November was so chock full of gaming that discussing the 158 games that I played last month couldnít possibly fit into a single article. A couple of weeks ago I wrote Part 1 of this series where youíll find my ranking of the 30 new releases Iíve played, from my favorite 2008 games such as Ghost Stories, Planet Steam, and Chicago Express down to my least favorite new games such as Boss Kito, Stone Age, and Street Paintball. In addition, since Iím breaking down the games played into topical categories rather than going through them chronologically or alphabetically, Part 1 covered all of the cooperative games and all of the racing games. Iíll try to fit the rest of November Madness into this Part 2 and save you from drawing it out into a trilogy. There are a few more categories to go though, so this might mean trying to be concise, which has never been my forte.
BGG.CON is Heaven on Earth
The single biggest reason why I played more games in November than in any previous month was certainly BGG.CON. This is a convention run by BoardGameGeek that was held in Dallas from November 20 through November 23. This was the 4th annual BGG.CON, but the first time that I was able to finally attend. Iíve been wanting to attend BGG.CON every year since it began back in 2005, and Iím very glad I finally made it this year. Iím already looking forward to heading back down to Dallas in November of 2009. I played countless games over the five days of BGG.CON (counting Wednesday makes it five days, and there were something like 200 people there already on Wednesday afternoon and evening so it certainly counts in my book as a fifth day of the convention). The library wasnít open on Wednesday yet, but the party game shelf and dexterity games room were both ready to go, so it was a blast. Much has already been written about this convention elsewhere and how itís the best open gaming convention you could possibly attend, but Iíll briefly discuss the convention itself before diving into the games I played there. Itís really the best $500 (to cover airfare and hotel) you could possibly spend on gaming, assuming that youíve already built your collection to the point where youíve got plenty of board games at home to keep you busy. If youíve already got over a hundred or two hundred games then spending that $500 on more games doesnít make nearly as much sense as going to BGG.CON where you can try tons of new games and make much more informed purchases for the coming year. You get to meet all sorts of very friendly geeks from around the country and in some cases from around the world, including designers and publishers. You also get to play any game you could possibly want to play, from the wacky dexterity games to the long and grueling monster games. The game library is breathtaking. It puts thousands of games at your fingertips, including most of the spectacularly hard-to-find and rare games in existence. You simply pick it up off the shelf, check it out, wave it in the air, meet some new people, and start playing. Rinse and repeat for 5 days straight until your brain simply canít digest new rules any more. Finding time to tear yourself away to eat and sleep is really the most tricky part. Without further ado, let me get to discussing some of the games that I played at the convention. Although I should preface this with a note to say that this section doesnít include nearly all of the games that I played there because I broke out games played at the convention when they fit under any other category, such as cooperative, racing, or dexterity. So this section simply covers games that I played at the convention that didnít fit neatly into a different category, thus this is more of a catch-all group than anything else.
After the Flood is the second game in Martin Wallaceís new Treefrog Line, following on Tinnerís Trail released earlier this year. Or maybe itís the third game in the Treefrog Line, depending on whether you decide Steel Driver came before or after After the Flood, but they came out simultaneously as far as I can tell, so perhaps weíll never know. Either way, Martin Wallace has had an extremely prolific year, especially since he also released Toledo in 2008, bringing his total to 4 new games this year. Thatís pretty impressive considering he usually releases one or two games per year. But according to BoardGameGeek, Wallace has 5 new releases slated for 2009 (i.e., Steam, Rise of Empires, Automobile, Godís Playground, Waterloo), so rather than slacken his pace, it looks like heís aiming to pick up the pace of new releases even more. The Treefrog Line is an interesting concept. As the website says, ď1,500 of each title will be printed. Each will be signed and numbered. The quality of production will be up to usual Warfrog standards. However, all playing pieces will be wooden. There will be no cards, counters, or plastic pieces in any Treefrog Line game, (although paper money may appear from time to time).Ē Wallace goes on to say that the Treefrog Line is in the process of releasing a multi-player game (Tinnerís Trial), a three-player only game (After the Flood), a two-player wargame (Waterloo), plus a train game (Steel Driver). The most interesting part is that Wallace says the Treefrog Line ďwill repeat the pattern again,Ē and ďthis pattern will continue for five years at the very least.Ē It looks like Automobile is the multi-player game to follow on Tinnerís Trail, and Godís Playground is the three-player only game (set in Poland from 1400 to 1795) to follow on After the Flood. Itís somewhat strange to commit to a restrictive pattern like that for 5 years considering the vagaries of the game design process and the extremely unpredictable nature of the publishing process, but itís nice to see Wallace churning out new game designs at an unprecedented pace, especially since he is one of the standard bearers of heavy games in this age of most new releases being 45-minute super fillers.
