As the summer hots up, and work on my new house -- Sumo Towers -- at last declines, my thoughts immediately turn to long bike rides in the English countryside, blockbuster movies, barbeques, gardening, kite flying, and of course quiet afternoons sitting in the courtyard reading or painting. There is even the odd game session available for anyone not sunning themselves. Were it not for work and mortgage sticking their oars in, things would look pretty idyllic round these parts.
But Mike, we want to hear about games. Okay. The Nuremburg releases have been and gone, and outside of Thurn und Taxis and Um Krone they raised barely a ripple -- but as ever, there have been a couple of notables which deserve comment. Plus, there are some games from The Gathering still unreviewed. I have also been lucky enough to enjoy some good two player sessions recently (still a rarity for me), and Fantasy Flight would seem to be trying to attract my attention with a slew of releases that have given a hernia to my postman. And then there was the fateful day when I played Sceptre of Zavandor. But first, some serious analysis. Wake up at the back there!
You may have noticed a little game called Caylus doing the rounds. Seems quite popular on the whole. I can't say I am huge fan, but if nothing else, it at least got me thinking. I played at Essen only to be predictably underwhelmed, and it was no better when I tried again in November. But recently, after a six month break, I revisited it just to check why this game was still up at the very top of the Geek Hit Parade. At the moment I am happy to let the fans (Colin Excitable and his chums) go mad for this one and when the dust settles we will see what is really there. What I have so far detected is a game that could well have been designed by Richard Breese, like Ys before it, but which clearly lacks that designer's arch hand. I also think it is overlong. I would be happy at 90 minutes of this essentially repetitive stuff, but two or even three hours? Too much.
Don't get me wrong, if you can get around the thin theme it is a good cerebral game with some clever mechanisms and a lot of decision making. It is however an interim design, which shows great potential, and so I think the next game from Mr Attia could be very interesting indeed. But simply put, while I won't veto a game, I just don't enjoy playing this type of thing. I am reminded of Puerto Rico, Goa and to an extent Princes of Florence, a game I otherwise enjoy. I call these 'Closed System' games, wherein there are no surprises, most or all random elements have been terminated, they have fixed resources, and a very firm feel of boundaries on all sides - almost like an intentionally restricted test environment that somehow got released to the masses. And seemingly they like it that way!
Seriously, I find this style of 'damped' game to be painfully tight, ordered, rather dry, process heavy and with a strangely studious feel. While there is a little interaction, much of this is simple forced reaction to another's play. There is as a result a strong sense of everyone ploughing their own furrow and optimising as they go -- a game for Perfect Plan devisers, and we all know one of those. I don't feel there are any exciting strategies or sweeping plays to be made, or surprises to be had, and I don't warm to the theme. Where is the flavour, the sweep of history, the narrative quality, the depth of experience, the soul? Above all, it is no fun.
There are of course advantages to the form, and we can see why designers of a certain, shall we say Teutonic, mindset regularly come up with them. Mainly, they provide an intense, close game and allow the sort of gamer (a.k.a. The Silent Ones) to really get into the cogs and pulleys of the design. These players enjoy a mental workout. They play often, they play the same game repeatedly, and very competitively. Understandable. Sometimes I sit and wait months (or years) for a game that hits the right balance of decision making, and flavour. Sadly, I think this depth, and depth it is, is often mistaken for a game with many strategies. Instead I feel Caylus is a game with a number of strategies that may be pursued, but they are not exactly limitless. Of course this is more than 95% of German Games offer, so again, one can understand the appeal. In a nutshell, not my style of game -- but each to their own.
I had avoided playing this one for a long time, but when there is an identifiable level of hobby support for a game that is clearly not based on pure speculative buzz or being first to play, I feel a need to check the game out. My reticence was built on a dislike for Outpost back in the day, the game on which Zavandor clearly draws heavily (I am not sure if there was an agreement or not), and also on reliable advice that the game ran for at least four hours. Outpost certainly took us at least that long. Four hours is a long time playing something you don't like, so it took a balmy afternoon at the game club where no other games looked tempting, a promise of two hour game length, England losing to Portugal on the TV (unwatchable, my dears) and a transitory Siggins mood swing to get me into it. Truly, the Stars were Right.
