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Gamer's Notebook, January 2007
January 21, 2007 6:20 PM

This month’s column will comprise four main parts: a round up of the Essen releases, either played or re-played; some relevant sports reporting; a short review of the best game of the year; and finally The Sumos – a list of my favourite games for 2006. But first, the weather.

It is very mild in England. We had a short winter, on December 9th, but otherwise I have not yet needed my gloves or a second fleece. I take this as incontrovertible (is that really a word?) evidence of global warming, I expect the Gulfstream to stop at any moment, and it is also how I ended up playing softball in November. This is what happened.

I went to an afternoon/evening 'party/barbeque' for my godson's 17th birthday. It featured a dozen or so work-shy, but sociable, teenagers. They all had better iPods than I have, and one had such a cool mountain bike that I almost bought it from him.

We went to the park to kick a ball around and then play softball. It was agreed to split into four teams of three (everyone fields, three bat), and the four girls were elected as team captains. Fair enough. Now I have played a bit of softball (London Mixed League Slow Pitch champs, 1989*) and am a pretty good infielder, for an Englishman. So I swung a bat around a bit, and threw and caught some balls impressively. Appearing good at this sort of thing is, it seems, still very important to me. I have my own glove, and everything.

My ploy worked like a charm. I was pretty pleased to be drafted in the first round and walked around coolly, as befitted my status as a born again sportsman. I mentally congratulated Natalie on her keen observation skills. Obviously a young lady destined for greatness. Possibly a future role in personnel, a model agency, or sports management, I feel.

Time passed, and eventually there was hushed talk of 'just the three old people left'. My mate Paul, 43, and his dad, 65-odd, and... three? I've been picked. Shurely some mistake? Turns out the Mike who had been picked by the astute Natalie was an athletic, good looking, long haired chap of 17 who went on to make two show stopping catches. He was also Natalie’s boyfriend.

I was picked dead last, after a pensioner, and tied with an underdeveloped, cross eyed, acne ridden teenager, wearing a Cubs hat, who was about two feet tall. Well I say tied; it is possible he may have actually been picked ahead of me. And him in a Cubs hat too. Even then I was only added on to a reluctant team as a surrogate fourth.

Needless to say, this was desperate, desperate stuff.

I was mortified. So crushed in fact, I couldn’t hit anything when I came up to bat. After two embarrassing wild swings, I managed a lame trickler single that barely made the shortstop. This with a girl pitching loopers. A girl. My demeanour was not helped by the creaky body issue that set in after an hour of charging around the field. I ached. Even after moving to first base for a rest. Always did like the big scoopy glove. The day after, I ached a lot more.

My confidence shattered, I was forced to impress them intellectually by being the umpire in Trivial Pursuit and Scattergories later on, back at the house. After I had taken a pain killer.

In fairness it was a great afternoon, and I had a lot of laughs, but boy, did I feel old.

*Actually, the team I founded won the League the year after I left, having imported three Americans. I can’t believe there was any link between the two events, and my therapist has told me not to worry about it too much. I gave up playing because my nerve went. I often pitched some mean relief, and one day a ball came back so fast that I didn’t even see it. It whizzed past my head, according to the second baseman, and was still moving fast as it left the atmosphere. That was okay. What could possibly happen? Who said “temple related injury”?

The next week, another ball came straight back, and wedged itself between my lower abdomen and, er, upper thigh. We are talking an inch or two from the Family Jewels. The bruise was impressive, in time resembling a late Jackson Pollock. I never pitched again, but I did sell a line to Woody Allen as a result, “My brain? That’s my second favourite organ!”

Back to what I know….


Reiner Knizia for Kosmos

Compare and contrast something like Emira with the lean and mean Blue Moon City. Emira is overweight, favours carbohydrates, heavy metal and a pimped SUV, and is surely headed for a coronary. Blue Moon City goes to the gym, has a minimalist home, listens to Philip Glass, drives an Audi TT, and lives a blameless lifestyle. It is positively sparse by comparison. But then we half expect that from Reiner. Where Emira is under developed, Blue Moon is developed within an inch of its life and, to be honest, it is just a wee bit bland as a result. The fantasy theme doesn’t help matters here, whereas, oddly, it allows Blue Moon (The Officially Underrated Card Game) to work.

