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Gamer's Notebook, March 2008
March 20, 2008 9:31 AM

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.

The Sumos, 2007

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.

1960: The Making of the President (Z-Man)

Agricola (Lookout Games)
Brass (Warfrog)
Key Harvest (R&D)
Origins (Sierra Madre)

Age of Empires III (Tropical Games)
Before the Wind (Phalanx)
Qwirkle (Mindware)
Tribune (Heidelberger)
Uptown (Funagain)

Honourable Mentions
Amyitis, Caylus Magna Carta, Giganten der Luefte, League of Six, Race for the Galaxy, Notre Dame, Phoenicia, Power & Weakness.

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.

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins


Glad to see you back
Susan Rozmiarek
March 22, 2008 12:23 AM

Whew. I was afraid that you were no longer writing here. I’m glad to see you back in top form.

So, after the glowing words about Age of Empires III in your last column, I was hoping that it would take top Sumo honors. It is easily my favorite game of last year although 1960 is not too shabby of a pick by any means. 1960 is probably the “better” and more innovative game although here is where I have trouble ranking games. Do I pick what game I think is the better design or the flawed favorite that I had the most fun playing? Or is there some magical mental formula that takes both into account?

I’ve only played the very deserving Agricola from your Ozeki list although the others are top priority to get to the table soon. I expect I’ll like Brass quite a bit.

Except for Tribune which I haven’t played, your Sekiwake games are all top-notch picks for me. I’m glad to see Before the Wind there. For some reason, this game hasn’t gotten much attention and I think it is quite good. With all the whining about game prices lately (myself included), it is also a bargain.

I wish there was room to promote Race for the Galaxy (“adore it” camp here) and Notre Dame up from your Honorable Mention list. However, I must question your sanity with Amyitis and Giganten der Luefte on the list. Ugh! ;-)

I am not going to be able to put off playing Starcraft with my teenage son much longer so I sure hope you are wrong about that one. At least I can say I’ve been warned….

Thanks for the informative and entertaining reviews. Stay healthy!

RE: Glad to see you back
Mike Siggins
March 27, 2008 3:09 AM

Well, I use the criteria of "better and innovative" usually, but then something like Qwirkle will still score highly. Fun and flawed have to be very good.... depends how big the flaw is.

I always retain the rights to promote in the next annual list, and RFTG is a likely candidate for that. As is Hamburgum.

In the Year of the Dragon
Daniel Blum
March 22, 2008 6:03 PM

Normally I do not like games where one is constantly running around plugging leaks and shoring up the roof, but for some reason this does not bother me too much in this game. Possibly this is because you do not actually have to protect your holdings if you do not want to - I have seen a strategy of acquire people, use them for points, then lose many of them, repeat, work quite well, although I have not tried it myself.

However, after three games of it, I am not sure how often I will want to play it in the future, since it is starting to feel a bit too much the same from game to game. In a shorter game I would not mind too much but this is a touch long for the lack of variability, I think (and it has the potential to be VERY long if played with the overly analytic, given the amount of planning necessary).

RE: In the Year of the Dragon
Mike Siggins
March 27, 2008 3:11 AM

I have been thinking about this, having seen lots of people playing and really enjoying it.

It probably goes to my liking for narrative in games. Here, not only can I see a deterministic pattern of events, but also that most of them aren't going to be a lot of fun.

I also like a long game, and games where I don't lose what I have built up.

So, bad fit. As I said, well worth playing but not for me.

Similar points of view
Paul Jefferies
March 23, 2008 3:21 PM

Hey Mike,
Always good to get your perspective and input on the latest releases...thanks. Looking forward to Tribune...and thanks for the heads up on the game length, I guess I was expecting something around the two hour forwarned is forarmed I hope. Starcraft! What a waste of time. We gave it a whole Saturday after Christmas...spent 4 hours (let me repeat that) FOUR HOURS going over the rules and another 8-10 playing the game and I have to say it was one of the worst gaming experiences of my life. How did that ever get produced. On the other hand...Phoenicia was an excellent surprise. I wasn't expecting much at all....but we've played it half a dozen times since Christmas and enjoy it very much.
Race for the Galaxy we finally got to the table two weeks ago...and we are on our 5th play already. Very have to change your overall tactics each game depending on the draw of the cards...and there seem to be muliple paths to victory. I can see already why there's an expansion coming out for's just begging to be developed further.
Anyway...thanks for the input...and keep it coming!