And you know what? I rather liked it. This view would be slightly biased by the one point win I enjoyed, but not that much. I ran under the "Fair Deal for Fairies" ticket, and shot out into an early lead with the Crystal Ball and Three Opals opening. I was first to the Diamonds, and made them my own, and managed to secure two Sentinels before anyone else had even one. But gem losses hit my income, my cash flow was already erratic, so after that, like a desperate pace maker in the last 100 metres, I just lumbered on and waited for the challenges. And they surely came, one after another. In fairness, one player could have pipped me had he remembered to buy two Opals in the last turn, but I had made a similar timing mistake earlier. So an honourable draw was agreed and given that we were playing the German version, with some rather nebulous definitions and game text, it seemed the right result.
I don't honestly know what has changed from Outpost, apart from the theme which I do think fits rather well. I was reminded of Ars Mysteriorum both by the light hearted fantasy motif, and the real and evident effort to make that theme stick. It certainly feels a good degree friendlier than Outpost ever did, and while the ordered and regimented structure is still evident, it didn't seem quite so onerous. And referring back to the Closed System comments above, it avoided the dry label in a way that Outpost certainly didn't. Can someone familiar with both games let me know why this might be? But whatever has changed, including probably my receptiveness, makes for title that I wouldn't mind playing again, perhaps once or twice a year if the mood took me. It is a game that is ridiculously overwrought, with a sore need for decent play aids, and has all the signs of being built in a spreadsheet (!). Elegant is never an adjective we will need to deploy here, but the system stands up and, importantly, it has enough hooks to draw you in and keep you entertained for the three hours or so this will take you.
I really liked that I enjoyed the steady progress, you can see where you are going and how relatively well you are doing, and you can see why a certain artefact would be a very good thing to have, right now. That said it is a bit processional, but I liked the fact everyone was involved right down to the wire (closed system advantages, again). One becomes immersed in the relative pricing, the different strategies, the occasionally vicious auctions and the cleverly staggered and variable cash flows but mainly (and I hesitate slightly here) there is the race element. A very slow race, for sure, but a race nevertheless. The rider is that the 'race' did take four hours, including explanation, but that could be improved a lot if everyone kept the pace up. But still, Zavandor was a very pleasant surprise and I look forward to the English edition from Z-Man which will hopefully have a really tight set of rules, charts and game aids. I am happy to make Zavandor my Game of the Month this time.
My opportunities for two player games are strictly limited. Almost always there are three or more gamers present at a session, and there can be up to twenty at my local club. So when Richard Breese came over recently we took the chance to play some of the many games in my backlog. Inevitably that means Kosmos are going to be figuring large in proceedings, and as it happened from the seven on offer, we played four Kosmos games.
We opened up with Hellas, a game I have had on the shelf in German for a year or so but never got round to making the card translations. So the English version was snapped up at The Gathering! Talk about lazy… Mark Johnson recommended this one to me and I liked the sound of the island conquest and battle system as a sort of wargame-lite. But in play it proved a surprisingly abstract exercise, with a lot of positional play, and as Richard is a bit good at abstracts I got hammered before I could explore the possibilities. The game is one of those that 'tips over' and once you are in a losing position, there didn't seem any way back. But next time I will know that. It also struck me that the tactical cards were somewhat variable in effect, but the scenario and exploring was interesting and the game well balanced. I will return to this one.