Whatever, the City game is a good one. Very good. It seems like the first game is obvious and you wonder whether you will play again. But the second game really starts to show its paces, and you see more things to achieve, and better ways to do them. In short, it’s a grower. What I will say is that without Chris Farrell’s excellent analysis, we wouldn’t have been able to play this game. The rulebook is really poorly done, with concepts and important rules all over the place. Otherwise, if you don’t mind some hard, Knizia style dryness, and some interesting decisions, Blue Moon City is well worth a look.


Dominique Ehrhard for Asmodee

Firstly, you’ve got to love the cards and the artwork. Secondly, anyone who mentions (repeatedly) that there were no elephants in the Trojan War should be shunned, much as you would a trainspotter. Thirdly, you can safely buy this one if you like card games in the Condottiere vein. It’s not stellar but it works, it’s reasonable fun and it rings the changes from its ancestor, by the same erratic but talented designer. On balance, I prefer it to Condottiere, which never really sorted out the player interactions and end game. The only major problem with Iliade is that we played a six player game and it didn’t seem to want to conclude – it was the old ‘three players waiting on one VP for several turns’ issue. A house rule, or fewer players, should fix that – we had a much quicker game with four. Otherwise, a very nice little card game and I look forward to trying the partnership variant. I just wish the game were easier to get hold of – what’s the hold up?


Mac Gerdts for Eggertspiel

I find Eggertspiel a confusing company to track. They attract a curious species of gamer that I call Johnny Exciteables. They constantly regale one with stories of greatness, and impending mass-market breakout, but never back it with analysis. In truth, they can’t tell you why the game is good. They may simply froth because they have played, and you haven’t. So, later, I try the vaunted game and I think, bleh. The results of Unquestioning Fanboy Disease at its worst.

But still, I feel a professional commitment to play the new games. I like it. It’s what I do. And the themes often appeal. This saw me sitting down to a game of Antike with the owner of the company this Spring, and even though it was better than normal, it was still forced. It was, in fairness, okay, and it worked. Just happened to be stylistically opposite to my taste in games. Dry, slow, overlong, predictable, no capacity for big plays, no flavour – a classic Teutonic experience. Just grind out the yardage, ignore the flair - the French do that so well; leave it to them. And so, having shelved Space Dealer as well, I escaped once again from the ever-shifting Lands of Eggert.

Until December. I am drawn in again, this time to play Imperial at the recommendation of Richard Breese, among others. Now that is someone I can rely on. It costs me four hours of my life, but, yes, this one definitely has something. Take it from me, the idiots who say it is like Antike really do need a slap. It has a rondel. And a map. And it is from the same company. That is the extent of the similarity. Presumably these people think a Hyundai is like a Maserati because they both have a steering wheel.

Imperial is your bog standard ‘invest in expanding countries that might well go to war soon’ game. At this point I always think of 1630 Something, the early Wallace production, but no one else is making that comparison. Tant pis. The period is the late 1890’s, early 1900’s, and the stench of a Great War is in the air. So we are treated to a map that looks very much like a Diplomacy board, and lots of little wooden factories, armies and navies. Again, a sharp slap for anyone that tells you it is like Diplomacy. Apart from the major powers being on a land grab, it isn’t. In fact there is almost a complete absence of negotiation. It seems you build your own alliances by controlling both parties. Clever.

On the positive side, as the countries expand and annex neighbours, contesting valuable resources, there is a really good 18xx style company credit/income system exposed. While I am not sure all the rondel actions have a direct equivalent in company accounting, to this layman it was conceivable that they did. So, I felt I was running a company rather than a country, but as you will by now have gathered, that is what the game is about.

Generally speaking, you watch what happens on the board, measuring country successes and failures, looking at their long term potential and trying to work out who will come out on top. Ideally you then build a stake in that country, and a couple of others so that your portfolio is diversified. Clearly, some countries work better together than others, if they can be held on to, and this synergy and changing dynamics unfold nicely as the game progresses. If you build a large enough stake, you effectively become the government and, akin to running an 18xx company, you call the shots. England may be happily hammering on France, but a sudden change of management may see them ignore our Gallic heroes and instead have a pop at Germany.

