delivers, so that can’t be a bad gig. I say that advisedly as Colonia doesn’t quite work. There is much that does, but it is the final reckoning that is flawed, which leaves a strong sense of anti-climax.
In essence, this is a game governed by the days of the week, which is a pleasing idea. We all progress through the week, phase by phase, placing workers, visiting the market, producing goods, passing bye-laws, loading goods onto ships, sailing for foreign lands, earning foreign currency and finally, on Sunday, buying relics (VPs) at the church. It is mainly resource conversion with knobs on, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but it is fair to say that each day has something original going for it – the waiting list for the tradesmens’ goods is especially clever. Shorn of theme, this is buy resource a, convert to b, to c, to d and then e. Added back in, the theme just about raises it above the abstract algebra.
But when we get to the end of the cycle, there is a big problem. You have carefully worked your way through the week, planning and squeezing out your optimum play. Come Friday it is starting to get a bit chaotic, Saturday compounds to that feeling, and by Sunday you are desperate. In short, you lose control of how many d’s and e’s you can reliably identify and obtain, so you take what is on offer and make the best of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but to go through all that, and to commit two valuable gaming hours, you rather expect more correlation between effort and reward. Don’t get me wrong, this is a decent game but even I, a notoriously uncompetitive gamer, wanted a more refined end game because I felt short changed. So good in parts, and plenty of ingenious ideas, but on balance not properly finished. The result was, quite surprisingly, a game that none of us felt we needed to play again in a hurry.Paolo Mori for What’s Your Game?
This is a much bigger game from the designer of Pocket Battles, showing his range and talent. Vasco da Gama is the archetypal Euro design, offering a set of tweaked, clever mechanisms, role selection and a brand new action selection/auction technique, all wrapped up in a thinnish theme. Phew. This time we are buying, crewing and launching ships to sail to India and set up trade ports. I thought the sub-games, the coastal contest and the action selection worked very well, but the latter wasn’t perhaps shown in its best light. The mechanism allows for fine and discrete player order resolution, but I felt we didn’t always need that level of granularity. Still, it does work. Like Colonia there is a sense of just going through the motions and I wasn’t engaged overall in a theme I should theoretically enjoy. Between me and you, I thought it would work much better as a space race game: public opinion, recruiting astronauts, obtaining funding, suffering political setbacks, and launching missions. Yes, on balance, that would have been better. Overall, good but not great, but offering plenty of quality hints for Mr Mori’s next design.Bruce Allen for Zoch
And to finish, a really excellent game that reminds me of why we play German games. Tobago is a lightish, family style Euro, so you wargamer types can put your wallet away, but this is a brilliant design, with lovely graphics and a fun, original system all in one (admittedly rather expensive) box. It has family Game of the Year written all over it, if only I could be bothered with such things.
On the island of Tobago are several buried treasures that are slowly tracked down by the play of clue cards. We all drive around in ATV’s hoping to be first to the site, but anyone who helped to locate the treasure gets a share when it is finally dug up. The share out mechanism is a rather nifty card draft with a couple of kickers, and it makes for a short, intense decision making sequence. There are three neat systems on offer here (movement, treasure locating, and treasure sharing) and the whole thing plays in an hour. Universally liked, even by the jaded bunch of gamers I played with. Highly recommended.
Postscript: I couldn’t make Essen this year. A long time friend and gamer passed away suddenly and I felt my loyalties were to her family – my best friend Paul, and my godsons – rather than a trip to Germany.
Jayne Townsend, 1959-2009.
I therefore, as last year, hand over to Chris Payne who did an excellent job of spotting the new releases.
There is an old English saying ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, which has become a modern American saying of, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, and I would use this to describe the response to games this year at Essen. Not only was the party of four that I travel with often split on views on games but that seemed to be echoed with other people that I spoke to as well. This year was one of the hardest years to decide which games are the potential long-term classics and which will fall by the wayside.
For me personally, space to store games (I have 475 already) has become an issue and the poor Pound:Euro exchange rate meant that €30-€40 for a game equalled the same amount in pounds. So savings from Essen purchases compared with buying from my FLGS at home were close to non-existent at times. So, I’m looking for the best in games that expand my frontiers of gameplay, or which cover topics or areas that interest me.
Of course Spiel is still enjoyable, but it is long days and late evenings, with the mental exertion not only of playing lots of games but hearing the explanations, descriptions and tales of many more, with a diet of meat, beer and cream with the occasional fruit or vegetable thrown in. And this year for some reason seemed to be one of the more gruelling Essen’s that I have been to, in a year when my remit was very open.
As always with 500+ new games and 27 hours at the show, what follows must be a personal view. This year’s top runners were always going to be dominated by the fanboys with the release of Gates of Loyang and Fabrik Manager and these dominated the Fairplay lists. Both of these games will be more than adequately covered elsewhere. So, what of the rest? Before I went I had an “A” list and a “B” list of games that I wanted to play, or at least get a run-through of play and a look at. I managed to cover in one way or another virtually all of my A list, and little of the B list. I was originally giving games a marking in my comments but have now deleted them after my comments on Savannah Tails as its marking really does depend on if I want a game to play in a family setting or if I want a game with hardcore gamers.
Two other trends featured heavily in the halls: Dominion and its expansions were being heavily promoted and Train games, train maps and train game expansions also seemed present in numbers and again will be heavily covered elsewhere.
First game that I got to play was Endeavor (Magister Navis in German) and by agreement with Z Man we were able to play a full game from start to finish, whereas future gamers were likely to be time curtailed as had happened to us last year with El Capitan. It’s good that we were able to play through fully; otherwise I could have had very different views on this as the ability to place tokens and do things expanded rapidly on turn 4/5 after a slow start.
The game is about scoring victory points for building settlements and trade routes, and this is done by activating buildings that offer tokens (essentially workers) for placement, money to pay workers, raw materials for expansion or the ability to generate new workers. Advancement along these tracks will also earn victory points at the game end. As an economic resource management game it is very easy to end up in a state of mismanagement: too many workers to place or not enough resources to pay them, or more money than is needed to pay the workers you have. Using buildings to “do” things seemed reminiscent of Puerto Rico or Agricola, and advancing along dual ability/victory point tracks reminds me of another game that I cannot currently place. That said Endeavor stands in its own right as a game and not just a blend of older games recycled: there is something new in mix although it is quite hard to place exactly what that is. As always, some possible strategies emerged during the first game, and there was lots of ‘next game I would do this’ comments. Random placement of the bonus markers will ensure every game is different (we were told after placement that we would have an especially slow game to develop after no extra turn markers appeared in Europe) which is something I generally like from my games. The Slavery issue has been debated in the hobby: my personal stance on it is that is historically accurate to reflect it, and the game mechanisms do remind people of the exploitation.
Likes: random marker placement ensuring game variety, variety of building options (although I would have liked a few more) causing different tactics from different players.
Dislikes: stylised swirly board pattern that meant at times some trade routes weren’t as clear as they might be.
Buying: Personally wavering, one yes, two no.
Each Essen brings some changes in games companies and their apparent standing as judged by the hall they are in, and the size of stand and glitz that has gone into the stand. International enclaves and alliances also seemed to be the order of the day this year with the French and Italian speaking stands clustered near to each other. From the voices I heard in the hall though I would guess that the number of foreign visitors (including Americans) was down, I suspect because of the financial costs of attending. Boardgamegeek.com though were there in force, both with the game, promoting the website itself and encouraging visitors to log what games they had played during the fair. I got to shake Derk’s hand as well.
My next game was from one of those companies moving apparently up in the league tables: Eggert Spiele with now not only their stand in hall 9 but also their tented stand in hall 12. Superficially Havana looks like Cuba – the cards, the cubes and the action cards all look very familiar. The game is not language independent the card test is important and the game is of the length and style where you need to be able to read the cards reasonably quickly to get the most out of it. The game is pitched at a different level to Cuba (shorter although not necessarily easier) and with more direct interaction between the players as resources change owners. There is luck in the game from what resource cubes get drawn from the bag and the effect of other players on the turn order. There is skill in the game in the card management.
Dislikes: some randomness in play caused by the mechanics and the superficial resemblance to Cuba.
Buying: Personally wavering, one yes, two no.
I stand to be corrected but the Scots I suspect are in a global village of one stand at Essen represented by Fragor. I don’t think Fragor have ever done a bad game, it’s just that their target audience can substantially vary with each game. This year was Savannah Tails, featuring ostrich racing. Race game, modular board and fairly fast game play, with sensible price tag at the show (€23) should have made this an essential purchase for me, yet it wasn’t. I already have Snow Tails and whilst the movement mechanic is different in Savannah Tails the game itself seemed much more luck based than Snow Tails. Cards come in different colours and numbers, and broadly speaking its play a card and move that number of spaces and end up on a space of that colour. Only one movement across the track is allowed each turn and some track spaces have different effects. There is some element of card management and forward planning but I would put Savannah Tails at the family game end of the race game market with Snow Tails nudging into the gamer’s game market.
Dislikes: Luck element on the card draw, lack of relationship between cards in the deck and length of course. For shorter courses I think there needs to be some element of removing the higher value cards to equal out the card draw element.
Likes: Quick, reasonably simple and ostrich shaped meeples.
Buying: One yes, three (including me) no.
Credit must go to the Fragor team though. Normally Scotsmen are famous for their parsimony. The Leap of Death expansion tile (for Snow Tails) was originally going to be only available on presentation of the big paws tile from Snow Tails, but the policy at the Spiel seemed to be more relaxed and I heard the quote from Gordon “If we have them, we give them out, and we get given them at various times”.
Political/Diplomacy games have always had an interest for me, but I also dislike where a political game is defined as “extended and protracted negotiation”. I gave up playing Diplomacy when I ceased being a student and these days I want some structure to my games, if only to keep the negotiation to a reasonable limit. Caligula was therefore of interest. We only played a shortened game (fewer action cards) and with a relatively poor initial rules explanation and a designer who clearly likes his use of Latin words and phrases we were off. The game is about bumping off emperors and choosing if to join conspiracies to bump them off or keep your man on the throne, or waiting until you are in a stronger position to do something. Caligula is always the first emperor to be bumped off and some of our team felt that the title was somewhat inappropriate as a result. This seemed to be a game where one understood the mechanics fairly quickly or struggled with how to achieve anything. A later rules explanation in the game helped as did access to the rules. This is a boardgame where cards on the table form the board.
Dislikes: not very intuitive.
Likes: Political game, seemed to work.
Buying: Two yes (including me), two no.