I think Iím supposed to be talking about playing After the Flood, and Iím supposed to be writing concisely in order to fit the rest of November Madness into this article. I think Iím currently failing on both counts, but itís time to correct both (or at least one). I played After the Flood with Derk Solko (BGGís Mr. 49%) and Fraser (husband to translator extraordinaire Melissa Rogerson), who had travelled halfway across the globe! It was yet another quirky combination of traditional German-style mechanics with wargame mechanics, reminiscent of Wallaceís Byzantium (2005) and Perikles (2006) because both of those games were also quirky Euro-wargame hybrids. After the Flood has resource management and converting resources into victory points through various combinations, but it also has direct player-to-player combat, albeit very simple combat. In each of the 5 rounds, players will likely raise an army and march across Sumeria to claim as many territories as possible (worth 2 victory points each if held at the end of the round). When you create your army you ďequipĒ it by discarding resources. The value of the discarded resources will create a hierarchy of playerís armies with those discarding a more valuable assortment of resources fielding stronger armies. When you attack an army stronger than your own then you need to roll at least a 7 on two dice to win, and when you attack an army weaker than your own then you only need to roll at least a 5 to win. Itís that simple. As you can calculate, the attacking army wins more often than not, regardless of whether itís stronger or weaker, although even more so when itís stronger obviously. This makes the board fairly fluid as the armies conquer and re-conquer each other. Then suddenly the year ends, each player gets 2 victory points per territory they occupy, and all of the armies are wiped off the board. This process repeats 5 times and then the game ends (about 3 hours later). Itís an interesting and somewhat intriguing game, but didnít grab me in the same way that Byzantium did. Byzantium is another quirky three-player (much better with three than with four in my view) Wallace Euro-wargame hybrid, but Iíve played Byzantium five times now over the past few years and it has become one of my favorite Wallace games (behind Age of Steam and possibly Liberte). I wonít go into too much detail on Byzantium here, but the most interesting concept in the game is that players control both the Byzantine and the Arab sides of the conflict, scoring victory points for fielding armies on both sides, and then add their points together at the end (unless you score more than twice as many for one army, in which case you donít get to count the points for your weaker army, which encourages balanced growth like in Tigris & Euphrates or Ingenious, although not requiring nearly as much balance as those games since you donít simply count the lower of your scores). The verdict is that Iíd play After the Flood again, but donít feel the need to own it, especially given the fact that I already own Byzantium and Perikles, which scratch a vaguely similar itch.
Archaeology is one of the two games I picked up at the BGG.CON Flea Market. Iíd been interested in Phil Hardingís game since it was published in 2007 (and have been eyeing his second release Ė Cannonball Colony Ė which was released earlier this year), but shipping from Australia to the U.S. is a bit insane. When I saw a copy of Archaeology sitting there in the U.S. for me to grab without any shipping, I jumped at the opportunity. I suppose itís not quite supporting an independent publisher when I buy the game second-hand, but I have been interested in and following Adventureland Games since its inception, and am at least happy to finally have the chance to try one of their games. Archaeology is a light card game that took about 3 minutes to learn how to play and 20 minutes to play. Itís roughly the same weight (in terms of complexity and length) as Lost Cities, and serves as a good change of pace if youíve played Lost Cities a bunch or donít like doing all that math at the end of each round. Archaeology involves collecting sets of artifacts to sell to the museum (i.e., exchange for money, which are basically victory points for most intents and purposes). Just like in Bohnanza, larger sets are worth more money and the value of different size sets is printed at the bottom of each card. Your turn mainly consists of swapping goods of equal value with the face-up marketplace (sort of like discarding in Lost Cities because your opponent can later take the cards you discard) and then drawing a random card from the ďdigĒ pile. Itís fun, light, and quick, although nothing Earth shattering. It serves its purpose nicely and has fairly nice components, especially for a self-published game. It actually increases my interest in Cannonball Colony, and any future releases Harding might come out with, even though they donít appear to be at all similar in gameplay. After reading the rules online for Cannonball Colony it looks more like a spatial blocking game (in the same vien as Through the Desert or Hey Thatís My Fish), but if itís as polished and professional as Archaeology then itís probably worth at least trying out.