On the negative side, the game is not really about war/territory, but we have to do all that tiresome move and combat stuff anyway. Instead, it is about income and investments. In much the same way as 18xx isn’t about running railways (discuss)! The problem here, and it frustrated me, is that the market in the countries is not that fluid. You can’t really sell, if you spot a major power tanking, but as the country holdings are bonds this does make some sense. More crucially, you can only buy if you have the dealer ticket that passes around the table. Needless to say the opportunity to buy may come too late. Or way too late. In turn, someone else may get it at just the right moment.

You also suffer that frustration that 18xx provides when you are taken out of a company just as all the hard work is done, and you are looking to reap the rewards. And yes, even though you start with two decent holdings, this can leave you with nothing to govern and perhaps a long wait to get back ‘in’ the game. That investor only role works for some gamers, but not for all. Having little money and a feeling of helplessness works for very few.

But taken overall, the game and the originality are very encouraging. It moves along quite well, as each decision is short and snappy, even if the resolution, military moves and payouts sometimes aren’t. The result, for me, was a long game that didn’t feel at all long, and which had a steady level of generated interest. Plus, it had identifiable peaks where key powers were changing hands, or a costly naval war raged, or money became plentiful and the bond markets buzzed. Also clever were the peaceful geographical sectors and phases of the narrative that emerge, almost organically.

So, a positive experience. What I have long waited for is a game where you cast your eye over the board, assess the chances of the respective factions, and back that assessment with an investment. Or indeed a sale. Imperial comes tantalising close to pulling this off, but ultimately there is a noticeable disconnect between the board position and the market. Instead of one interlinked whole, they feel disparate, which is a shame. This is partly because of the timing issues and illiquidity I mentioned above, and partly because there is some role confusion. There may be other factors too, which would be interesting to identify.

Where Imperial drops back for me is that it may have some peripheral issues; some in visual range, others not. However these are not rough edges left in a complex design but, more worryingly, potential holes into which the game can tip. The game and player positions, the ebb and flow, takeovers, and the financial fluctuations just feel a little too… unregulated. It may well be that Mr Gerdts and the team have tested this a hundred times and every possibility has been carefully identified, quantified and constrained. It also may not be the case. It is my old nagging doubt problem, born out of too many years playing this type of game. Just a hunch, and we shall see.

As for the theme, I have to admit a degree of surprise. There was a time when you couldn’t buy a war themed game at Essen. Now, in Imperial, we have little black battleships, ominous factories and poor old Belgium gets it in the neck, yet again. I honestly couldn’t begin to say why a German company would present a game set in this period, or what that choice has done to potential sales in the home market, or among the anti-war gamers. But they have their reasons, I’m sure. To my mind it could have been a really clever business game, with international market sectors opening, developing and fought over. Simple. My invoice is in the mail.

As you can tell, I liked Imperial a bit more than it deserves. Because I have some doubts, probably unfounded, I am going to withhold the Sumo accolade. But only just. What is sure is that I definitely prefer it to Antike. I will need to play at least twice again, but I have already seen enough to know I will probably buy one. It is playably good, with some work it could be very good, plus it is unusual and quite daring in its way. I ask no more.

Ingenious (Einfach Genial) – PC Version

Reiner Knizia for USM Digital Media/Kosmos

I saw this running at Essen and really didn’t think a lot of it. It looks nice enough on screen, and the price is right, but I saw no point in buying it as my chances of competing with a computer AI at an abstract game are always zero. Or worse. Anyway, not for the first time, I was wrong. Like Tetris and Sim City 4 before it, this game gained the ultimate accolade – it was deleted from my hard drive because it was taking up way too much time.

Apart from being in German only, and badly needing a ‘take back’ option (to recover frustrating mouse slips), and games played stats, it is just about perfect. And if you play it enough – I am about 100 games in - you really do learn the ropes. Even given that there is some luck in the tile draw, I have gone from a clumsy newbie to someone who understands the key plays, with a smattering of tactics, and I can now beat the computer 50% of the time.