Every Essen seems to have a ‘sleeper’ waiting to be found and Vasco da Gama may have been that game, although it was soon winkled out. Relatively unknown company and unknown designer, but the looks of something promising and a hot tip or two. We played this on Friday morning. Score victory points by sending boats on expeditions. Boats come in different sizes with different crew requirements and occasional bonuses. Crew are dealt in five random groups: buy all of one colour from a group for 1 gold, buy all of two colours for 3, and buy 3 colours for 6 and so on. Captains cost the number of crew actually taken and each ship needs a captain. What was novel in this was the move sequence: broadly speaking (and there are always a few tweaks) it was take one of your action chits (four per round) and take an activation number chit with a range of 1-20. Want to go later, then take a high number, want to go earlier then take a low number.
The catch (there’s always one) is that activation number may have to be paid for: there is a marker which as a starting place within the turn order chits, and before they are activated it may be moved randomly upwards or downwards up to four coins, so you have some guidance but do not know exactly where it will end up. Activation chits above the number will always be free, but those lower will have to pay the difference if one wants to activate the chit. If one chooses to do nil action with the marker then there is some monetary compensation. Vasco da Gama had a very Caylus feel to it – everything always seemed tight: money, crew, ships, captains just about went around but carefully planning was needed, and planning was definitely needed on the activation numbers. In this respect it had elements of Goa where at times I have had to write down the order in which I have to do things to achieve what I want to do, to avoid the embarrassing things such as taking the money with the action after I needed it to spend on the acquiring seamen action.
Dislikes: some of the graphics (on ships and on board) could be a tiny bit more user friendly and the captain pieces were tiny for big fingers. I suspect there is huge scope for analysis paralysis prone people to agonise over both what to do and what activation chit number to take.
Likes: Tight gameplay (each decision counts), novel turn activation system.
Buying: One collectively for a particular purpose, otherwise four no’s but sold out as the later decision to buy was made by some.
Tobago was next up. Concept sounded very clever –search for buried treasure by playing clue cards to determine where the treasure is. The mechanics are very clever and cards will define where a treasure is (e.g. within two spaces of the coast), or where is treasure is not (e.g. not within a jungle). Once a treasure is specific to one location then all those involved in finding it (defined as playing a clue card to determine its location or the person to physically drive to it and dig it up) will participate in the spoils. Spoils are treasure cards with various values, and are chosen in a reverse order of clue placement on a limited knowledge basis. A couple of curse cards in the treasure card mix spice up the decision on taking treasures.
Dislikes: the scope (and time) for analysis paralysis prone people to determine what card to play, probably a bit light for a gamers game.
Likes: very clever system, semi random board and set up ensuring variety of play.
Buying: Four no’s: game should be readily available in the UK and this probably a bit light on gameplay without being a filler game in terms of time for most of the group.
The last final big game that we could guarantee to play because of early access to the hall was Cyclades. Lovely production (although plastic figures and monsters are to follow once they arrive (from China probably) with wooden gaming pieces in the interim. Place men and fleets for territory control, although winning the game is achieved by building two metropolises which require one each of four buildings in your control. These buildings need to be ones that you have either built, or other peoples’ that you have managed to acquire by combat. Actions in turn depend upon the favours of the Gods, and having enough gold to pay for them. One God (with specific powers) per player is available each turn, but with fewer than five players the choice will be random although Apollo is always available. Any God not appearing will be available on the following turn. Bidding for the God’s favours runs on an Evo type system: if a higher bid appears on your God you are forced to bid on a different God. Monsters are also available for hire on payment of gold on a random choice of what is available (three different ones).
Two of us felt that given this was a building domination game then there could be swings backwards and forwards and a “pick on the leader” type problem until someone was able to hang onto a winning position. In the event a “sudden win” occurred where by the use of one of the Gods and one of the special Monsters (Pegasus – the equivalent of an airborne drop) someone was able to do more than the rest us expected, or were watching for, on the one turn.
Likes: Graphics and components, nice combination of economic and military game. No elimination as a player’s last island may never be attacked.
Dislikes: Lack of control to move towards victory. If the God you need doesn’t come up when you need it, or you get outbid, then it may be several turns before you can achieve what you want. Two of us had concerns about game length before the “island too far” became the “island too soon”.
Buying: two yes, two didn’t (including me).
Saturday seemed to be combat day as we followed with Ants! Be the last ant colony standing. Build PeasANTS and SergeANTS to advance and defend your colony and gather food with which to build more ants. Attack the other colonies until you can eliminate the Queen. Cute graphics and reasonable gameplay from (I assume) a new British designer. Our four player game ended up as a slugfest between two players, whilst one player was eliminated very early on. Our initial feelings are that this would turn into a game swinging backwards and forwards until somebody won, whilst the elimination aspect meant that somebody could be looking for something else to do for a substantial length of time. Perhaps I’ve become too used to playing Eurogames that don’t have player elimination as a feature normally, or if they do, then there is often some aspect that is then introduced that speeds up the endgame so that a short while later (say 20 minutes) the game is over. Twenty minutes can soon be lost in a comfort break, or teabreak without people feeling unduly upset.
Likes: Graphics, concept.
Dislikes: Player elimination, potential length, randomness of the food drops causing major changes in the game.
Buying: none (although if the player elimination issue and potential game length can be addressed this could be a good “Euro wargame”).
From Ants we moved to another title beginning with A: Atlantis. The Austrian Spiel Museum had a number of tables given over to this, and some very kind German speaking people who were vacating the table stayed behind to explain the game in excellent English. Pre show there were some thoughts that this was “That’s Life/Verflixxt” with attitude and I can see why, although this is different. Move along tiles by card, pick tiles up from the square behind where you land (which then become victory points), and create water areas which then have to be paid for in cards or victory points. A mixture of skill (card management) and luck (card drawing) in a nicely presented game.
Likes: graphics, gameplay.
Dislikes: Felt very much like an abstract game with the theme pasted on. There might be scope for the analysis paralysis freaks to ruin this game, although a process of elimination should soon narrow options down.
Buying: One (who can cope with a German version), three no’s (including me). I’m waiting to see how much an English version retails for, and I suspect the free expansion the spiel museum was giving away (boats) will expand the gameplay greatly. At least one other of my crew now regrets not buying this.
Other Personal Purchases.
The three player expansion for Krakow 1325. As per my last Essen report I like the flavour, graphics and feel for this game, even if for some people it is too simple or random.
Expansion for Marquis (LudoArt).
Inquisitio and Modern Society. The former sounded interesting as a political/intrigue game from the description beforehand and from what gameplay I saw, even if the topic is a little “dark”. The second game I saw being played and sounded interesting and was a purchase to take advantage of a multiple discount deal.
I received a copy of the BoardGameGeek Game due to my involvement with its design. Graphically astonishing, I consider the gameplay puts it at the lighter end of the gamer’s game market.
So, how am I left now that Spiel 09 is over?
Most regretted non purchases: Vasco Da Gama (sold out at some point), Court of the Medici (sold out very quickly), Atlantis (but I do need English rules).
Most regretted non look at: Dungeonlords, Albion, Assyria
Most missed no show: Lords of the High Frontier
Most awaited to appear in English: Macao
On the Wavering list: Endeavor / Havana / Shipyard
Most disappointed: lack of a deal on buying Ghost Stories together with the expansion at a discount price.
Meat or Poison?: Carson City, Colonia, El Paso, Grenada, Stronghold, Peloponnes, Rise of Empires.
Still searching for: that Civ Lite game that gives me the flavour of Avalon’s Hill’s Advanced Civilisation in half the time.
I hope. It has been a traumatic few months: a bad bike crash; having my wallet, keys, phone and design notes stolen in the British Museum; and finally a water leak which, uncannily, homed in on some of my favourite books - mainly the big, expensive ones with pictures. This latter event gave rise to all sorts of emotions, none good, and of course a frantic effort to save what I could. Despite this, I now have several crinkly paper doorstops lying around.
All of which is the main reason for my tardiness. The other reason was a writer's block of enormous proportions, lasting over two months. It started to ease last week, and 11,000 words later here I am. I'll try not to let it happen again. As if I knew why they happen in the first place.
Do I blog? No, if the paltry number of my inbound blog links is anything to go by. My natural rhythm is quarterly, not hourly, daily or weekly, and I admire those that can bash out those columns that require one to start work again as soon as one is finished. Frankly, I can't come up with interesting topics that regularly. It has to be said that neither can many other people.
One of my favourite, well paced, always interesting blogs can be found at The Game Ranch. As in many cases, the appeal is that the writers, Susan and Ed Rozmiarek, share many of my interests but always have a good angle, or analysis, that makes me think. I was chatting to Susan recently and she said that she hadn't been blogging as much because was a little burned out with Euros ("another worker placement game...") and that she had been playing Descent and World of Warcraft. But she is all better now.
Fortunately I am not currently singed, hopefully having had all my burn out in one big five year slice. That position is rooted in a conscious and constant effort to pace myself on Euros. I am also very aware of my expectations in that just one play is highly likely, as is a degree of disappointment. At the moment I would say that most games are at least okay, which has been true for a couple of years now, and almost all have something interesting and 'new' to offer. One is always reminded of the film industry where the sequel is often the safe option. So even if Stone Age is recognisable in many ways, and draws on previous titles, it is good enough to stand on its own and generate the magical five plays. A Castle for All Seasons and Wasabi, on the other hand, were definitely not.
Then occasionally a game comes long that makes you sit back and say, yes, that's really good. Numerically, it pushes into the eights and even the nines. These are the ones that make it all worthwhile and there are two or three mentioned this time. Does one have to go through the sampling to get to these games? I would say yes, and that the sampling (done with the right people) is still fun, or at the very least a positive experience.
Once again, the social element is an important factor and one that keeps me firmly engaged. The problem I have, like the movies, is that often reviewers or friends will not like a game, but usually I find I need to play it to decide for myself. The best verification, after playing, is a quick Geekbuddy analysis where there are usually enough trusted people at least in the same ballpark, but one still returns to the blogs and friends that got you to play Stone Age in the first place.
Martin Wallace had quite a year in 2008. Toledo, Tinner's Trail, Steel Driver and After the Flood. Not a bad haul, I am sure you will agree. While Toledo is by no means a heavy game, it is very good and I detect some belated interest even amongst hard core gamers. A bit of a sleeper perhaps? I will say no more because I did a bit of work on this one. We have also been playing Struggle of Empires, Brass and Byzantium regularly and with Waterloo and Automobile imminent, this could well turn into a regular Wallace love fest.Martin Wallace for Treefrog
That Mr. Wallace and his railway games, eh? You can't get him away from them. This one is a bit different though, and I think it is fair to say it is lighter and easier to play than his usual brain busters.
So, the good bit. For one joyous moment in the first turn, I thought Martin had designed my dream railway game. There is an unfettered choice as to where you build your empire, and an ever changing, interesting map results. Some areas close down, others remain open for exploitation. Rail routes grow in believable ways most of the time.
The weird bit is that there is a bit of herky-jerky throughout the turns, where you are obliged to change company and lay track you don't really want to, and a very strange end game where bonuses are handed out for all sorts of things. Let's just say that in the second game, one might be clearer what to do. Because of the former aspect, control and strategy also felt compromised but, again, one would do things differently second time around.