Three Dragon Ante is one of those games that occasionally slips out from the TSR stable (now Wizards of course) purporting to be an AD&D product but is really a proper game. I think in fairness it is something of a cash-in on the worldwide poker craze (has it finished yet?), but it works well enough until the game end which is surely broken? -- I suspect in theory it could go on for several days. You also have to provide your own poker chips. The game is essentially one of ante-ing up dragon cards and gold, and then building hands to try and win the pot. It is actually quite interesting in play, restricted only by luck of the draw which can be drastically one sided (he said, with feeling). You win by reducing your opponent to zero gold, but as there is a distinct to and fro quality, and you start with 50 gold, this can take some time. I would suggest either reducing the 50 gold figure, or play the sudden death win but allow a time limit to kick in, e.g. highest total after 30 minutes plus one hand. Okay, playable, and probably better with more players. It is staying on the shelf.
Next up was Odin's Ravens, about which I had heard nothing but good things. I like the designer Thorsten Gimmler, who at least seems to be trying to push the design envelope, and I was impressed by Aton and Geschenkt. This is a deceptively clever little race game, which didn't quite work the first time. But we carried on into the second race and started to see the possibilities. By race four, we were seasoned experts and trying tricky stuff. There is actually quite a bit of tactical depth here, but it retains a light, fun, lucky feel -- not easy to pull off. We played about six or seven races in the end and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I think the target points total may be a mistake, as it could make the game too long which would be a mistake, but otherwise it is all good. I like the various card effects -- not too strong or weak -- and the neat ability to come from behind, make a sudden dash or subtly block your rival. Great flavour too, with the terrain playing a key role. Not one you are going to play every week, but a decent filler, a clever design, and well worth your time.
We then took a quick pitstop for an old favourite in new clothes. Predictably, with its status as a huge hit worldwide, Einfach Genial/Ingenious! is now out in a small box travel edition, and while it is exactly the same game (except with pegs for scoring) it is about a tenth the size of the original. So ideal for your beach bag, backpack or bike panniers... I like everything about this game except my inability to plan ahead. It is easily taught, everyone I know loves it, and even I can put up a decent performance. The copy was a German only edition, but that hardly makes any difference, and there may be an English edition coming along. I probably need say no more.
And finally, Jambo, a lightish title from Rudiger Dorn concerning buying and selling goods in an African market. I have a weakness for this type of game, perhaps as a post-CCG legacy. Give me a symmetrical position with new event and power cards to experience, with the possibility of special cards and combinations, and I am a happy gamer. Obviously the discovery element wanes with time, but it is fun while it lasts. Jambo hit almost all the right notes, and apart from the annoying restriction on slots, this was a winner. I even started thinking of a four player variant mid-game, which probably indicates how much I enjoyed it. I like the fact that you always want more actions, and I think the opponent recording those actions is neat. Really good little game, I hope to play it a lot more as sessions permit.
I would rank these games Three Dragon Ante lowest, then Hellas, Odin and Ingenious, with Jambo at the top. This is because I rather like slightly chaotic, interactive card games like Jambo, and because while I love Ingenious, I am not that great at it. However, unusually for a single session, I felt every one of these games worked and can happily recommend all of them, as long as you fix the Dragon game end…
In what has become a largely disposable hobby, some games stick around. The really good ones are self explanatory, but there is a broad sub-stratum of games that are The Nearlies. Even though they don't really excite, they don't disappoint either, often having some little residual hook that makes you think, hmm, okay, go on then, once more. These games are rewarded with something that very few titles get -- repeat business. Hazienda is a good, and timely, example. The first time I played I thought it was okay, but I also expected to leave it behind me: it's Kramer solo for starters, a complicated version of Through the Desert with all sorts of random factors, cash and systems thrown in, and possibly even a flaw in the shape of the land strategy.
However, this is a Hans im Gluck game, lots of people said they liked it, and some raving individuals said it was the best of Essen. But then there are always such comments, and in this case I don't think it was. The most persuasive argument came from Larry Levy who said I should try it again on the asymmetrical map rather than the default 'dogbone'. This I did, and two plays quickly became five plays. While I still don't think it is a great game, there is definitely something there and I'll play at the club if there is nothing better to do. Perhaps importantly, I haven't yet bought it.