In fairness, I think I am on the Dorftrottel, or Village Idiot, difficulty setting. But I don’t care. I like the fact that you get a good close game, whenever you want. You can play a tight strategy, or a ‘run and gun’ open format; I like the end game close out tactics; I like the games of chicken as a line grows; and I love the fact that it seems to pick up on your play style. I also don’t think the bugger cheats, but who really knows? This is an excellent implementation of the hugely popular boardgame, and will, I suspect, add a one player addiction to your Ingenious repertoire.


Corne van Moorsel for Cwali

Being a larger framed person, “you’ve got big bones” as my mum used to say, I wasn’t much good at running when I was little. Bloody useless at it now, I can tell you. Anyway. Sure, I got in the school soccer team, at full back, but as we lost 10-0 to St. Pansy’s Remedial School, that really wasn’t saying much. I played badminton, well, but even that was limited by cargo shift issues – you either understand that phrase, or you don’t. Sporting Life continued until one day I trudged out to the high school athletic field, on a freezing April day, and was handed a cold discus. As there was nothing on that plate to eat, I stood in the concrete, weed-infested circle and hurled it as far as I could. No spinning limbs, no technique, no grunting, just brute force. I broke the school record by 8 metres.

Shortly, I was in the track and field team at county and then national competitions, pairing up with Shot Putting School Freak Mick Bewby who was six foot three when he was born, complete with stubble, and who had been dating proper women since he was 12. Sadly, in case you were expecting a life affirming Steve Redgrave or Troy Smith type story, I never ever managed to throw as far as that first effort again. This annoyed the hell out of my coach. “Come on Siggins, if you get 42 metres we go to the nationals! You can throw that asleep.” I failed. Every time. No idea why. Overthinking? Confusion of techniques? God playing with my head as usual? My diet of cookies, Rhubarb ‘n’ Custards, and cheese? Hormones? Could have been anything. At least I avoided steroid abuse, so it makes for a happy ending.

Which is a very long way of saying I got all ten machines on the board the first time I played Factory Fun, and I have not since managed that feat. Or even come close. Otherwise, not much more to add to my Essen report comments. I have played this more times than any other game in 2006, I have sold about ten copies of it to willing converts, I even sent one as a Christmas present. In short, I am quite happy to recommend it to anyone. Not all will enjoy the puzzle aspect or ‘The Grab’, understandably, but most do. Some gamers go away and derive bidding systems, or even in one case buy four sets for ‘identical simultaneous Take It Easy style’ play. But I like it as it comes out of the box. A real winner. Unlike me.


Michael Rieneck for Kosmos

This is an interesting one. It sold out at Essen, but I was able to source a German set and thanks to Melissa Rogerson’s excellent translation we got to play. And play again. I really like this game. I do now see why people say ‘Caylus’ in the same breath, but the big difference for me was that this title had that mid-game warm glow feel from enjoying and exploring a clever and tight system, whereas Caylus left me cold. And that, I suppose, is just me. If I had to be picky, and I usually am, I would say that it is one turn too long, and it would have been nice if the wooden cathedral had done something else apart from mark the passage of time. That apart, I liked it all. Thematically, it is rather good, and I like the mechanisms. Those of you who enjoy Richard Breese style games, or think Caylus is a touch heavy and dry, should give this a try. I think it can exist both as an alternative, and as a game in its own right. Saulen will be published in English by Mayfair later this year, as Pillars of the Earth.


EggertSpiel

Having played this at Essen, and pretty much rated it as the hit of the show, I just had a nagging doubt that it would be a short-lived thrill. I have proved myself right by only playing once more. For comparison, I have played Factory Fun more than ten times already. The game is fine, and it works as advertised, I just don’t think it is a stayer - it has that curious, ‘Played once, played enough’, quality. As I said in the Essen report, I am intrigued to know how the base game would work without the egg timers and real time element. I still like it, and admire the innovation (shared with Recess this year, as it happens) but, well, let’s play it again after six months and see.