Overall I found the game good, with some great bits and some odd bits. I would definitely play again. Two of the other three players did not agree with me and were quite critical. I know why this was, and I suspect it relates to the management of disappointment I was talking about earlier. For me Steel Driver was a solid game that had some very promising aspects, but which was ultimately a bit disappointing because of a dose of short termism. As I was playing for the first time, I was not too worried about winning or even balance. I do however want to be a contender in the game, playing it my way, and trying to enjoy the ride. One to return to.Martin Wallace for Treefrog
Last year, Brass was just pipped for top honours by an outstanding game: 1960. No playing second fiddle this year. After the Flood has been on the table four times and I experienced a very different, and enjoyable, game in each. That may not be a good sign in some cases, but in a Wallace game it is usually a sign of replayability and robustness. The game has a lot of clever ideas, not least in the way the game handles the traditional two on one problem in three player games. As of now, my view is: all good, nothing bad. An excellent game from a designer now well established amongst the world's best.Fraser and Gordon Lamont for Fragor Corne van Moorsel for Cwali
I have grouped these two games together because they are both fun, clever, light race games. They are very quick to complete, feel strangely alike, and make Formule De seem an even longer marathon than it already is. Most impressively, they actually convey a sense of speed. As such, they constitute the ideal filler.
Snow Tails deals with husky sled racing, tackled years ago by Mush, and typified by the Iditarod race. The steering and speed mechanism is rather clever, and unless you have trouble with right and left, you will pick it up in an instant. While I cannot say that the sleds have the correct physics when cornering or hurtling through trees, it is these two skills that you will need to master to win the short, frantic races. I didn't, and my sled is still wrapped around a Scots Pine. I can confidently state that, for me, Snow Tails is the best yet from the Brothers Grimm Lamont.Donald X Vaccarino for Rio Grande
Some of you probably think I am holed up in my internetless, phoneless, TVless little house in the Fens, oblivious to what is going on in the wider world. You would be quite right. But out there, because I have been around a long, long time, I have a number of operatives. Agents, if you will. And they tell me things.
They tell me of hobbits, and a ring. They tell me my teams, the Phillies and the Steelers, will be world champions at the same time. Pah! They tell me that some gamers are taking each other to court. They tell me that my bank is now owned by the government and that I personally owe the directors some bonus money. They tell me I can't afford to go to Essen or Paris ever again. They tell me that Martin Wallace is churning out good to great games once every four weeks. But mainly they have been telling me that Dominion is the hot new game and that it is the next Agricola.
Sometimes, I have to replace my agents.
Mr Yu, Ms Putman; please collect your final payslips.
I have played Dominion three times now. The zealots told me I must play it at least one hundred times to get the net. Preferably two hundred. I think not! All I remember is a lot of shuffling and a neat little bit where I had to stop getting money and start buying land. This reminded me of Carpe Astra's excellent resource arc. Apart from that I could not really see the appeal. The theme is embarrassingly weak. The artwork is plain nasty. It ain't exactly cheap to buy, and, predictably, I won't be doing so.
My level of excitement here is much lower than that for Fairy Tale which was interesting, different, and a game I will play every now and then. They are both clearly very good ideas in search of a decent game. That game will undoubtedly come along eventually.
And Dominion will of course be a huge success.Rudiger Dorn for Ravensburger
It is a long time since Ravensburger had a game in my annual top ten, let alone the top five. But I don't mind where games come from if they are as good as this one. Ironically, the Ravensburger 'luxury' production is a bit cheesey but there is nothing that will stop you playing. There is a lot that is clever here - the main appeal being the role selection/auction system (borderline genius) and the distinct 'loosened corset' feel – you can always get something done, without much pain. Which is more than can be said for some of Rudiger's other games.
It also has genuinely different routes to victory the validity of which are currently being hotly debated. Which is good. It all plays quickly, considering. This is excellent stuff, overall. Not only can I say I liked this game, I can also say that everyone I have played with has liked it as well. Everyone. Apart from Jambo, I don't really care for Dorn games but this one is a must buy. We await the English edition, not that this is in any way necessary to play the game.Acchittocca for Huch/Tenkigames
Frank Branham said, a little while ago now, that the Eurogame is dead. I generally agree, but we seem to have moved firmly into the Zombie Era regardless. Because these games surely keep coming, with their little tweaks and occasionally good ideas, and they are a pain to kill off. Once in a while I set aside a couple of days to blitz the latest twenty apparitions. At a recent weekend session the outstanding game was Comuni. Not because it is stellar, or because it is going to set the world afire, but because it works, it is fun to play, it has some of those clever little ideas and only one or two little concerns. It has an original auction that even I enjoyed. It even has a decent theme. Okay, so the theme is Renaissance Italy, but as I've said many times before if the game is good, I'll take a repeat theme every time.
So, what do we have? Comuni pretty much checks all the boxes in the cliché column: auctions, cubes, worker placement, erecting buildings, collecting guildmasters, majorities, a dose of co-op, catch-up mechanism, longest road, fight off invaders, collect VP's. I hope you are not dissuaded by this identikit approach. Every single aspect of this game feels fresh. It hangs together well, even if the rules are a pain and it badly needs crib sheets. It provides plenty of opportunity for clever and wicked play. It is all over in an hour and a half. Comuni missed winning a Sumo by a hairsbreadth, which I hope says a lot for this game.Corey Konieczka for Fantasy Flight
No, I have not yet watched the new series. Yes, I easily understood the game. I have almost no clue why I enjoyed it so much.
You want more? Okay, the selling point here is superb atmosphere. I did actually feel like a Viper pilot, launched to fight the Cylons. Raiders turn up with alarming frequency, building pressure. I managed to take out six fighters before I crashed and burned. It was tense, gripping, exciting. Bottle that feeling. Better still, there is a traitor or two in the game, one of whom was my wingman who left me to fight alone. Remember Shadows over Camelot's little agitator? This is way, way better. We saw real paranoia at the table. Accusations, suspicion, betrayal, classic poker faced lying. Wonderful, flavoursome stuff.
The trade-off? It is slooooooooow. It takes three to four hours with considerable downtime. In this respect, one reaches the half-way point with a sigh of relief, and a sense of terminal achievement, only to have to do it all over again. Also, the traitor is superbly set up, then weakened because the Cylon has to know the rules and timing strategy, and exactly what to do to cause disruption and when to reveal. The card play, while clever in itself, feels samey because no-one took the trouble to write some interesting text, they just cut and pasted duplicate cards. Over time, one will become familiar with the situations and I suspect it will become stale.
The solution for me would be to put it away on the shelf, and take it down again sometime next year. This will remain the fate of Fantasy Flight games (the playable ones, anyway) until someone comes in and does some decent development work. I think the game could happily play in 90 minutes. I fully understand that FF and their audience may not want it to. In short, BSG is a very, very good game that is criminally overlong. That will not stop me playing it when the stars are right, once a year.
It is said that there are as many chess variants as there are players of chess*. Sometimes they remain a brief glimmer of inspiration, a fleeting daydream; others are nurtured, tested and sometimes brought to market. Shuuro adds to the genre, and is notable both because it is designed by Alessio Cavatore of Warhammer and LOTR fame, and because I think it is worth your time.
* I said this, just now.
Shuuro comes in a very classy box, which contains a sturdy folding board, a load of plastic chess pieces in blue and red, dice (dice in a chess box? Sacrilege!) and a plush rule book that seems to have been translated into every major language and a couple more for luck. As an added bonus, you can use the components to play standard chess as well.
The purest variants retain the core movement rules of chess, meaning that the game is easily learned – doesn't everyone know how to play chess? Clearly, this is a major advantage for accessibility and learning. Hundreds of board games experience the purchased-stored-sold unplayed cycle because of lengthy or opaque rules. In Shuuro one has just two pages of rules to absorb and we were underway in no time at all.
So how does Shuuro differ from standard chess? Well, in three major ways. Firstly the board is extended to 12 x 12 squares. Secondly, a number of blocking obstacles are randomly placed to create battlefield terrain. Thirdly, you get to choose your own pieces secretly, generating two different sides. In true wargamer style, each chess piece has a points value and you select a mix that suits your style of play and intended tactics. The King is free, Queens cost 110, Bishops 40, down to pawns at 10. Anyone thinking 'Chess with an Army List' or Seastrike may claim their £5 reward when you next see me.
I have to say that this army building is good fun. There is a great temptation to buy lots of bishops, because they seem good 'bang for buck' value, but they bring their own drawbacks which you will soon encounter. Neither should one ignore the humble pawns as without them you will have no screening capacity. I leave the discovery of the rest to you.
In play Shuuro is essentially chess but with enough differences to make it a completely novel experience. I know this because I am a pretty bad chess player. Okay, really awful. But this did not seem to matter so much in Shuuro. The asymmetric sides create one level of interest, and the obstacles, which always seem to be in the wrong place, add another. Indeed, they seem to be specifically designed to frustrate bishops, he said with feeling. While some of our games went a little longer, we found that the indicated time of 30 minutes per game was not far off the mark.
Shuuro brings chess a little closer to the battle game it claims to be. For collectors of chess variants, I expect this will be a must buy. It will make for an excellent closer, or a change of pace from the 36 page rulebook games. Good fun, and recommended.
And finally, the most delayed Sumos ever. These are my personal awards for the top ten games of the previous calendar year, minus those that I didn't get round to playing, plus those played late from last year (!). They mean nothing to anyone but me, although three other people apparently enjoy looking, and one is waiting to berate me for choosing the top two.
Unplayed and Still On the Urgent List
I was due to travel on the Wednesday with Richard Breese. On the Monday night I managed to pull a muscle low in my back. It has happened before, it heals eventually, but this was cruel timing. By Tuesday it had stiffened up nicely and I could barely walk downstairs without a lot of pain. Reluctantly, and knowing the prognosis, I decided that eight hours a day on my feet at Spiel was a really bad option. Dejectedly, I retired to bed, wondering once again how I was going to put my socks on, and dreamed of German beer, friends and new games.
Oddly, there was a silver lining. Due to this enforced break, I got a lot of reading done, cleared the DVD backlog, and generally did absolutely nothing. It turned into a genuine rest, much needed, where I was often sleeping half the day. I feel much better for it, a good antidote to a madly busy year. Much calmer, I didn't spend a penny and I still have the games to look forward to. Quite a positive outcome, on balance.
From the reports I have read, I am most looking forward to After the Flood (easily top for anticipation), Kriegbot, Krakow, Planet Steam, Comuni, Jet Set, Snow Tails, Uruk, Palais Royal, Golden Age, Power Boats, Corunea, Saladin, Cavum, Name of the Rose, Dominion and Le Havre. Okay, okay. I am interested in anything you put in front of me. I am even reasonably intrigued by Duck Dealer, Battlestar Galactica and Space Alert.