Faint praise, Siggins? Yes, I am afraid so. Hazienda neither shines nor smells; it is just slap bang in the middle of acceptable -- about a solid an example of a 6.5 as I can offer you, and I don't usually do halves. Or numerical ratings. But today, I needed one. It's a playable game, it works, it's quick, and I like the feel and weight. I am just frustrated that a little more development, or perhaps some deciduous trimming by the designer, may have made it an 8. From Hans im Gluck the least one expects is superb development and fine tuning from Bernd Brunnhofer. Perhaps this is just a game that wasn't meant to shine.
So let's have a look at why this may be. Firstly, the appeal. You are building, which is generally a positive thing. There is a decent level of interaction, competing for resources, claiming land and racing for the important markets. A very strong element is the global timing of ones moves -- different actions need to be taken to optimize your position and score, so your valuable turns must cater for short termism, funding, re-stocking, and long term strategy. There are also some interesting and varied tactical approaches possible (I chose those words carefully, and will return to them in a later column), and the situation, rather than the theme, is challenging. I think this is because there is a decent balance of random factors, timing, options, cash control, setting up potential VPs, and working out how to optimize that lot in one big game plan.
So that's all good, and one can see the considered design, or probably development, that has gone in. The result is a game that has a base appeal despite a clear abstract core and I am pretty sure that we will see improvements, revisions and spin-offs in time. Certainly the game is ripe for any amount of variant play -- the official variants included are a good start point. I have already seen some good homebrew maps, there is at least one map generator available, and one could feasibly tweak almost all the game components for interesting effects. Not often one can say that. On the downside, I think that the standard, recommended board (the notorious 'dogbone') is an idea bad enough to sink the game for some. The reverse side of the board, or one of the abovementioned maps now appearing, are so much better it is baffling that the symmetrical board was even included.
We have established that there is a fair bit going on, generating interest between turns. The trade off is that the underpinning money transactions, as ever, impede the game flow and in this instance combine with action points to make it worse. There is a major disconnect between your downtime -- where you know clearly what you want to do -- and your turn, where these aims are not easily implemented. The Moon Patent System of acquiring animals, Airlines/Reibach style, is both good (quick, immediate, some decision making) and not so good (luck of the draw, crap selection when your turn arrives forcing deck draws). As a result often one has that 'Two or Three Turn Delayed Execution' issue that is not because of decisions or having too much to do, just because the game situation or availability of cards dictates it. The game still comes in at the 75 to 90 minute mark, so there is no great concern here, but there is a noticeable pacing issue.
I think as a function of all this, the game feels fiddly rather than elegant. There is also slight sense that there is a little too much to be considering for the weight of game -- for instance, water tile play is almost always an afterthought -- and that perhaps we are working too hard for the rewards on offer. Mark Johnson raised just this point in his excellent podcast, Boardgames To Go. I think the crux of the matter is that I like the options available, and where that leads, but the way I access those options is somewhat fiddly and not quick in process or maturation of plans.
Compare and contrast this with something like Ticket to Ride, or indeed Through the Desert, where we are offered just the bare tactical bones and a transparent, intuitive system -- the resulting immediacy and snappy play is pretty much what lifts those games. There is much that feels fresh and interesting in Hazienda, and it makes one think even though there is little new on offer. I can happily recommend it to you, largely because I very much doubt that you will dislike it. It is a game that will see occasional use, as long as you don't even think of playing the dogbone more than once.
The English version is basically the same as the German, save for minor tweaks on the boards. The only thing I've found myself wanting for is a list of artifact cards.
As to the changes, the big one is that the auctions are less critical to success. All of your special add-ons in Outpost came from the auctions and there was always one less auction card than players. Zepter replaces this by having a skill chart and N available artifacts per round. There is also some redundancy between artifacts and skills, so you can get the same effects in more ways.
The one thing I have been curious about some of these games is how little interaction there is. Zepter reduces the interaction from Outpost because your plans usually aren't totally wrecked in an auction. Many auctions are single bid and take the card. I really don't mind it at all, but I'm surprised that others haven't chimed in.