Peter Burley for Burley Games

My initial assessment of this one was spot on. It is a welcome expansion to and enhancement of Take it Easy. This news will either fill you with pleasure, or not. I just needed to be sure the developed game was a positive step, and I think it is. There seems to be a little more luck going round, but this is made up for by the variety of games and tiles in the box. If you like, it is a toolkit for Take It Easy variants. I am fairly sure it will prompt me to make up my own variants now the ‘sacred fixed format’ has been broken. And who better to do that than Peter Burley? One of the highlights of the year.


Tom Lehmann for Amigo

I know, I know. This game seems to be dividing gamers down the middle. I am in the pro camp. I think it is cleverly conceived (as long as there is a nod to Michael Schacht’s Knights) and well executed, and I can actually see a whole load of potential in this game – expansion cards, new applications, sub-games and so on. I liked almost everything about it, and moreso, in truth, its potential. I realise that your view may differ!

I like to call this one Applied Yahtzee. We all know how to do the Yahtzee thing, but Yahtzee on its own, with rolling just to tick a passive box, doesn’t really cut it. Here, you achieve something that will be actively useful to you later in the game. I have also seen this described as Yahtzee plus power/Magic cards, and that is probably close enough. Is this sufficient for battle hardened gamers? On paper, no, but this is one of those games that offers rather more than it should. Most designs go the other way. At heart it is a light dice-fest, but there is enough to think about, it doesn’t take too long, and the end game is interesting too. The cards are beautifully done, if a little difficult to spot at longer ranges.

I can see that it is not at its best with a lot of players, perhaps ideal with three, but with more the game scores because (unusual, this) it involves everyone on a group level – almost as a co-operative experience. Someone is rolling, they may not be sure where to go next, but there are lots of people to point out their options. Whether this is a good thing will depend on your view of whether game sessions are social events to be enjoyed by all, or a time for hard nosed competition.


Sebastien Pauchon for Ystari

The only game I passed on this year, and now really wish I had bought. I am well over five games of this one, and on one notable Saturday I played three times. It is very hard not to like it. A lot. There is still that heavy-handed element where someone throws five or six of one dice number, which happened in my first game at Essen, which lets the start player clean up for a turn. And there are other slightly clunky bits. And sometimes the turns are no brainers, especially if you are going last. But none of these quibbles amounts to a negative cast, and in fact they have a curious magnetic quality that sees you playing again to see what the system can take in its stride. Sometimes camels are in short supply, at other times no one can get gold. Do you go the building route, or the caravan, or the area control? All this works because the game is so quick, and because the dice driver is clever. Just twenty-one turns, and each one takes very little time. But a lot happens, or at least seems to, and there are definable strategies. I know you feel I am hedging slightly here, and I am (over what, I can’t say exactly; it is probably the Imperial Pothole Syndrome) but that should not put you off. If you have any kind of vacancy for a light middleweight, hour long, game in the Super Filler mould, I doubt you will go wrong with Yspahan. For me, one of the best of the year and my favourite Ystari game. Anyone want to sell me one?

And finally, the game that turned out to be the highlight of the year when it popped up at Essen, and then turned into my favourite game by some margin:

Lords of the Spanish Main

Phil Eklund for Sierra Madre Games

Many years ago I wrote a positive, even effusive, review of Lords of the Sierra Madre, an outstanding game that set out Phil Eklund’s stall as a talented designer and as a man who will pump in history until it oozes from your ears. His delivery vehicle is unusual, the rules are interestingly done, and the game is anything but typical, so there was in fairness always a degree of confusion as a result. Those gamers that persisted were rewarded with a singularly positive experience.

Nothing much changes. Lords of the Spanish Main takes us back to the year 1600, with the Spanish overlords looting Central and South America for whatever they can get their hands on. Every ten years a treasure fleet sails back to the home country in Europe. Such magnificent wealth predictably draws attention from the poorer, and unscrupulous, individuals known as privateers. Now privateers can exist on trading quite happily, sailing very close to the law and extracting a living here and there, but when they cross the line they become pirates, and that is a career for life.

The basic Eklund game structure applies. Your role is one of the famous sailors or movers of the age – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Cardinal Richelieu, The Duke of Lerma or even Ganga Zumba, chief of the escaped slaves in Brazil. You start with very little cash and you will never have too much, but you do have a ship that can trade, or carry enough crew to be a useful privateer. Each turn you choose trading, or privateer status. These should both generate a small income, which you will invest into various schemes, business opportunities or bribes. Later on you will upgrade your ships, gain allies, and perhaps attain a position of power to rival even the Spanish. Over the long term, you aim to make your fortune.