Big Points is a 2008 Schmidt Spiele release, which Iíd already played once before earlier this year, and which I resisted playing for a second time at BGG.CON, but was coerced into giving it another shot. Thereís really nothing that offensive about Big Points, but once was enough and twice was excessive. Itís somewhat reminiscent of Reiner Kniziaís Tutankhamen from 1993. Players simply move any of 5 different colored pawns along a random path of disks in order to collect those disks. The order in which the pawns reach the end of the path determines the value of the different colored disks that players have collected over the course of the 20-minute game. Itís light and random, especially with a large group of players, but maybe a good introduction to the concept of a stock market or investment game. It doesnít take long so I was willing to play it again with a friend who had never played it, but I sure hope people stop making me play this game.
Boss Kito makes Big Points look like the best game ever designed. Boss Kito is one of the worst games Iíve ever played and certainly the worst game Iíve played in 2008. Iíll preface this by saying that designer Michael Schacht has given us a number of great games, such as Hansa, China, and Coloretto. I like Hansa so much that I wrote my first and only board gaming strategy article about Hansa. But something must have gone awry in the design process for Boss Kito because this game was simply miserable. And I know itís not just me being crazy because Valerie Putman also listed it as her worst new game played. Iíd heard rumblings about Boss Kito being bad before I played it, but that only made me want to play it more because I knew that Schachtís designs werenít for everyone, but that I often liked his games, so perhaps Boss Kito would be a gem that most would overlook and I could discover. Sadly that dream did not come to pass. The card play in Boss Kito reminded me of Kniziaís Taj Mahal, which may get some of you to perk up your ears and think that it must be great after all, but imagine Taj Mahal without the board. Thatís right, you keep the head-to-head card placement like the driving ďgameĒ chicken where the winner takes all and the loser loses big, but you remove all of the strategic planning that comes with placing pieces on the board to form chains of palaces and collect resources. The game lasts 9 rounds with 5 cards up for auction in each round with each card being available for a different type of colored currency. Players bid on the cards using 5 types of different colored currency (a la Alhambra) from a randomly drawn hand with similar bidding rules to Taj Mahal, and everyone discards their bids regardless of whether they bid the most. Players get 4 turns in each round, in which they can basically play a card, draw a card, or discard/replace cards (a la Scrabble). After 9 rounds, your score is based on having the majority in different types of cards that you bid on. The game overstays its welcome and then lasts another 45 minutes of random card-drawing boredom.
Bull in a China Shop thankfully comes right after Boss Kito alphabetically because itís actually another Michael Schacht card game, but one that redeems Schacht in my eyes. This was a great filler card game that Iím now tempted to buy. It was originally released as Der Elefant im Porzellanladen by Amigo Spiele in 2006, but renamed Bull in a China Shop when it was reprinted by Playroom Entertainment. Itís a simple and quick card game with some interesting decision-making opportunities. Basically each turn consists of either spending a money to buy a piece of pottery (that comes in 3 different colors and of varying values) or taking a money, but having to take a destruction of pottery card in addition every time you take a money. It sounds like a frustrating Sisyphus-like exercise of constantly destroying the pottery that you just bought, and in a way - it is. But thatís the fun part because itís all about timing the taking of money so that there are destruction of pottery cards available that donít harm you much, if at all. The destruction cards destroy things like all of your pottery in a certain color or all of your even-numbered pottery, so if you time it right (or are lucky, which is often better than being good, of course) then youíll get a money without having to destroy anything. The second interesting element of the game comes in the scoring, which occurs four time over the course of the game. At each scoring interval, you have to decide whether to score all of your pottery of a certain color, your highest valued pottery in each color, your lowest valued pottery in each color, or all of your pottery. The key is that just like Shear Panic, your options decrease because you can only use each scoring option once in the game. Figuring out when to take money versus buying pottery, and when to use each scoring option is a fun challenge. While the game is extremely random, itís quick and light and still allows for some interesting decisions to scratch your head about and wonder back on whether things would have turned out differently if youíd chosen the other path.