One game I've been playing the heck out of is called Prophecy. Same lack of interaction. (Especially with our house variant that ends the game when a player gets two artifacts instead of the designer's final battle wackiness.) But the game is the same kind of curiously compelling advancement game (in this case with more D6's thrown about the table.)
Thanks for that Frank. I also seem to recall workers or some housekeeping function in Outpost? I hadn't realised how long ago that game came out and I had completely forgotten about its workings. My immediate reaction would have been to say I really didn't like it, but reading my comments at the time I wasn't that hard on it.
I shall look into Prophecy.
All this probably shows is that an element I don't like in one game seems innocuous or even a benefit in another. Depends very much on the game, the players and one's mood. As I said, I was in an unusual mood when I played Zavandor (and it was stiflingly hot) so perhaps my circuits were fried.
Hi Mike. Another fine article. I know you're not a big fan of games like Puerto Rico, Goa, and Caylus (they're among my favorites), so not much to be said there. But I'm a little surprised you don't include Zavandor with this bunch. There certainly isn't much interaction in it (mostly defensive bidding) and it's very much a "play in your own sandbox" game like the others you cite. In fact, I'd say the other games have considerably more interaction than Zavandor (echoing what Frank said). Maybe the random order in which the cards come out saves it for you. I like Zavandor, although not as much the other closed system games (and I find Tom Lehmann's unpublished Outpost spinoff far superior). But it's a good game, although I wish it was a bit shorter.
I certainly can't argue with your two-player descriptions. In particular, Jambo is perhaps my favorite two-player, a wonderful game which gives you a mini-puzzle each turn. Like you, I'm becoming a fan of Thorsten Gimmler, thanks to Odin's Ravens and his recent efforts Geschenkt and Aton. I look forward to seeing what his latest game, Thief of Bagdad, is like.
As far as Hacienda goes, I'm tempted to push my luck with the suggestions and recommend you use the first published variant in all your games. However, while I feel it improves the game considerably, it doesn't really address the issues you have with it. I ackowledge the things you say, they just don't bother me as much as they do you. Hacienda does have a ceiling (I don't think it will ever be great), but I've consistently enjoyed it and consider it one of the better games to come out in the last twelve months.
I note your points on Zavandor being closed. I think it may be slightly ajar.
For a start the sense of a race was quite real (as I tried to explain), and I rationalised this as the sentinels needing to be beaten off in a time frame.
What Zavandor has that I don't get from the other games is a sense of enjoyment, and there is considerable flavour.
This is odd as in theory Puerto Rico has a theme that should appeal much more than Zavandor's, but it didn't. I'll tell you this for nothing, I went off Puerto Rico when I saw they hadn't out any building images on the counters. That spoke volumes. Check out Mike Doyle's site for a man who does get the net.
Sorry, Mike, but I'm not a member of Mr. Doyle's fan club. His talents as an artist cannot be disputed, but if I had to actually PLAY on one of his works of art, I would take up bocci instead. His game boards tend to be extremely non-functional and are often confusing to boot. I was frankly horrified with his Puerto Rico redesign when I saw what he did to Vohwinkel's nice clean graphic layout. Obviously, many agree with you about Doyle's work and about form over function in general. But give me the essential information over a pretty picture of a building anyday.
You may have a point here (it is a discussion I regularly have with Charles Vasey over map design), and I can't argue it as I have not got round to trying any of his variants.
But it is the presence or absence of the buildings that is important rather than their artistic merit or function. It points to my enjoyment of the visual and atmospheric as opposed to the hard grind of Puerto Rico profit making.
Just thought I'd chime in to say that I have tried Mike Doyle's Puerto Rico board variant, and after hours and hours of gluing and cutting (not to mention very sore fingers), I found it to be nearly unplayable.
Very beautiful to look at, but nevertheless unplayable. It just broke the way that the game works, as well as making it more fiddly. I suspect that truely excellent Puerto Rico players, or a gaming group willing to essentially relearn the game could form a better opinion of it, but my group is too casual to put in the effort.