Monday after Essen. Still struggling with the whole walking thing. Enter Chris Payne, long time gaming friend, regular Essen attendee and, best of all, possessed of working legs. Chris did a useful round up for those of us who didn’t attend, and we quickly decided that this might well be of interest to you. So, over to my able sidekick:
It’s the event every office junior dreams of or dreads: it’s the big day and the boss rings in sick because he is flat on his back pumped full of painkillers and told to rest, having put his back out. The key to the executive wash room is mine! Hot tubs, booth babes, parties and cocktails! [MS: Now they all know…] The reality then soon dawns – 300+ new games and three and a half days of the fair left means its time to hoist the press pass into a more prominent position and go game!
Every Essen starts the same: reading what one can from the Geek, Spielbox and Cliquenband and then progressing to the companies’ own websites to see what crumbs they are releasing about their new games. And every year, the carefully prepared scheduled list goes out of the window in the first hour as news starts to ripple through from fellow gamers – either people you know from back home, or people from the hotel, or snippets from people you get a game with.
Each Essen is also different. This year’s mention must be the number of no shows, caused in many cases I gather by problems at the Chinese factories which unexpectedly closed down for 3 weeks to avoid pollution at the Olympics but which hadn’t been factored into their promised production schedules. [MS: some reports indicate that a third of Chinese toy and game production has disappeared] So, at there was no sign at least of the following (and probably many others): Ascendency, Middle Kingdom, Constantinopolis, Roll Through The Ages, Battles of Napoleon, Black Sheep, Genji (said to be stuck on a lorry somewhere) and Tulipmania.
What else was new this year? A number of five and dime stores selling games on the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap principle. New games stacked in the following price bands on one store €2.50 / €5 /€7.50: although post Essen I have read about the apparent demise of Uberplay which could explain some of the stock. So there were real bargains like the old version of Money by Reiner Knizia for €2.50 which I’d been looking for as presents for my German RPG chums who I’m weaning on to boardgames. Obviously there were less successful games amongst those piled high but the odd classic appeared.
There was a noticeable non German buzz in the background: lots of Dutch, Italians, Poles with a smattering of French and a leavening of Brits, Irish and Americans. The trickle of English rules in the boxes that started last year seems to have become a bucket this year. The big German boys like Kosmos and Ravensburger are still not swayed by this but there are also often dual releases of their games with an American partner such as Mayfair and Rio Grande Games.
Rio Grande were again there in force with a big demo stand, but this year they seemed to have taken things one stage further and there was a noticeable lack of people to explain a game. Thus an hour’s game creeps to two hours as you read the rules from scratch, put out the bits to play the game, and re-do odd bits of various turns as the meaning of a particular rule becomes absolutely clear or clarified. This means less turnover of games being played and a more stress exercise. Some the translation of rules into English was also poor in places.
My personal view, based upon experience, is that the best translation is done by a gamer, and by gamers who have also played the game. At €30-€40 for a new game in English then I do start to expect better translations. (A Castle for All Seasons was the Rio Grande translation in question). I would argue that successful promotion of a product at Essen really does need demo space and a demo team if it is to succeed. As always it is noticeable how some of the smaller companies, possibly at their first Essen hadn’t considered how they were going to sell their product.
What follows are personal comments based upon what I saw or played at Essen:
Steaming: (too hot to touch) Agricola Extra ExtraBits and Le Havre (Lookout). For long parts of the days it seemed as if the queue was always at least thirty minutes until they had sold out or given the last promotional item away. Duck Dealer by Splotter was sold out within an hour.
Luxurious long soak in the Hot Tub with Candles: Krakow 1325
First game from a new company and our group was he first to play it at Essen on the Thursday morning. It’s only a four player game and is played as a partnership game but with an overall winner. It’s also language dependent with text on cards (available as English, Dutch and German I think). The players are one of four groupings but this is kept secret until the end – The Good and Decent Citizens, The monks and Mystics, The Secret Societies and The Underworld. These are randomly dealt out at the start and nobody knows who is who. Players are then in partnership with who they are sat opposite. Players are dealt 9 intrigue cards of which they will play only seven cards for one season. Four Seasons make up a game year and the initial start player changes each season. The aim of the gain is to get your control markers (black or white) into the areas of the board, whilst advancing (i.e. winning) cards of your colour. Your score at the end will be the total of your black or white partnership colour plus the points scored by your grouping. Thus I was partnered with black but wanted blue agendas in the winning pile to score black and blue. The intrigue cards will show what area they will grant control cubes in, and their score in four colours, although what matters is the colour of the first card down. If it is for example yellow then the yellow scores on cards will be totalled. Thus, I may lead with a +6 yellow, to be followed by a -8 yellow from the opponent on my left, and my partner plays a +5 yellow, and the last opponent can only play a -2 yellow, so the result is victory for our team. There are 56 different intrigue cards. There is further subtlety in money, immediate victory points for a faction on some cards if successful and assorted other actions.
I wallowed in the medieval theme, the artwork and the cards and gameplay. It all seemed to hang together for one of those games that is just a pleasure to play. Others that I personally enjoy as much range from Advanced Civ (Avalon Hill), to Ticket to Ride, to short snappy games like No Thanks! and Poison. Talking with the designer he is working on a three player version which will need new control markers and new cards.QWG
Build Track – Find Gems – Sell them to the market is Cavum in a nutshell. A longer version could be describing it as 18xx meets Shear Panic with dynamite. The basic premise is that people are miners seeking to exploit what lies within a mountain. At the start of each round everyone takes 12 different action tiles (these range from things like build a single straight, to build two, three or six crossing straights – the game is hex tile based – to such things as prospecting or dynamiting. Each action is done once, and only once per turn by a player although the “option” tiles may allow more of the same depending upon what is in the “bank” pool. So, in Shear panic you have twelve actions on your board marked off one by one: in Cavum you have twelve action tiles. Alternatively the limited twelve action tile sequence can be seen as a way of speeding up those games where one gets say ten actions point and then deliberates how to spend them (e.g. Tikal) and some people will spend a very long time working out permutations of their points. Each round you play three of your tiles, so the choice of options decreases each later round in the turn. The gem placement tile is such that you will only be able to exploit it the following round, so turn order starts to become important. Dynamite will only affect hexes if left uncovered at the end of a turn, so will often be covered over by another tile.
The English rules were well written to the point of being perhaps a little “over written” for the purposes of a rules explanation when some of the nuances would only need to be checked if they occurred. With hexes on a blank board and multiple options for a round then there is much strategy to be explored here, and lots of reply value as the tiles will probably be in different layouts every game. The only disappointment I have heard so far has been from railway game fans who feel that the game is too short to fully satisfy them.Z-Man Games
Place ingredients to meet recipes and score points. Recipes range from two to five ingredients. Ingredients are tiles placed on a square grid which is the board. To “score” a recipe the ingredients have to be in a line or column on the board. Get them in the right order and for recipes above two ingredients then bonus points apply. Additionally there are a few special cards available after completing recipes that allow some tweaking – for example play to move ingredients around, play to place two ingredients rather than the usual one and a few other special moves. Turn order is place an ingredient from your stock of three held, then check to see if you have completed a recipe, and if so, score it. Collect a replacement ingredient and collect a replace recipe (I forget the exact order). Wasabi is fairly quick, and nicely produced and therein lies the problem: I consider it relatively expensive for the game length that comes out when other games in the same price band are looked at. It’s likely therefore that I may suggest this as a club game for our club where the quality of the components may ensure some longevity in a 45 minute opener or finisher. Game end either when a points total achieved or when the board is full.Red Glove
Place tiles and (limited supply) control markers to score city blocks alongside the canal and main roads of Lungarno. Tiles are acquired from a choice of three face up ones (free, one VP or 2 VP’s) accordingly and once taken tiles shuffle along accordingly thus reducing in cost. Tiles come in three different types – palaces which belong a noble families and which will score points for who controls them, towers which score across the roads and a few special buildings such as shops that can increase the value of the nearby merchant houses or Churches and Cemeteries which can decrease the value, and the Plaza’s which have a special scoring mechanism.. This was off to a good start with me because it’s medieval themed and tile placement. Tile placement does mean though that if yours is a group that has people that think it is fun to play Carcassonne in two hours, then Lungarno could take two hours rather than the suggested 45 minutes.Zoch
A Knizia dice and dominoes game. The dominoes are sushi morsels or fishbones and to score a sushi morsel you need a fishbone as well. Excess morsels will not score, whereas excess fishbones will. The dominoes (nice chunky plastic bits) have a picture and positive or negative number. Roll the five dice up to three times (setting a dice aside each re-roll) to obtain a combination that either enable you to take a tile from the centre of the table or from somebody else, so there is some element of memory. Fail to get a workable combination and you get the biggest fishbone (minus score) tile. Not Reiner at his very, very, very best I feel but not far off for a dice and tiles game that plays in 20 minutes.Hurrican
I’d better express some self interest here since once of our group did the English translation on this. Deal five cards to each player, and its play a card followed by pickup. Cows are placed in a line based upon the number of the card, and if you can’t play at the low end, or the top end of the line then you take the cards and will be scoring the flies on the cows at the end of the round. There a few special cards that do things like allow insertion into the line, block the line off, can be played over another card etc. The 6 nimmt comparison is obvious: this is a little bit lighter and quicker and has pictures of cute cows on the cards.Yun Games
Think multiplayer Pacman meets Labyrinth. Players are a chieftain and two slaves searching a temple for lost souls. The souls have to be got to the chieftain who can then “release” them and thus score them. The pyramid is a set of 5 x 5 cards, although cards can be placed on top of other cards thus altering the arrangement of wall and rooms and access. Our slippery floor is that we are unsure if souls once captured by a slave are open to inspection by other players, and our scores seemed very low such that one lucky run could win the game. I have emailed the author on this point and will report back.Rio Grande
Rival builders building different parts of a castle for victory points or occasionally money using resources (sand, stone, wood, bricks and metal) combined with a card from one’s hand. Everyone starts with the same hand of eight cards, one of which is played face down in a round and revealed simultaneously. When revealed there is a turn order for resolution of the cards, for example traders go before the stonemason or bricklayer who goes before the more humble workers. Often there is lots of flexibility when your card comes to be resolved and if building is possible, exactly what one builds. Buildings can range form the humble tower requiring a mere eight points of mixed resources but giving six victory points, to the Hall requiring 30 points but gives 18 victory points. The larger buildings also open up what are termed “helpers” in the rules, although I think Castle Officials would make it easier to understand, as your team is limited in numbers. Placing one of our team as a Castle Official also costs you money. The worker cards get you free resources from stock and the chance to build but only for half victory points due to poorer workmanship. If a Master builder card has been played that round and you build then you have to give five victory points to the Master builder as the union inspects your work. The master builder card is also the way to get your played cards back into your hand. In the game I played there were two master builder cards played in one round, and I chose to pay out 10 victory points (five each to two players) which I think cost me the game. With only twelve rounds played then everything – resources, money and actions from the cards always seem tight. I suspect not all the buildings will be built in every game causing variable results. The reverse of the game board contains the castle in winter adding more options and some cards that also affect game play.