Each turn, representing a year, just one card is turned up which triggers an event. It is then auctioned amongst the players. This might be a new colony, a better ship, a powerful character, the loyalty of a local tribe, or perhaps a favour from The Pope. You set your price and buy if you think the card’s powers can assist your cause. Some cards give instant benefits, others require delayed investment to bring them into operation. Some are powerful, others weak. Sometimes, they are sweet spot perfect and will change the game and your fortunes if you get hold of it.

It is through these clever cards that Mr Eklund injects a large dose of history, and it is my contention that as each card appears, the game balance and situation changes subtly and appealingly. Almost always. In case you were worried, there are an awful lot of cards and not all are used, so each game will be different. The cards include such titles as Tortuga Pirates, the House of Stuart, Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Pilgrims, and the Swedish East India Company. Other cards trigger wars, or dramatic events, hostile tribes, or ravaging plagues. More mundane, but important, are the various plantations and silver mines. You can build forts, you can install garrisons, you can raid and plunder. Predictably, there is a comet card.

Lords of the Spanish Main differs from earlier games in two key areas. Firstly, the game is asymmetrical. One of the players takes the role of the Spanish Governor of the West Indies. This is a rich and powerful man, who not only takes the lion’s share of any transactions in the region, but also supplies new ships and gets a handsome cut from the treasure ships. In general, everything goes his way. He has the only trading port for some time, and he will make a lot of money. Your job is to reduce that income and divert it to your pockets.

This works in a very clever way, and it is the core of the game. While the cards deliver basic power, skills and opportunities, they and the players interact through negotiation. For instance, each turn a colony might be able to trade with three privateers. Each privateer makes one gold, and the colony owner makes three. But what happens if there is a fourth privateer? He has to make a case to trade with him rather than the others or he starves. Perhaps he will offer a non-aggression deal, or work for the Spanish somehow. Perhaps he will just demand protection money. Perhaps all the privateers hold out on the colony and refuse to trade. Short of trading your soul, you can do anything that you think will give you a headstart. The beauty in the game is how the dynamic at the table changes each turn, sometimes each minute. It shifts completely again when the treasure ships sail, but I won’t spoil that experience for you. Perhaps I can make a telling point by recounting that in the second game, no one even became a privateer, let alone a pirate, for the first decade.

If it isn’t clear by now, I absolutely revel in the possibilities we see here. I have played the Spanish twice, and Peter Stuyvesant once. I loved every single minute of the seven hours the games took. Hopefully, you will see why when you play. It is a negotiation game, it is an auction game, it is a business game, it is a wargame, it has oodles of period flavour, and almost as an afterthought, you can be a pirate and fight sea battles or charge up a cobbled street to the governor’s mansion. You see from the map why Tortuga was a key port, what the pirates did to trade, why the trade winds were vital, and how the delicate balance of the area was maintained. To portray all this, so well, through a multi-player game is nothing short of brilliant design work by Phil Eklund.

I end on a warning, or two. Despite my fulsome praise, LotSM will not be for everyone. I think we are averaging a 50% enthusiasm rate on exit polls! Because the game is essentially 99% pure negotiation, many will not find this to their taste. As one friend said to me, he has left negotiation games far behind. Oddly, so had I, but such is the quality, appeal and fascination of this one, I didn’t hesitate to make an exception.

As there is a lot of chat and deal making, time flies right along. LotSM could easily take you six hours to play to completion. It could just as easily take two. This is because, to an extent, the game experience is transient. You can quite happily join in if you arrive late, and leave if you have to go early. The game doesn’t suffer greatly. The end point is not that important really, more is gained from the participation turn to turn. We have played with 4, 5 and 6, and the more the merrier because of the interactions, but time does escalate a little with more. You can also play to a time limit, and we find that two hours is more than enough to get a strong feel either way – vital when some of the players may not be enjoying their game.