I have since thrown it out, as it just wasn't worth the space it took up.
I wonder if you feel any connection between the "Closed Games" you describe and one we haven't heard much about for a while: St. Petersburg. Although St. Pete doesn't have the intensity (one could say severity) of the others, it's still a game with limited player interaction, where the focus is instead on tuning your economic engine to outcompete--outrace--your opponents. If the worker, building, and aristocrats were open tiles for planned purchase instead of random flips from a card deck, then we'd no doubt be seeing optimization and opening game strategies. Come to think of it, this is exactly the difference we see between Puerto Rico and San Juan. My preference is strongly for the lighter, card-based, imperfect information version of this form. My near-inability to enjoy any game longer than three hours has also kept from trying Zepter.
On the 2-player titles, I'd wanted you to try Hellas for your interest in euro-wargame hybrids. I found it disappointing as a light wargame, mostly for the inability to set up lines of defense. Though the defender DOES have an advantage over the attacker, it is so slight that the game swings back & forth more than I like. That might be true even without the god cards, but with them it's definitely the case. Jambo I've only played once. I also felt the CCG connection, and while that's a good thing for ME, I'm not sure those mechanics will make it a good game for my wife. That's my primary criterion for 2-player games, but something tells me I should still give this a try with her.
I'm still on the fence about Hacienda. If it weren't for the online play opportunity at Yucata.de I'm sure I would've written it off long ago. That site has recently made the second, non-dogbone map available, and I definitely need to try that. As is, I think your comparisons to TtR and DdW are right on the money. Hacienda is ending up in a no-man's land between the elegance of those lighter games, and the strategic complexity (the GOOD kind!) of heavier ones.
I am quite happy for you to have suggested Hellas, whatever the motive! I realise that the column didn't read that way, and I see from comments elsewhere you are not as positive about it as I thought you were.
Hacienda has that quality of at least wanting to try a different strategy each time, which I think will pretty much guarantee it five plays status. Playing online is an ideal way to explore the possibilities, and if only I could get broadband installed at home before Christmas, that would be a possibility.
St Pete is an odd one. I don't particularly like the game but can see both potential and the next evolution in my head. I get to play it a lot because it is a club staple, and sometimes it is St Pete or nothing, and even St Pete wins that one. In theory it is a closed system, but the lighter play and the random draws, I find, defuse any closed game feel.
Jambo is a recent addition to my library, and has been popular with everyone who have I gotten to try it. I'm interested to hear your ideas on a four player Jambo variant. I can see some potential for more than two players, but haven't solidified a way of doing it in my mind.
Zeptor strikes me as a much more refined Outpost. Is it long? Yes, but Outpost was long in a time when 18xx games were viewed as ordinary. Zeptor is shorter, and some of the nastier aspects of Outpost have been trimmed. I have to agree that the book/power tracks add a way of lessening the pain of losing an auction. I've played it a couple of times and it has been enjoyable both times. It's not something that I will call for at every gaming session (and as I have a friend who owns it , I feel safe in not buying a copy at this point in time), but, if I know I have the time to dedicate to it, I'm not likely to turn it down.
It's good to have your column - thanks for sharing your views with us again!
A couple thoughts on these.....
First a bit of a challenge. If Caylus and Ys owe a great deal to Richard Breese (and I don't dispute that they do), wouldn't this closed game system issue apply to Richard's games as well? I admit to having several of Richard's games, but it's been sufficiently long that I can't summon up a detailed enough recollection to support an assertion. So I ask, politiely, instead.
Second, I admit to having some fondness for these games. And yes, the "silent gamer" archetype does apply here (I think of them as the anorak wearers of the game world). One point I would make though is that there is usually at least a bit of a random element that makes even these games differ from play to play. I was cranking through several PC games of Puerto Rico this weekend and noticed that even changing starting position along with the random plantation draw was sufficient to drive different outcomes. Different enough? There is the rub.