Personal dislikes on the game were the presentation – the English translation of the rules seemed poor in places and occasionally not very intuitive (for example the resource exchanging ability of the blacksmith was found under the building rules and not the blacksmith building description). The sample couple of rounds described in the box were of a two player game that has a few differences from the main game: I feel a three player game using the “normal” rules would have been better.
I liked the game. The physical presentation is top notch with nice artwork and tiles. With the basic mechanism being to acquire resources – money – jobs and finally build relationships, then there are obvious comparisons with Pillars of the Earth (plus expansion) and Stone Age. I’m on a slippery floor here as without playing more games then I cannot express an opinion of which of the three may be better than any other.Argentum Verlag
Get your teepees to keep up with the buffalo who are moving cross the plain and exit on the other side of the board to score victory points. On your turn you move buffalo equal to your excess over tepees, feed your teepees and then have a special action which can be acquire food, build more tepees, move one buffalo or move one tent. It becomes a struggle to keep up and survive. A couple of minor queries to raise with the designer if possible over the rules but on the slippery floor because of a concern that whoever is going to come third or fourth may be able to act as a kingmaker and determine who wins. Also, it starts as a fairly friendly almost race game, and then the last stretch bogs down as analysis paralysis starts to take over.
I’m told the boss is better now, so here’s wishing Mike a speedy full recovery and normal service will be resumed shortly. The office boy also now knows how hard the boss actually works as well and I’m surprised that Mike actually finds time to do normal things like eat and sleep in the Essen four days.
Another long break. Sorry. Designing two games, and developing three more, in eight months is not an ideal recipe for regular gaming and writing. But here I am with an overdue update, and I am hoping to deliver the usual Essen report later in October.Ghenos Games (via JKLM/Rio Grande)
There are very few negative moods associated with gaming. Perhaps the empty hole after a day of new, but distinctly average, games is among the worst. But for me it is having designed a mechanism years ago, failing to produce the associated game, and then seeing the market come up with a similar idea. Yes, I know, only myself and a dose of procrastination to blame. That is exactly where I found myself with Leader 1, the latest cycling game to hit the shelves, which came worryingly close to spoiling my day…
The good news is that it is a really impressive game, and an added bonus is that the components are excellent. I say all that in the firm knowledge of Ghenos’ earlier output. While Bolide’s and Rugby World’s vector system appeal to many of the engineering mindset, and work perfectly well, they are not my idea of fun. Leader 1 is a different beast altogether, as I hope to explain.
The first clue to the game is opening the box to find a stack of lovely thick card hexagons, each with a section of a bicycle stage race route. Wide and narrow roads, flat sections, climbs, descents and finish straights in all combinations. And there are plenty of them, allowing mix and match. There is even a roundabout and uphill and velodrome finishes, which instantly give away the designers as true fans.
The graphics are bold and computery, but also rather good. You could happily use these hexes for your own designs, or perhaps for car races. Each type of section is rated for speed (obviously climbs are slow, descents are easy) and the system is clear and elegant. Importantly, each hex also has a number which when totalled gives us the difficulty (think par in golf) for the entire stage, and also dictates the number of stamina points your riders are allocated. As the race progresses you will burn the stamina, and so management of these is key. Only a feed station or tactical riding (‘sitting on’) will gain you more energy. It seems to work very, very well and while I should work out the math, I am happy to remain ignorant for now. Trust me, this system is spot on.
You have three riders in your team, each identical to the other players, although you can differentiate them by allocating one sprinter skill and one descending skill. In the background, but not depicted, are your five or six domestiques. This set up will give you an equal chance to win the race, and the game is well balanced in that sense. For those who know me, and my love of replay systems, this is a proper game, with decisions and stuff. It also happens to have a strong feel for cycling, so I am happy both ways.
The clever part, and the mechanism that sent a warning shot across my bow, is the peloton. This is simply a marker that moves along the stage setting the race tempo, representing all the uncommitted key riders and domestiques. It is automated by die roll and rules but, in a sense, also seems to have a mind of its own. Nicely designed, this. In theory, if no-one did anything, it could go all the way to the finish and it would be a big boring draw. But in reality riders will attack and get away from the peloton, at which point their individual marker is placed on the road, or even drop behind the pack and have to catch up – not easy. Once outside the peloton, especially in the initial breakaway, you will burn energy at a much greater rate than those left safely behind. And that is the rub.
The key to the game is team tactics which, oddly enough, is very much like cycling. The decisions forced – timing, stamina management, risk - are interesting and true to life. The resulting narrative is excellent. Riders breakaway and bravely ride off on their own. Will their stamina hold? Will you commit early or bide your time and go for broke on the descent? Where is the best place to launch an attack for a climber? When will you chase the leaders? Can you get another man up to support them, or hold back to get your sprinter home first? Riders who have made a long lone break struggle at the final kilometre, sprinters and the peloton closing in for the kill. Brilliant stuff. If you like that hidden gem that is Metric Mile, and it is one of my all time favourites, you will have a feel for this element of the game.
There are few negatives. The main one is that, as with most games that allow individual ‘space’ decisions and movement for a lot of pieces (Homas Tour, DTM, Formule De and so on), Leader 1 is not that fast. I would reckon on around 90 minutes, depending on length of the stage. We took two hours (three players) on the basic layout, so whatever you do don’t build a massive track for your first game or you may never return. Timing is initially deceptive, because the early phases of the game are very quick – not many riders to move with the peloton. But as more breaks come, and every rider on the team gets onto the road, it slows up towards the end. Irony of ironies, the final sprint is the slowest part.
On a strategic level, you can record remaining stamina and points and then move on to the next stage with a neat carry over rule. Riders behind the leader are charged with time difference and quickly you see how a stage race works. Whether you would want to do an entire Tour de France in this manner would be debatable (think a full season of Formule De), but you could certainly do a long Spring Classic in one sitting, or a three day race - with a mix of flat stages and mountains - in a long session or over a weekend.
Another oddity is that of your three team members, the team leader is in some respects the weakest. It obviously depends on the type of stage you are racing, but a rouleur will always be faster on the flat, and a climber better going up the lumpy bits. The leader is an average guy, and so in our game, albeit with a very close and exciting finish, a sprinter won. The beauty of such a mechanism is that you can easily tweak the ratings to taste.
Finally, there is an annoying translation error on the English game aid card. Phase 1 should read ‘movement’, not ‘placement’. It will drive you mad until you fix it somehow.
I am going to go out on a limb here. Even allowing for my bias towards cycling of any description, this is an excellent race game. In fact, I would also say it is the best cycling title published so far. Even though there are a few rough edges, and the rules could be tighter, it combines convincing theme and narrative based on evident knowledge of the sport. As a result it has plenty of race drama and decision making thrown in. If it played in half the time we would be talking genius. If you like Homas Tour/Um Reifenbreite hunt this one down; you won’t regret it. Highly recommended, and one of my highlights of the year. I am off to track down at Ghenos' sailing game.Martin Wallace for Treefrog
There is certainly no lack of spectacle in the career of Martin Wallace. The trends and phases are always worth watching and analysing, the changing pace and weight of output remains an eternal mystery, and his gradual departure from inconsistency now makes each new Wallace game an enjoyable experience. Usually... He is, as I have said before, the most interesting and talented designer working in our field (meaning, loosely, gamer’s games with some theme and substance). Long may he continue.
Martin’s latest, and the first in the fascinating Treefrog line, is Tinner's Trail. It fits firmly into the economic game mould that Martin frequently returns to. It is lighter than Brass, and quicker, and I think better for both those achievements. Where it fails is in being a little dry and calculable. This is balanced by an excellent theme, some clever ideas, and an engaging system that impressed me and seemingly most people who have been lucky enough to get hold of one. A very good release, and establishing a strong pointer for the two new games at Essen.Alfred Schulz for Mayfair
Oh boy. This game is so nearly good. I like everything about it except for the awful, inexplicable, unbalanced, (untested?) Mission Cards. It also only seems to work with two or three. I think it is fixable, however. Mayfair, I would like you to meet Development. Development, Mayfair.Matt Leacock for Z-Man
You will all have played this mini-hit by now, and if not please correct that omission immediately. Whether or not you like co-operative games, this is worth playing at least once to experience the clever mechanisms, uncanny appeal and involvment, and inevitably, to get the rules badly wrong. I liked it enough to play four games in a weekend. I may not play again for a while, but that should not put you off. Excellent design work.Yatsutaka Ikeda for Z-Man
A lot of people have been bemoaning the fact that games are no longer fun. Well, this one is. It is not perfect, and in fact it has some strangely unbalanced cards that should have been picked up in testing. But it is good. We played it again immediately, and you know how rare that is. Essentially Werewolf: the Boardgame with a bit of Bang! and Kutschfahrt thrown in, but different enough to deter lawyers. You are a Vampire, a Vampire Hunter, or a Neutral. You know your identity, but no-one else does. By playing cards you try to work out who is on your side, and how you might generate a hope in hell of achieving your victory criteria. Meanwhile, there is mass carnage and everyone edges slowly toward death. But even in death you might win! As I said, good fun. Leaner and meaner than Kutschfahrt, and altogether better than Bang!Michael Tummelhoffer for Hans im Gluck
Early on this year, when this game was being previewed, someone described it like this: ‘Stone Age is a worker placement game. There are dice that are used to find out how many resources you collect. You have to feed your people. You build buildings which give victory points. You can use resources to gain bonus cards that give you an immediate thing and an end game bonus.’
My response was Wow! I have been looking for a game like this for some while, without success…
Okay, sure, it sounds exactly like any cube pusher of the last five years or more. This one could (and would) surely be a twist on Leonardo, Pillars of the Earth, Notre Dame, Cuba, Yspahan, Caylus, KeyX etc etc. But as I firmly believe most games offer at least a very small design step forward, and because I love to be proved wrong, I sat down to play Stone Age. I liked it. I played again. I liked it some more. I now rate it marginally above Pillars, which I have yet to play with the expansion, but will play either happily. Yspahan is still okay, as is Notre Dame, but I am still not sure Cuba works properly.
Meanwhile, Stone Age clearly does work and has a lot of good stuff going on, with even a decent bit of theme in evidence (‘Just off hunting, love’). And while I am now bored by Leonardo, I have not yet become bored with action draft systems in general. I also really like the way that four gamers can play Stone Age and come up with four different routes to victory (or in my case, defeat). Some espouse the tool approach, others make babies, some collect civ cards, while I generally starve. I am sure there are other tactics… About the only thing I am not keen on is that ‘apparently in contention until the final add-up when all the VP multipliers are played and ending up dead last’ thing. A trifle annoying. Multipliers are such difficult things to control, especially when we can’t see them. Overall, considering it is about as hackneyed as they come, recommended.