Next, there is the unfamiliarity aspect. The game is unusual and Phil has a unique way with rule writing…. Seriously, this set of rules is much, much better than his earlier sets, and everything is there somewhere. Organisation is not optimal, but it is workable. What trips us up are the card effects, which can change the rules, or bring in a new rules section at a stroke. What can this hill tribe do for me? Why would I buy them? What is their strength? Can they attack that port? Can they march to Brazil? To an extent, all that needs to be pre-understood. It helps a lot to have a player who has done it all before. And then there is basic stuff like the map being covered with colonies and flags, but it takes a while to work out that only one colony is active at the start. And guess what, the Spaniard lives there.

What the game needs is an overview sheet: you are poor. You will remain poor. Turns move quickly. The Spanish bloke is fat and smug. Increase your ship size. Trade. Take opportunities where you can. Cards sometimes change everything, like in Magic. Read them carefully. Deal on anything. Always make a counter offer. Everything is negotiable. Take a loan from someone. Joint bid. Lend them your soldiers. Steal, bully, beg. Anything goes. The Spaniard seems powerful, but he has definite weaknesses. He also has the chance to escalate his power. If he gets a fleet of his own, you will see why and how.

Also strange is that there are lots of players, one of whom is a powerful and dominant force from the start. The other players must eke out a living, and pull the balance of power their way. It should be clear that I love everything about this structure, but it has caused problems for some – it is just unfamiliar. I see that as a good thing. But the key issue with Eklund games is that very little happens in a turn unless it needs to. So it is absolutely vital to keep the pace of play high. Turn the card, check for interest, sell it, move on. If you don’t, two hours will go by with perhaps just fifteen years resolved. You need a pacemaker, and your experience will be greatly enhanced.

Because of the time of year, the need and desire to play it again and again, and because I want to catch your attention now, I am writing a shortish review of LotSM. Indeed, much shorter than Imperial’s, above. That is no reflection on the game, which I feel is simply brilliant. 9/10, possible top ten all time material. Yes, that good. Well designed, cleverly balanced, inexpensive, flavoursome and an absolute joy to play, or even just sample for an hour or two. I recommend it very highly. I will return to it next time with some after action reports, and thoughts on how Lords of the Spanish Main became my favourite game of 2006.

For more information, see Rick Heli’s excellent overview at http://spotlightongames.com/ or Sierra Madre’s website.

Just Like Old Times

Traditionally, around Christmas time, I roll out my highly subjective Top Ten list of games played in the previous year. Most of these are new games, but that is not always the case. The problem with 2006 was that there were so many games I thought I would never get through them all. Fortunately there were several serious game sessions between Essen and New Year, and we managed to slog through most of them. The things I do for you lot. Worse, many of the games turned out to be good or very good. So, for once, choosing was not easy and there may yet be some carry over into 2007.

So with no more delay, here are my favourite games of 2006.

The Sumos, 2006

Yokozuna
Lords of the Spanish Main (Sierra Madre)

Ozeki
Factory Fun (Cwali)
Twilight Struggle (GMT)
Yspahan (Ystari)

Sekiwake
Canal Mania (Ragnar Bros)
Command & Colours: Ancients (GMT)
Leonardo da Vinci (DV)
Mare Nostrum + Mythology Expansion (Descartes)
Die Saulen der Erde (Kosmos/Mayfair)
Take it to the Limit (Burley Games)

Honourable Mentions
Ars Mysteriorum, BattleLore, Blue Moon City, Fury of Dracula, Graenaland, Imperial, Khronos, Hameln, Mare Nostrum, Reef Encounters of the Second Kind, The Sceptre of Zavandor, Space Dealer, TtR: Marklin, Um Krone & Kragen and The World Cup Game.