Let's contrast with Tigris and Euphrates . This still ranks as a pinnacle of strategic Eurogames for me. Yet the random tile draws can have a huge impact on your success (or lack thereof) in the game. How much is debatable, but it clearly adds more variation than your closed system examples. The question is.... what is your preferred balance? Which games that are a bit more strategic, a bit meatier, strike that preferred balance for you?
And btw on Caylus ... yes, it is too long. OTOH, it plays surprisingly well as a 2 player game and moves fairly briskly in this mode. At least it did for my son and I.
To an extent, yes, some of Richard's games are closed but I didn't put them down because, in numbers, they are not as well known. I don't include Reef Encounter in that assertion as I haven't yet worked it out fully...
I think you make a good point on the level of randomness in the games. I have played (for example) Tigris, Medici and Modern Art enough to know almost exactly what the random factor is, and I can live with it, even amend my play to it. In all three cases it is the only factor that keeps these games from being just about perfect.
Turning that around, my many many games of High Society (many played with you) include a knowledge of the random factor as well, but this time the factor makes the game - it is what you are up against.
I think I prefer all four of these games (and many others, of course) because there is room for the risky play. Actually, wrong word. The big play.
I now wish I had played PR more to try and identify the reasons and differences.
Much to think about. Thanks.
These have become more important to me as my son as gotten to an age where we can play these as more or less equals. Though he's won the last few games we've played, so he would dispute the "equals" claim, I fear.
I have Hellas and Odin's Ravens and Jambo. Time to crack them open. I also have Fjords and Aton and am eager to try them out. Fjords in particular seems like it will scratch the Carcossone tile-drawing itch while adding slightly more interesting placement dynamics. This said without playing a game with a real opponent, mind you.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I have found that Caylus seems to work nicely as a 2 player game with the added benefit of a noticeable reduction in playing time over more players.
Jambo is one of my favorite 2P games – so we agree there. It does have a bit of the MtG feel to it, but I'm reasonably certain that there are multiple strategies. Since it's fairly light and quick playing, I tend to just play with whatever turns up, rather than wait for some specific card. There are uses for just about everything in the deck, depending on when it surfaces.
As for Caylus, I can't help but agree that it's not a lot of fun; my main objection is that, unlike other such games you mentioned (Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence) which I quite enjoy, it's my impression that each turn presents too many options rather than too few. In Puerto Rico, for example, a player is presented with some number of choices, and each can be examined and a reasonable decision can be made; I feel that in Caylus, each turn expands the number of moves (and thus the number of non-optimal moves) making it harder and harder to decide what to do. I found this frustrating and simply painful.
I've posted a link to your excellent article at http://www.walterhunt.com/blog/?p=112.
Agreed. The 'too many options' issue is easily mistaken for depth, challenge and (way too often) routes to victory. I think Caylus has a bit of this, but I don't want to get too far down on any of these games. I will play all of them, and I will play all of them over The Unmentionable*. I am conscious of starting another Siggins Hates Game X furore; I don't, they just aren't my sort of game.
The nice thing about Jambo, Blue Moon, and Um Krone & Kragen for instance, is that they can be periodically renewed with an injection of new cards. I haven't even got close to playing all the Blue Moon combinations yet, and there are more coming I think. Certainly some new Jambo cards, ready for when I have played ten times or so, would be most welcome.
I appear to be the only person who doesn't care for Jambo all that much. So far, I find that the quite limited interaction means that the game mostly boils down to solving the optimization problem each turn of "how do I get the best return out of the cards in hand and the cards and goods on the table?" (Figuring out how many cards to draw is part of this.)
Now, this is an interesting enough optimization problem, but an optimization problem is not a game by itself, and in any case this is not a very difficult one. Solving it each turn is still kind of fun if you're that sort of person (which I am), but it's still rather lacking as a game.
Given that this opinion is based on just two plays, it could be wildly off-base. However, given that both games were against experienced players, and I won both, despite having a long stretch of terrible draws in the second, I am not that encouraged to play again.