What with design, playing and miniatures, my opportunities for board wargame play are few and far between these days. So, my purchases are restricted accordingly. Having survived several years without adding a single wargame to the collection, two good ones came along at once… They are both very good, and very different.
Warriors of God is that pleasing rarity, a game about the medieval era. We are looking at a top level strategic game with Euro overtones, in that it is quick, highly flavoursome, decision heavy, and there are lots of options and tricks to learn. The rules meanwhile are pretty awful, but they are at least thin. The most appealing element is not combat, but the management of leaders and factions, and land grabbing. Leaders die off at inopportune moments (much like the clever ageing process of In the Shadow of the Emperor) and armies, titles, kingdoms and territory change hands. For a historical game, there is a surprising amount of risk analysis and many outright gambles. Good stuff. The resulting narrative is impressive. It is all based on a well tried Japanese system and works well. Enjoyable, light and fun - one to return to when the opportunity arises. Congratulations to MMP and to Adam Starkweather who both championed the game and developed it.
At the other end of the scale is the gutsy and grinding Espana 1936, now available in an English edition from Devir USA. Depicting the Spanish Civil War at a strategic level, with excellent components, it uses simple, easily remembered rules, victory conditions and combat procedures to put both players in a tough position. The system is transparent; you are left to your own devices with flavoursome cards adding regular chaos. Heavy on decisions, and never enough actions, you may feel that you are having it bad, with your entire front trying to hold and a key objective city under imminent threat, but the other guy is probably feeling much worse.
If you like games that offer tense, nervous energy, constant pressure and epic battles, this is the game for you. Fortunately (and appropriately) you need suffer this only for two to three hours, and there may often be a quicker sudden death resolution. Historical atmosphere is excellent, graphics are great, I learned quite a bit about the period (through the point to point map and clear objectives), and the game situation is one of the best I have ever encountered. Not since Friedrich and Wallenstein have I played such a good game in this category. Highly recommended.
NB Devir’s English edition is well worth tracking down as it saves on card lookup, and it also includes a naval expansion as standard – I have yet to play this.Klaus-Jurgen Wrede for Hans im Gluck
Unless it is absolutely necessary (social pressure, monetary
bribes, Toblerones) I don’t play Carcassonne or any of its
fifty seven varieties. Having played New World recently, and
twisting my own arm, I would prefer to play this one more
than any other. Not bad for a little filler. Almost
Enough! To Essen!
Many apologies for the delay. January is always busy to the point of running out of time. This year was worse. Then I got ill. Anyway, plenty to write about.Karl-Heinz Schmiel for Moskito/Heidelberger
Regular readers will remember that I got to play this game last year at Essen. Then it was a game about collecting, tentatively entitled Sammelsurium. Now re-themed, and published in a professional package, we have Tribune. And it remains a very good game indeed.
To head off the inevitable 'pasted-on theme' comments, I would say that the new theme is actually a much better fit, not that there was much wrong with the original. Now we are dealing with political wrangling in ancient Rome. Each player is trying to build support from the various factions, eventually gaining enough to become tribune and win.
The game structure is a straightforward action drafting system, which we seem to see more and more these days. At the moment I like them, but familiarity can breed contempt. Your markers are placed into various sections of the board, which offer money, faction cards, and various other items needed to progress. The clever part is that rather than just claiming on a first come first served basis, as one does in Pillars of the Earth, some of the sections trigger a short sub-game. This is all good.
Interaction is excellent. You always seem to have a rival for the cards you want to recruit, and there is even more friction when claiming majorities. The whole basis of the game is to knock the leaders over, and I will leave that for you to discover. The game offers some interesting decisions, not least on timing of your tactical moves, and generally works perfectly as one might expect from this designer. No complaints here.
I'll finish with what was, for almost all those who played, a definite issue. Tribune is over too quickly. Games were taking an hour or less. Now many will regard this as a plus, and remind me that this is a prime trait of German Games. But this is a game that plays engagingly, has plenty going on, and seems to suggest a 'long game' strategy. Wrong. In one game, it was all over in four turns – you really must be in there and fighting from the start. This is okay if a title feels like an hour game, but this one seems to have a pacing issue. It also means that a gamer who has played before will have an advantage over rookies in knowing when and where to focus.
Fortunately, if you consider pacing and length a problem, it is easily fixed. Victory conditions require us to achieve three from eight or so targets. To set the winning terms at four or perhaps five conditions satisfied would seem to be eminently workable. Either way, as with all variants, it is your choice. Play as it is intended first, feel free to tweak, but do play – it is not broken, just quick!
On language, the German version (Tribun) is playable but there is just enough German in the game to make waiting for the English version well worthwhile. So, definitely a strong recommendation but I can see some variants coming into common usage for this one. Good to see Herr Schmiel, the Old Master, back in business.Stefan Feld for Alea
I remember one nasty incident in my school life. I was watching a bunch of older kids in the playground who were picking on some unfortunate lad. He ended up 'running the gauntlet'. At school, this meant that he had to run along a narrow channel between a wall and a line of the bullies, and be kicked and punched all the way. The military equivalent is much less pleasant. In some small way, this game reminded me of that memory.
Don't get me wrong. Alea are still a source of good games. Stefan Feld is one of my favourite designers. I like all his games, and all have a welcome, fresh approach. So I had high hopes for this one, and was very keen to try it. The systems are clever, the components are lovely. You can score points in many ways, and there are several options to explore.
Simply, there are twelve turns in the game, loosely representing the months in the Year of the Dragon. Each month has a randomised chit – famine, tributes to the emperor, disease – you get the picture. Two of these months are harmless, and we let off fireworks to celebrate, the rest are just plain nasty. Life in China was evidently one long nightmare.
As a player, you are a landlord (or similar) building houses to accommodate the dozen or so types of character. Each of the characters has a special skill, either providing protection against the nasty events while others provide immediate or deferred victory points. Your task, apparently straightforward, is to make sure you have the right balance at the right time, and have the rooms to accommodate them all.
The trouble is one can rarely really get this right, I managed an optimum in just two of the turns, and it seems you face losing something most of the time. Even in a well played game there will be substantial tenant turnover. You even lose buildings if they are unoccupied, which tends to happen a lot when your lodgers are dying or leaving in droves. In short, you are taking actions and planning ahead just to avoid pain and stand still. Add to this the pressing need to get money, rice, fireworks and victory points at the same time, and the game quickly takes on Kafkaesque overtones.
So let me sum up in a way I have never done before. I really liked the idea, theme, game systems and mechanisms, regarding the whole idea and process as original and clever, but didn't at all like the negative experience it provided, of being kicked at every step of the way. Also, it is fair to say, I am not representative of everyone who played. At the convention, I would say the split was 60:40 pro and con. I will have to play again, but I don't see this one changing its tune, and it is a tune I definitely didn't like.
Year of the Dragon is the antithesis of those positive, building/snowball games. It is also overlong by 20 to 30 minutes. It is a little like watching a three hour war documentary: technically it is spot on, but it is not entertainment. Eventually, the seat becomes uncomfortable.Phil Eklund for Sierra Madre Games
I have still not managed to define this design from Phil Eklund. It is no secret that I am a fan of Phil's games, but this is a new departure. Not only does it have professional quality presentation, it is also the closest to being a game in the normal sense. Nevertheless, there is still a huge dose of experience gaming, and 'going along for the ride'. I like this, I realise that others don't. There are also some very clever mechanisms, not least the cards. The theme itself is highly ambitious, but it does work. It beats all of last years games for innovation. I have some reservations about the 'levelling up' and some of the powerful cards and options. That means I am questioning balance, which also means here is an Eklund design that is also a game. I recommend it highly, and would simply say that if you have played an Eklund before, give this one a chance. It is different.Christian Petersen and Corey Konieczka for Fantasy Flight
After my lengthy and negative reaction to Descent, which seemed to run against most of my friends' views, I will keep this rant short. I believe the explanation is that there is still a surprisingly large market for eight hour plus games with huge amounts of bits, seventeen different types of unit, r&d trees, resources (money) and with play values that deserve to have stayed in the 1970's.
I was, despite all the above, and having suffered Warcraft: The Board Game in the interim, still keen to play (!). But apart from the sheer excitement of opening the box and sorting the ridiculous number of bits, this one was a bust from start to finish. Oh, and the rules take an evening of study and a dry run. In summary, I feel saddened that there are still people who can term it a game, and give it a 10 on our favourite ratings site. The game is preposterous and represents the worst outcome of a 'throw everything in and keep true to the license' mentality. I would like to say it is unplayable, but I know there are people who will sit there and persevere for a considerable chunk of their lives.
If you really must play, ideally you should all know the rules, be set up, ready to spend two hours learning, and play with no more than three. My biggest tip is that all those minuscule little icons on the tiny counters all mean something, and the yellow and the orange counters are virtually indistinguishable. Otherwise you should be fine, given enough time. Enjoy.
Me? I am moving to Greenland to avoid it.Tom Lehmann for JKLM
It is probably no secret that I didn't care for Outpost. But since then age, changing tastes and experimentation have secured Sceptre of Zavandor a one-outing-per-year visa. Then word arrived of this game. The latest, final (?) incarnation of the system, it was rumoured to play very quickly indeed. Thanks to a review copy from JKLM, I have played this one twice in recent weeks. It is definitely quick, and it is very good. It is also clearly the son of the father.
I have two slight reservations, otherwise it is all positive.
Firstly, I will need to play more to get a feel for what exactly to do, typical prices for the cards, and to master the key task of balancing one's assets. In my first game, excusably I hope, I worked my way into a dead end by which I couldn't access sufficient storage late on in proceedings. Game over. The second game was better, but because my opponent knew what he was doing, he romped away. While I am no natural at these games, I am not an idiot either. So, as with most of Mr Lehmann's games, there is some serious learning to be undertaken. No bad thing, but not to everyone's taste.
Secondly, the game predictably retains a similar feel to the earlier designs. If anything, it is even more mechanical and teutonic. This is, I feel, compounded because the system has been boiled down to the minimum – perhaps to far? Like an overcooked Brussels Sprout, boiled until the flavour has all but gone. Also, in Outpost and Zavandor one felt some affinity to the items and artifacts being bought, building into the story (such as it was), here I am not sure the implementation of theme helps any – we have probably seen far too many instances of ancient civilisation to make a storehouse seem interesting.
I am working a balance here. While the game feels an even more sterile exercise in calculation, it is at least the right length for such an experience. And it is an experience I enjoy occasionally. Why? Because there is definitely some meat here, with interesting angles, and if I want to apply my brain this is one of the environments I will work within. However, as I have said before, I do feel as if I am playing around with a spreadsheet. Sure, there is an unknown in the form of the auctions and the run of cards, but still, these are math heavy, and cash driven, games.