The Noel Edmonds Award
for Most Innovative Re-Purposing of an Old Has Been
Um Krone & Kragen (Amigo)

The David Beckham Medal
for Heroic but Ultimately Doomed Effort
Imperial (EggertSpiel)

The Tim Henman Bowl
for Game Most Likely to Win Next Year
BattleLore (Days of Wonder)

The Raymond Poulidor Crystal Decanter
for Being Very Nearly There
Through the Ages (CzechBoardGames)
Mare Nostrum + Mythology Expansion (Descartes)
Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight)

The Gerard Depardieu Cup
for Sheer Audacity
Khronos (Matagot)

The Asda Sliced White Bread Prize
for The Game You Play If There Is Nothing Better Available
Thurn und Taxis (Hans im Gluck)

Best Artwork
Arkham Horror and expansions plus the Fantasy Flight Cthulhu book, Blue Moon City, Rackham’s Cry Havoc and Cadwallon, Fowl Play!, Iliade, Mare Nostrum, Mission: Red Planet, Die Saulen der Erde, Thurn und Taxis, Tsuro, Um Krone & Kragen and pretty much anything that Mike Doyle brushes up against.

The Ten Worst Games of 2006
Abridged, California, Der Dieb von Bagdad, Hermagor (with five), Hollywood the Card Game, Mission: Red Planet, The Nacho Incident, Nottingham and Orcz. And by far the worst, alphabetically, and for every other reason… XiG – The Four Elements.

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins

Comments

Fantastic!
Stuart Moulder
January 22, 2007 1:04 PM

This month's notebook reminded me of past Sumo's where the personal anecdotes lent a humorous touch to the deep reviews and made the whole vastly entertaining.

I admit, I now dream of coming back over and being on a pick up softball team over there. I'd be another geezer, but I can play! At least... I think I can.

As always, an expensive article for me in that I had to post off an order straightaway. Thanks Mike!

In Awe
Michael Deems
January 22, 2007 4:57 PM

This ladies and gentlemen is how game commentary is done. Everyone take notes, please. Absolutely outstanding effort. I will be actively seeking out Lords of the Spanish Main.

RE: In Awe
Mike Siggins
February 23, 2007 11:06 PM

Michae;/Stuart

Thanks very much for the feedback guys. Much appreciated.

Imperial
Richard Young
February 01, 2007 2:24 AM

Mike: I am intrigued by Imperial as it appears to be a "game of nations" version of 1830. Except, as you have noted, you are running a country rather than a rail line.

In 1830, part of the hook to the game was the temptation to want to run a company for the joy of railroading...building track, making deliveries and seeing your empire grow and flourish. However, playing well often meant sucking your precious company dry and moving on when the time was right. Money was what really counted. Devilishly clever and a game that has stood the test of time in the elegant nature of its design. Pity it was such a bear to actually play! I much preferred the computer version. I was hoping that Imperial might be similar enough yet more accessible.

Imperial appears to have much the same going for it - if running a country is made to be as much fun! The nature of bonds versus stock certificates worries me a little and you have already planted some seeds of caution regarding the unfluid nature of the market. Have you tried both options of using the "Investor" Card, or not, as it affects players ability to invest and the timing etc?

In any event, thanks for the thoughtful comments - I'm afraid I'm buying the game anyway, and hope it proves to be a keeper!

Cheers, RJY

Blue Moon City/Imperial
Richard Young
February 19, 2007 5:30 PM

Mike: Good to see you in print here! I appreciate your views so far expressed here and wish you a long run (and please don't catch whatever afflicted Chris). Thoughtful commentary on the board game hobby is always welcome, especially as we seem to be seeing so much more of it lately. We need help sorting it all out. The hobby is experiencing an embarrassment of riches of late and it is a great time to be a gamer, but as with anything there is a lot of dreck amongst the jewels (or vice versa)!

Speaking of jewels, it seems that Blue Moon City and Imperial may be amongst the latest and I hope you can follow up your preliminary "thumbs-up" on them with some follow up thoughts at some point.

I'm perhaps not as big a fan of Knizia's offerings as many but then I'm not as big a fan of Euros as I once was either. Thus, I was not as taken with the Blue Moon card game as many others were, and am skeptical about the follow-up board game. Blue Moon seemed a pale non-collectable go at M:tG to me. Blue Moon City may be elegant (as always with RK games) but seems to lack soul at first blush. I expect to give it a try at some point, based on your comments.

On the other hand, Imperial seems to be another one of those "hybrids" or crossover games that really has my antennae quivering. It looks to be a "game of nations" take on 1830, which, if true, will be a signal achievement. Please let us know if you intend to pursue its possibilites with further comment?