Chateau Roquefort was a disappointing game. My expectations were likely too high after hearing such great things about this game and after the announcement that it had won the 2008 Golden Geek for best Childrenís Game. Itís actually not a bad game by any means, and my disappointment is principally due to the fact that I hadnít researched the game enough so I didnít realize that it had a significant memory element. Itís basically a variant on the traditional Ravensburger game The Amazing Labyrinth where players can alter the location of tiles on a grid by using the surplus tile to push any row or column of tiles on the board, which results in a new surplus tile falling off the far edge of the board. My problem is that youíre trying to find pairs of matching cheese, but the locations are constantly uncovered and then covered back up, requiring players to try to remember where things are located, and to track those things as they shift around the grid. It has wonderful components and a nicely streamlined set of rules which should both make it work fairly well with children, but that last bit about the memory aspect of the game is pretty much a deal breaker for me personally.
Chicago Express (originally known as Wabash Cannonball when it was released by Winsome Games in 2007) is a game that Iíve been wanting to try for a while. Itís commonly referred to as providing the flavor of an 18xx train game in a short package. Games that are actually part of the 18xx series can take many, many hours to play, but Iíve been intrigued by those train games for some time now. Having the chance to get the flavor of one of those epic games without devoting the long time to learning the rules and playing the game sounded perfect to me. Thus, my expectations for Chicago Express were fairly high, especially since Iíd been wanting to play it for over a year. Unlike many game, this one actually lived up perfectly to my expectations. It was short and sweet (roughly 60 minutes even for first-timers) and packed quite a punch! For such a quick game, it was remarkably dense, packing in more decisions per minute than just about any other game Iíve played. I wish the game was packed even half as densely into its game box since the box for Chicago Express is at least twice as big as it needs to be, and fitting it on the shelves of my tiny New York City apartment is going to be a challenge, but itís a testament to how enjoyable the game was that Iím willing to try to make it fit. Simply deciding on each turn whether to develop a hex, expand a rail line, or auction a share in a train company, is a wonderfully tense decision, let alone deciding which hex to develop, or where to expand the rail line (and which rail line to expand), or how much to bid for a share (and which train companyís share to put up for auction). Itís definitely one of those clichťd rule sets that is easy to learn and hard to master.
Ciao, Ciao was an Alex Randolph game from 1997 that was all about bluffing. Ironically I sat out from the Poker Tournament at BGG.CON because I have no poker face and everyone at the table can always figure out exactly how good my hand of cards is, so what do I play in the board game room while the Poker Tournament is going on? Of course it just had to be Ciao, Ciao. This was the first in a series of odd and obscure games that Morgan Dontanville brought to the table, followed by Mago Magino, Eselsrennen, and later by Fruttirelli and Tumba. He certainly has a knack for bringing out games that I havenít heard of before, which is remarkable considering how much time I spend on BoardGameGeek learning about every conceivable board game. Anyway, you can imagine that Ciao, Ciao was not my cup of tea given my gross ineptitude at bluffing, which is essentially the sole mechanic of this game. Players take turns secretly rolling a die and then telling their fellow players what the die shows or lying about what it shows. The reasons to lie are twofold. First, two faces of the die show an ďXĒ which forces you to lie about what number it shows. Second, you move your pawn across a bridge the number of spaces that you say the die shows, which creates an incentive to say a higher number even if the die shows a number that you could be honest about, such as a 1. Getting caught lying means knocking your existing piece off the bridge and starting from scratch with a new pawn, of which you have a limited supply. Itís a quick and inoffensive game, but based entirely on a concept that I donít particularly enjoy.