As it happens I quite like spreadsheets, and financial models, so there's the answer. It gives me the good parts of Outpost without the length. What I can't tell is if you have been looking for a copy of Outpost, whether Phoenicia will end your search. Apart from the pokey little card icons, and some ragged edges in the rules, I liked it a lot.Martin Wallace for Warfrog
I feel quite pleased that I was there at the start of Martin's efforts to design the ultimate train game. To an extent, this can be seen as the latest attempt, and what an attempt it is. It will take you two hours, and more when learning, but that time is well spent. This is a very clever, modern, deep game that really works on just about every level. It is also full of flavour. I have played five times in the last month, and it is still getting better. In any normal year, it would easily be my favourite game.
I'll tell you how much I enjoyed this one. The box that arrived in the mail got The Treatment by the Post Office and is best described as 'distressed'. I feel I should go and buy another copy so that I have a good one for the future and one to play. As a reformed collector, that is not something I easily say or do. Excellent stuff.
Tough year. In a generous mood, I have fifteen games that might easily have won a Sumo in 2007. But there can only be ten. Cue lots of juggling with list, comparing Qwirkle to Age of Empires, Phoenicia to Uptown, Giganten der Luefte to Tribune. Not easy. Anyway, I eventually got there.
On the radar: more games of Race for the Galaxy to see if I remain in the 'like it' camp or move to the 'adore its'. Dust, because I just love the backstory and graphics. Hamburgum, because several trusted friends say I will enjoy it. A re-play of Cuba, because the first time it sent me to sleep. Cold War, because I just plain like the look of it. And Perry Rhodan, for which I have very high hopes.
To sunny Eastbourne on Britain’s South coast for the regular post-Essen get together organised by Mike Clifford and myself. Twenty five or so gamers leave their other halves looking at the calendar, with a sense of deja vu, and whizz off to a small hotel to enjoy four days of fish & chips and solid gaming – hopefully ticking off most of those titles unplayed and bought in the previous month. Uncannily, it runs at the same time as bgg.con, and we like to note that we are the senior event, if somewhat smaller in scope (!). And it was sunny. I don’t know how, but it was. A few hardy souls were sea swimming in late November.Glenn Drover for Tropical Games
I like Age of Mythology, but realise I am in a minority. Otherwise, there have been a long series of computer game spin-offs that I can happily live without. I would therefore not have given this game a second glance if it weren’t for some very positive word of mouth coming out of the States. In the end, it became my game of the summer and it got a lot of play at the club and at home sessions.
This is a clever twist on the action drafting mechanism that is very much in vogue. Each player places their markers on areas in the Old World, ready to be shipped across to the New. Once there, they might annex a region (killing the indigenous natives), exploit an areas’ resources, fight or explore. Once established, you start in on buying ships, buildings and strategy cards. Another nice element is that you have several types of marker, some of which have different powers.
So, not anything we haven’t seen before, but re-jigged into a very appealing format. There are, cliché time, several routes to victory which genuinely seem to be distinct. As a result there is a real sense of building an empire somewhat different to your neighbour’s, and when the seats on the settler ships become scarce, one really feels the pressure. You can, say, completely ignore your merchant fleet and go for colonial holdings. You can explore rather than bothering about resources. As usual, a mixed balance can also work. Because these options work so well, you can actually play the game five times or more just trying out strategies. Good stuff.
AoE has that slight problem that only seems to bother hardcore gamers. You can play the whole game cleverly, brilliantly even, but you are still at the mercy of the fates. If you get the right cards at the right time, or you have a run of good luck on discoveries, you will find the zero-luck addicts crying into their coffee. As you may have gathered, I don’t mind it. What guarantee was there ever for a group of explorers landing on a foreign shore? Who is to know the ultimate outcome of a merchant naval policy?
Apart from the gaudy and overblown plastic production, and the map where the space could have been better used, I really like this game. I find the situation appealing, I very much like the feel of the Old and New countries, the constraints of shipping, and the actions available. It all adds up to one of my favourite games of the year. When Tropical Games catch on about wooden bits, they’ll be dangerous.Uwe Rosenberg for Lookout Games
You may have heard of this one.
Despite the massive PR machines behind Ravensburger, Amigo and Hans im Glueck, it is the tiny Lookout Games who have, this Autumn, created that most valuable resource – buzz. I say again, buzz, not hype.
Agricola is a game about farming in the 17th century. How long we have waited for a good one. Each player has their own farm, is given a set of cards that indicates their probable route forward, and you get fourteen turns to score as many victory points as you can. Alternatively, for reasons that will become apparent, it is also a sandbox where you can just have fun doing your own thing. It seems everyone I know really wants to play this game, me included, and many were prepared to jump through hoops to make that happen.
Hoops? Well, the game is in German. Although we have an excellent rules and card translation, more on that later, however many assurances you might get that ‘it is only fourteen cards’, it isn’t. If you want to paste up all the cards, it is over three hundred, which by anyone’s calculation is a lot of hours. You can get by on less, just the ‘E’ pack is enough to get started, but there is old school work to be done before the game can be played. Ideally someone you know will have done this paste-up work for you.
It must be said here that any Anglophone who buys the German version will not be left adrift. Lookout Games have promised to sort out something, and I believe them, but at the moment they are snowed under with the success of the game. We need to be patient.
The interesting twist with Agricola is that it seems to have generated a passionate level of enthusiasm. I believe this is down to a cocktail of the designer’s reputation, the subject matter, the multi-level gaming it offers, the frisson of the components, the potential of the cards, and the long lost frustration of not being able to play a German game that you have just bought…
There is also something else: positive mental attitude. A significant number of gamers have played Agricola, enjoyed it to a point, and said that they expected it to improve (and this might be from 7 or 8, to 9 or 10). They also sit down and play again as quickly as they can. This compares well with almost all other Euros. Typically they might be ruthlessly discarded after one play, or less in some cases! But gamers seem to be willing to give this one every chance of repeat play.
Why would that be? I wish I knew, because goodness knows it is a quality that too many games lack. And what is the appeal of a game about farming? As the person who has facilitated hundreds of games through her excellent and timely translation, I asked Melissa Rogerson why she was so keen on this particular game. She generated a list of reasons:
- It's complex. Big and meaty, and not too long.
- It's a game with relatively little player interaction.
- I spent quite literally every spare moment for a month
translating the game. It has to be hot!
- The theme and the mechanics seem well integrated. I love
a good theme.
- It was super-cool trying to learn all about 17th century
agriculture. Although I was sorry I didn't call the
swineherd, ‘Pig boy’.
- Variety. Lots and lots of variety.
- The Mystique of Essen.
- I had such a good time translating it - the people
factor. There were lots of late-night conversations, about
precisely what particular terms meant and how we could
translate them. That was fun.
I also love getting right into the guts of a game like that. And I tend to be lazy with rules of games in English - I skim through them, and am impatient to get to playing the game. So really getting to understand it is good. And tends to make me like the game regardless.
- Hamburgum and Cuba, as well as other Messe titles, sound
interesting but 'done' already. I'm sure I'll enjoy playing
them, but they didn't float my boat.
- Insight into the game development process.
I can relate to those comments.
The next point Melissa raised was very interesting and is something I have been thinking about for some time. The subject is multiplayer solitaire. Agricola is such a game, because the only interaction is the joint action drafting/choice of resources, and not getting what you need, but I am not going to label this a good or bad attribute.
Melissa says, “Agricola is a game with relatively little player interaction. When I look at my top-rated games (Princes of Florence, Louis XIV, Notre Dame) there is a bit of a trend there. I know that my gaming weakness is that I start out making a plan and don't allow for enough variables or adapt well to change - so I tend to be weaker at games like Caylus where it's easy to screw other players over, although I still enjoy them. But I'm good at the planning kind of game - and don't we all like to win, sometimes?”
My take on this is that almost all the time multiplayer solitaire is cited as a negative. Like Melissa, I find that some of my favourite games are in this vein, and it doesn’t greatly bother me. In fact, it can be a plus. If it means I can avoid auctions then that is another bonus, usually. Sometimes it is good to sit and try to implement a strategy, hindered only by the inability to get resources when you want them. Not exactly my beloved chaos gaming, but sometimes it is what I enjoy. Agricola seems to score (based on the eight gamers I have so far played with) because you can do your own thing. Every single farm I saw was different. Some were harvesting crops, some had sheep, others cattle and wild boar. One of my farms was essentially secondary to a wood turning business.
Mainly then, for me, such games are an experience and I am happy to go along for the ride. How well can I do with what I have been given? What is my plan? Can I get enough food? Do I want to have children? Can I try a weird tactic, or left field strategy, and still stay respectable or even win? Most importantly, am I having fun?
Having played Agricola, I feel there is definitely an element of ‘personal best’ going on here. After my derisory 20 point opener, I was determined to do better the next time. And that next time may as well be right away. I made 23, with very different cards, and was pleased. I also enjoyed it a lot. I’m so easy. So it is a challenge, in a puzzley sort of way and I can see myself playing it for some while, even at the basic level of cards.
On the downside, and you just know this is going to relate to theme, I have a quibble. While this is a game about farming, it is farming from a strange angle. I think it is clear we are micro-managing. A fair amount is made of one farmer having a cooking pot, another having a proper hearth, or a makeshift barbecue. The fact that someone might not have a cooking pot at all, but does own a hut, seems inconceivable. Doesn’t it? But this is where you start. Perhaps you have lost everything and have to re-build from scratch. And where are the chickens and geese?
More worrying is that ‘technologies’ develop, but they do not become available to rival farmers, even though we are all looking over each others hedge all the time. This compared sharply to a game of Origins going on at the next table, where skills can often be learned. This also strengthens the solitaire aspect, already discussed – you are on your own, doing your own things, building little card ‘engines’, working your own land. I suspect what has happened is that some aspects have been tweaked to make a game of it, which is fair enough. Perhaps that is how it was? None of this is going to stop me playing it, or even give me a second thought, but it doesn’t sit too well.
The other area is the cards. From what I have seen so far I think the cards are reasonably well balanced. This is, without doubt, quite an achievement. But my neighbour in game one did have a hand that looked considerably less useful than mine, with quite a few ‘secondary’ cards that were not immediately useable. There is undoubtedly a degree of improvisation required; you make the best of your lot, and that will improve with experience. I am just slightly worried that you might be going into a two hour game (it runs 30 minutes per player, pretty consistently) with little chance of having a good time or scoring well. This might happen because of bad cards, or more subtly and more likely, cards that do not combine well, nor permit synergies later in the game. At the moment, I don’t know if this is an issue. I would like to hear your experiences.