RE: Similar points of view
Mike Siggins
March 27, 2008 3:12 AM

Starcraft: my condolences. I feel your pain.

RFTG: yes, same here. Twenty games in the last eight weeks...

Shades of Unforgiveness
Larry Levy
March 24, 2008 10:06 AM

Mike, I'm kinda surprised that you love Phil Eklund's games so much, where reportedly (I've still yet to play one) the players are routinely and randomly kicked in the teeth by the system, but have problems with the unforgiving system in Year of the Dragon. I suspect the issue is the fidelity to theme and atmosphere of the game. I actually like unforgiving games (but not when the slings and arrows arrive randomly), so Dragon is a favorite. It's also a puzzle game of sorts (as you know exactly how the disasters will fall before the game begins) and I'm enjoying the challenge of increasing my ability to deal with each puzzle presented to me. Very good game and one that's threatening to push into the top 5 of what was a very good year.

And don't listen to Susan! Giganten der Lufte is a fine game and I continued to be surprised at how little buzz it's been getting. This should be one of the top family titles of the year, leading me to wonder if Queen is having some distribution problems with it. I'm not sure why you dislike it so, Susan, but it's quick, different, and has plenty of decisions. Maybe you were forced to watch too many film clips of the Hindenberg disaster in your youth! :-)

RE: Shades of Unforgiveness
Mike Siggins
March 27, 2008 3:16 AM

Well I hope I have explained above why I feel down on the Dragon. Eklund delivers a much different experience, in a different type of game. I can always handle setbacks and so on when they are rationalisable to history, rather than an abstracted series of problems. Or puzzles, as you say.

I can absolutely understand Susan's view on Giganten. I can see it not appealing, and it is quite reminiscent of Tom Lehmann's system, and also by extension Knights. I just like the theme, and it is quick, and for me, fun.

Year of the Dragon, 1960
Chris Farrell
March 25, 2008 4:16 PM

RE: The Year of the Dragon, I was sort of taken with this because my wife has been reading The Story of the Stone, a rather lengthy Chinese novel that is I guess sort of the equivalent of War and Peace in terms of literary importance (although several times longer). Anyway, it charts the decline of a once-powerful family (that's all I've got; I haven't read it yet). I thought it was interesting, because we were discussing at the time how to design a game that sort of captured that flavor. Then Year of the Dragon comes along. It doesn't really do it, because everyone does in fact come out ahead in the end in the vast majority of cases in the game, but it does get some of the flavor of a family over-extending itself to maintain prestige.

I'm a little surprised to see 1960 top your list, especially with all the really good stuff that came out last year. We played it a few times and just found it boring. The events are mostly "place a cube/remove a cube" and so pretty unevocative, the whole debate subgame was strange, and the whole thing seemed somewhat undone by a big problem: it takes as much campaigning energy to get a "percentage point" swing in public opinion in New York as it does in, say, Wyoming, despite New York being worth what, ten times more points? So huge swathes of the board are pointless to campaign in. What remains seems mostly to come down to drawing the powerful events that swing critical states. Anyway, it wasn't terrible, kinda fun even, but we lost interest in under 5 games.

I wasn't initially taken with Agricola, but it's almost won me over. I'm looking forward to getting my copy of the English-language edition.

RE: Year of the Dragon, 1960
Mike Siggins
March 27, 2008 3:19 AM

I think the difference between us on 1960 would be that just about everything that happened was evocative, because of the distance between me and the subject. Considering it preserves the historical feel, and is a very good game, made it easy to warm to.