Cities is the cross between Carcassonne and Take It Easy that everyone says it is. Itís a 20-minute tile-laying game where everyone places tiles in their own area to build their own little city (a la Alhambra and the separate building of palaces). The hook though is that everyone uses an identical set of tiles, which eliminates much of the luck from the game. You place meeples throughout the restaurants, parks, and other attractions of your city in order to score points at the end of the game, which comes quickly enough since it only lasts until everyone has placed 16 tiles in their city (forming a 4 by 4 grid of tiles). The scoring is the only obtuse part of the game because meeples score differently depending on which feature of your city they are standing in (i.e., which color, whether itís a red restaurant, a green park, or a yellow attraction). The scoring is actually somewhat thematic once you wrap your head around it, but itís the one part of the game that players are likely to mix up during the game, resulting in potentially misplaced tiles or meeples. Itís a fairly engaging and quick game that serves its purpose beautifully. Cities does a good job accomplishing its goal and filling the niche it aims to fill, but Iím not convinced that I need another 20-minute tile-laying game in my collection. I must say that it is tempting as the gameplay of Cities feels surprisingly innovative despite borrowing so heavily from prior games, but itís not a game that I feel a need to add to my collection.
Code 777 is an old Jumbo game from 1986 that is getting harder to track down these days, which is why I took the opportunity to try it out at BGG.CON. I coerced the unsuspecting Brian and Lisa to try it out with me. It was certainly very different from anything else I played at BGG.CON, which made it a very nice change of pace and makes it tempting to hunt down a copy. Itís a deduction game where each player has a rack of 3 numbers that faces away from them so that everyone else can see it but you canít see your own numbers. The goal of the game is to figure out what numbers are on your rack. Each turn a player answers a question on a randomly drawn card about the numbers they can see, such as whether they see more even or odd numbers. This allows players to slowly gather information about their own set of numbers and hopefully be the first person to announce that theyíve determined their numbers. Itís really a neat little deduction game that plays quickly and provides plenty of ďlightbulb momentsĒ where you make a breakthrough, but also plenty of head scratching moments where you learn a bit of information that contradicts everything you thought you knew.
Duck Dealer is not a bad game by any means and Iíve only played it once so I havenít nearly explored its depths, but I didnít feel the same sort of eagerness to play again and again that I felt with Antiquity and Roads & Boats (previous Splotter offerings by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga). Antiquity is in my Top 10 and Roads & Boats in my Top 50, so saying that Duck Dealer doesnít measure up is no criticism. There are plenty of great games that pale in comparison to those prior Splotter games. Duck Dealer demands an immense amount of advance planning by players. Antiquity and Roads & Boats are no walk in the park, but Duck Dealer takes the cake when it comes to requiring the careful mapping out of your turns an hour or two hence. Basically Duck Dealer consists of players spending most of their turns collecting energy (like the collection of train cards in Ticket to Ride). So most turns are very quick as players simply collect the energy discs that their shipís crew can collect, which comes in three flavors: red (movement), blue (trade), and yellow (build). Eventually, someone decides that theyíve collected enough energy and decides to take an ďactual turn,Ē which involves spending as much energy as they feel like to fly around the board, gathering resources, converting them into more valuable resources using the gameís technology tree, building factories, and selling their wares for victory points. The most novel and intriguing part of the game is the fact that it ends after 23 of these ďactual turns.Ē But those 23 turns can be divided among the players in any way. You can build up an enormous number of energy discs and take only a very small number of major turns, or take more frequent, but smaller turns. In our game of four players, one player took only 4 turns, while another took 8 turns. But itís not about how many turns you take, but rather how efficiently you spend your energy since everyone will gather roughly the same amount of energy. The key to the game comes in trying to plan where youíre going to fly your ship, what resources youíre going to gather, and where youíre going to build factories and sell your resources. This is the kind of game that could take 90 minutes with a quick group, but could easily take over 3 hours with a different sort of group. As with Chess, you could play for the moment, simply making moves that are easy to see, or you could try to plan many turns in advance, mapping out a long-term path. I suppose both games require flexibility to changed circumstances, but the time horizon of your planning is really up to you in either game. I canít or simply donít enjoy planning more than a couple turns in advance, so neither Chess nor Duck Dealer is really for me. I play Roads & Boats by the seat of my pants, building paper factories and mints wherever I please, and I suppose you could do the same thing with Duck Dealer, but it seems less feasible. On a tangential note, the components of Duck Dealer are rather embarrassingly bad. Certainly past Splotter offerings havenít been particularly great (although I love the style of Antiquity and its overall look), but Duck Dealer takes it to a new level. The fact that both Duck Dealer and Planet Steam cost 60 Euros is telling because the latter is gorgeously produced (over-produced even), whereas the former is rather hideous by comparison. I wouldnít let this stop me from buying a great game, but I just might let it stop me from buying an okay game like Duck Dealer.