So, to conclude, Agricola is a very interesting game which has all the signs of being well designed, developed and tested. There is definitely more here than the sum of the parts, and I think we must look to the cards and the combinations (how I love combinations) to explain this. And this without yet venturing into the mysterious ‘I’ (interaction) and ‘K’ (complex) decks which will add a raft of cards and variety. Though whether Agricola will remain fun while suffering ‘interaction’ remains to be seen.
Congratulations to Hanno Girke and all at Lookout Games for backing this one. In case you have not been reading the web, there will be an English version from Z-Man Games. I think we can safely predict a big seller. I know it is easier said than done at the moment, but do try to get a game of this excellent release.Friedemann Friese for 2F Spiele
After quite a run of games from Friedemann that I didn’t care for, here is a very enjoyable filler. I have been thinking that we should see some positive by-products from the poker boom (now fading?) and sure enough Filou picks up on the betting trend. Nothing complicated, just assess a partly exposed hand based on knowledge, numbers and reading the opponents, and stick a bet on the total value. Filou is not quite there because you have to know not to run out of money during play – this is very important! – but overall this is quick, fun and interesting enough to revisit. Recommended.Chad Ellis and Robert Dougherty for Your Move Games
About thirty years ago the boardgame company GDW released an innovative product called System 7. With front page splashes in The Dragon, wargame magazines and elsewhere, it caused quite a stir. It certainly caught me up in the excitement created. Although comprising cardboard markers and a separate rule book, it was trying hard to replicate the mechanisms, colour and glory of Napoleonic miniatures gaming. It did this by offering high quality base-sized counters in evocative uniform shades, nominally using 7mm figures. Most of the major nationalities were available in sets, with units named and jacket/facing colours represented.
The basic idea was that you could start miniatures style gaming without the front loaded time and money investment, or indeed easily move into Naps as a new period. The overall effect was not unpleasant, and it achieved a creditable level of success for a while. System 7 foundered, I think, because it fell between two stools, the terrain was lacking, and the accompanying rules were not the best. With hindsight, the ‘figure’ ratio may have been mistaken – there were several fiddly counters to a unit, making the adaptation too literal. But ultimately, if you are a miniatures gamer at heart, well, you probably want miniatures. Still, the game has fans and you can find updated rules and components on the web.
However, for beginners or for testing rules, I still know gamers who will cut out card or even paper counters. I know I did when funds didn’t permit much more. There are a couple of groups on the web that actively promote paper wargaming. It is at least lighter than anything else. Some of you will remember the Micro series from Tabletop Games, and I played a lot of the Napoleonic and Naval games back in the day. I also bought into the CCG craze in a major way. Games such as The Last Crusade, Eagles and Dixie were all collected and played with some enjoyment, and they still come out occasionally even now.
So, there is scope for this ersatz solution. But what is the appeal here? Probably, the chance to get a taste of the miniatures experience in a ready made, ‘open and play’, immediate gratification package. Miniatures fast food, I suppose. You can do the whole thing with BattleLore and Command & Colors: Ancients, but they are £50 games. Compromises are inevitable, but with colour graphics, printing and game design moving ever forwards, we are getting closer to having everything but the little lead guys. And that is exactly where Battleground and Your Move Games are coming from.
Battleground is purchased in packs of playing cards. These each represent a fantasy faction, and comprise a range of units, tactical ploys and events. Each faction – men, dwarves, elves, orcs, undead, killer turnips etc – also has a reinforcement pack available, allowing for huge battles and that undeniable urge to grow instant armies. More factions are promised on a regular basis to keep the games’ match-ups fresh. You can also buy cut-out terrain sheets, which are very nicely done indeed, scenario booklets, and even custom pens and dice. If you can summon up a table and green cloth from somewhere, the overall effect of terrain and units is impressive.
Graphically, everything is functional but it doesn’t excite. Units are top down, which aesthetically cuts both ways, and ‘figure ratioed’ rather than 1:1 but there is a good sense of unit size and pose diversity. You may not care for the style – it is computer generated in intense colours, particularly the grass green – but realistically there is no other economical way to do it in these volumes. Certainly, the figure graphics do not survive the close-up shots. Of course there are options here to make your own cards and factions, for those with graphics skills. The rules book is well written and we had few queries. We did however feel that putting some advanced rules in the reinforcement packs was a bit cheeky.
The game is played by choosing a force from the unit cards, usually to an agreed points value. As ever with miniatures, once you have had your fill of equal sided encounter battles you can switch to attack/defend, the excellent scenario book, or even play one of Mr Grant’s teasers. Each unit card has a row of casualty boxes, progressing through green, yellow and red and these are marked off with a pen as casualties are taken. This works fine, but being an anal type I encased mine in Card Protectors which you can get at hobby and big bookshops. For reasons expanded upon below, I suggest that you do not play to the ‘kill all opponents’ game end condition.
We played two games. The first was a 750 point learning exercise. The second a 2,000 point battle, which still fitted on a card table. At the start of the game, you choose your army mix, set terrain, deploy, and assess the situation. Up to this point, the game is actually pretty exciting, because you get there so quickly and your fingers are paint free. For a while after, things are still looking very good. And then, well, you start to question results and pacing, and in truth it goes on a bit. We came in at almost four hours for the big battle. That’s a long game when we started with six to eight units each.
There are three main timing issues here, all interlinked. Firstly there is a lot of dicing. This is time consuming and not always productive. Secondly, some units have quite a number of hit points, and even the weaker ones aren’t necessarily going to disappear very quickly (because of luck of the dice) – one small unit of wolf riders had a charmed life and stuck around for ages. As mentioned, some scenarios require you to eliminate 100% of the enemy, which will get to you long before you get to them… I suggest 50% or 66% would make your C.O. more than happy. It is the death of a thousand cuts problem, and boredom sets in. Thirdly, linked to the hit points, the game system is curiously indecisive. By this I mean that it is quite forgiving of errors and that to exploit any tactical advantage is difficult indeed.
Let me give you an example. At one point, my opponent’s dwarves did a reckless manoeuvre and ended up exposing their flank, at right angles to my battleline. Right on cue, my Treant (really just an ent with a good copyright lawyer) saw his opportunity, lumbered across the field, and smashed the dwarves in the flank. This was early in the game and in my head, even allowing for fantasy fudge, I expected to either do a ton of damage, have them rout, or simply flatten the lot of them. Or all three at once. Glorious victory was in my grasp, the enemy centre would be pierced. In fact, I did a little damage (the bonus for flank attacks is negligible) and I was still there, branches flailing, roots a-stomping, seven turns later. By that time the dwarves had hurried their little legs and brought up leaf-free reserves. My Treant eventually ran off having failed a morale check in the eighth turn, which was not entirely as I’d imagined the encounter.
In a nutshell, the cards and concept may be born again, but the rules are essentially old fashioned. They give a longish game where a quick one might well be preferable – 90 minutes rather than 240. Broadly, we are looking at something akin to Warhammer, when something like the weight of Warmaster, Armati or perhaps DBA might have been a better fit. I can understand if this was done to allow quick conversion for existing miniature gamers, but I think a major thrust of this game is to let newcomers try their hand. I can see some recruits playing this and thinking twice about playing again. It would be very interesting to hear your experience on this one.
I am very much stating a personal preference here, liking a quick, decisive, decision heavy/dice light game, and it may well be that the rules are acceptable to most, and even perhaps what is ‘expected’. Whatever, one of my opponents came out with the damning, ‘It is like every other figure game I have ever played’. I know what he means. On the other hand, there is some clever stuff in there. Initiative and command is well handled, as is movement – there is a handy-dandy scale, driven off of card widths. Units are similar to the extent that they all have half a dozen ratings, and often a special rule to distinguish them. The ratings cover movement, close and ranged combat, and the interesting ‘to hit’ ratings.
These latter numbers are surprisingly powerful as narrative builders. Some units may be very hard to hit while on the move, but much more vulnerable in melee – so we get the feel for fast, evasive, light troops. Conversely, the Treant is easily hit, but very hard to hurt, and it has a lot of damage points. This in addition to the usual flavour stuff – deadly Elven bows, slow but sturdy Dwarves, swarming Undead. You know how it goes. I liked this unit differentiation – it is simply and elegantly handled. The fact that the spread of these ratings works well, and cleverly conveys the feel of very different units, shows that the game has been well designed and developed in this area. As I said, there are a lot of positive qualities, they just struggle to keep their head above water.
Of course, you know what I am thinking. I would doubtless have enjoyed the whole thing more if it were historical. I have heard rumours that this development is coming soon. In fairness you can get generically close by using the Men factions, but in the end I played Elven Rangers and Trees – a traditional fallback if required to do the fantasy thing.
Despite its problems, Battleground does a lot right. For all my moans, it is playable and it does work, given time. Nothing is ‘broken’ here, to use that dismissive and rarely appropriate term. The battles have their moments, there are some fresh ideas in a field that has pretty much seen it all, and I can see that the sets will appeal to certain gamers, or make ideal presents for the younger generation. From those gamers that can’t or won’t paint, or simply don’t accept the expense and storage of miniatures, to those wanting to instantly recreate Tolkein’s battles, or those of the Warhamster World, then, well, you can see the huge potential. Whatever I may say about price, two starter packs are a bargain compared to any investment in figures.
As for me, not necessarily the target market, I have to say I am wary. A key test is whether one would play again, after the initial exploratory sessions. Personally I would, under some duress, but I would definitely want to make changes long term. These would be targeted at play length and combat decisiveness. The obvious solution is to self modify the rules, or wait for the second edition on the web, or draft in another set entirely. The cards themselves, and the base idea, are fine. If the rumoured historical units appear, then that would be another major draw, but one can see how easily the releases might run out of steam with one wrong turn – ‘Nobody bought the Swiss and Burgundian packs’. But you can be sure that I would.
I wish Chad, Robert and Your Move the best of luck. They have bravely launched a timely and interesting system, and I know it has already found a niche with a good many gamers. This could grow within the fantasy genre, then into science fiction, and hopefully for we sad old buffers - not strictly requiring pointy ears, gauss rifles or resurrections - into historical periods. If I were them, I would personally be looking to tweak my product to speed the game up, possibly through an official variant quick play rule set, and perhaps improve the graphics a little. That done, I could happily say that Battleground could be an outstanding product and worthy of your time.
While my list of top games of 2007 already has a number of definites, there is still some gaming and ranking to be done in the last four weeks. So I’ll list the lucky ten games next time. What is certain is that the runners-up will be of a high standard, and it will be close for the final few spaces - at the moment I have a dozen possibles contending for three or four slots. I have yet to play Cuba, Hamburgum, Cold War, Brass, Dust, Power & Weakness, and Race for the Galaxy. I want to give Phoenicia another workout, but I like it so far. Will League of Six prove to have staying power? Will 1960, Key Harvest, Origins or Agricola get the ultimate Yokozuna accolade? All will be revealed.