Eselsrennen is the first Doris & Frank game, released in 1989, a year before their more well-known Igel ńrgern. Eselsrennen is a supremely odd racing game where everyone controls all of the participants in the race (i.e., donkeys). Each player has a secret set of cards depicting various possible orders of finishing of the different colored donkeys. Once all the donkeys have finished the race, the players score points based on how close the actual results were to their secret cards, and only count their best card in the end (i.e., the one card that scored the most points because it most closely matched the actual results of the race). Itís a strange concept, and the movement of the donkeys during the race is even more strange. Looking at a picture of the board will help make sense of this explanation, but basically a player moves any donkey one space forward on their turn. Each space has a colored arrow on it, which means that the single movement causes a chain reaction because you move the corresponding colored donkey one space in the direction of the arrow that was just stepped on. This will lead to another arrow being stepped on and another donkey being moved. Thus, a playerís single move on their turn can lead to many subsequent movements. This ends when a donkey runs into another donkey or steps on an arrow of its own color. Then the next players moves a donkey of his or her choice, setting off another chain reaction. And so on, until the donkeys cross the finish line and the winner is determined. Itís an interesting and unique little race game, to say the least.
Fireball Island was on Michelleís list of games to try at BGG.CON so try it we must. I hadnít played Fireball Island in many years, probably since I was about 9 years old. Itís an old Milton Bradley game with a 3-D mountainous board of molded plastic (another board that youíve got to take a look at, just like Eselsrennen). Sadly I remembered the game being far better than it was. Itís basically a roll-and-move where the players race to pick up a gem and bring it to the end of the course. Once a player has picked up the gem though, other players can steal it by walking past him or her. This leads to a drawn-out end game as the gem is stolen back and a forth, and an obviously random winner as the last person to steal the gem at the end of the track is the lucky victor. Itís a very cool looking game and certainly fun when you roll a 1 and get to launch a fireball (i.e., red marble) down the course to knock over your opponents, sending them to the ďsmolder pit,Ē but itís certainly not worth the hefty prices that itís fetching on eBay.
Fruttirelli was overly long and boring, which is very surprising considering how quick and exciting the other childrenís game published by Selecta that Iíve played is, that being Giro Galoppo. Fruttirelli simply consisted of repeatedly rolling a die in order to try to land by exact count on spaces to pick up fruit, and then once youíve collected one of each type of fruit, to land by exact count on your home space. It might not be too painful if it werenít for the fact that you can easily steal fruit from someone else by landing on them (a la Fireball Island roughly), which makes the game drag on and on and on. I canít imagine any child being able to sit through this one until the end. This was quite surprising and disappointing given how great Giro Galoppo is, which had given me high hopes for other Selecta games.
Gulo Gulo was the best childrenís game I played at BGG.CON, which is particularly impressive given my exceedingly high expectations for it. Gulo Gulo is probably the most recommended childrenís game on BoardGameGeek when someone asks for recommendations, so I had high hopes. It didnít quite live up to those, but was certainly fun and I could see the appeal, so itís one I hope to eventually purchase. Itís a neat little dexterity game where players are attempting to carefully remove wooden eggs from a bowl without triggering the ďegg alarmĒ (i.e., a wobbly stick that is tenuously standing in the bowl). The neat mechanic is that players can decide which color egg to try to remove, which allows them to move to the next colored space on the track thatís the same color as the egg they removed. This is along the same lines as Candyland, except instead of randomly drawing a color, you get to pick the color based on how risk averse or risk preferring youíd like to be given the current state of the bowl of eggs. Itís really a beautiful childrenís game that is extremely simple yet provides the opportunity for meaningful decisions.
Ice Flow has nothing particularly wrong with it, but nothing particularly compelling about it. It involves a hexagonal board where players are attempting to be the first to move their explorers to the other side (from Alaska to Russia, although Iím not quite sure why they're fleeing Alaska). To cross the Bering Strait, youíve got to hop your explorers along the titular ice flows, which are liable to move along the flowing currents and some of which come bearing polar bears. Thankfully the polar bears have short attention spans and are easily distracted by spending one fish token, which are gathered on other ice flows. The last resource to collect and spend in the game is rope, which is needed to cross between ice flows which have broken edges, like in this picture. The game works, but doesnít really bring anything new to the table and consequently isnít really engaging. It feels like a whole host of other spatial positioning games on hexagonal grids (e.g., Hey Thatís My Fish, Through the Desert) without really being very much like any of those games, but also without having the same elegant simplicity of those games, given the frills that have been included to make the game more family friendly. Iíd willingly play it again, but am not dying to by any means.
Le Havre is Uwe Rosenbergís much anticipated sequel to Agricola, which gives it the same hurdle that confronted Mammoth Hunters when it was Aleaís sequel to Puerto Rico. Given that obstacle, Le Havre is being surprisingly well received, and with good reason. I played Le Havre twice at BGG.CON, where it was in almost constant play, and believe that I enjoy and will continue to enjoy it significantly more than Agricola. Iíve never been especially enamored with Agricola, which Iíve always thought is good (with the drafting variant), but not great. I think the plethora of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards in Agricola is more of a distraction than anything else, and I feel like the short time span of the game coupled with the incessant harvest demands makes it a frustrating experience of trying to build an engine in artificially cramped quarters. Le Havre on the other hand feels like a more wide open playground, and while there are vaguely similar feeding demands in Le Havre, theyíre not as overwhelming or crushing as in Agricola because you can always spend money instead of food, and you can always take a loan for more money. Importantly, loans in Le Havre are not nearly as devastating as Begging cards in Agricola so being unprepared for a harvest or two in Le Havre is not a huge problem. The number of options, turns, resources, and methods for creating victory points in Le Havre are huge, which gives the game its wide open feeling. I did feel like the game overstayed its welcome when playing with 4 inexperienced players, but the game claims to play much quicker with 2 and 3 players, so Iím hopeful that I can pack the tense decision-making of Le Havre into 90 minutes with 3 experienced players. The 2.5 hours that it took was too long for what it offered, but 90 minutes would be dense enough to merit repeated plays to more fully explore this intriguing title.
Mago Magino was yet another childrenís game by Selecta that I tried at BGG.CON. Itís not nearly as bad as Fruttirelli, but not nearly as good as Giro Galoppo, both by the same publisher. Itís another race game where players are racing to collect gems and bring them back to the starting point. Along the way, some die rolls will force players to spin the central witch spinner (think Twister), which turns playerís figures into frogs, which move slower and cannot carry gems. This forces players to bring their frogs back to the starting point to turn back into children or to bring the magician figure to their frogs to turn them back into children. Itís a cute little diversion and isnít as painfully long as Fruttirelli, but it sadly fails to provide the same sort of decision-making opportunities as either Giro Galoppo or Gulo Gulo.
One Thousand Blank White Cards, on the other hand, is not a childrenís game, especially when played with Scott, Chad, and Ryan of the Strang Line Spielers. Itís a game played with a stack of index cards, a bunch of pens, and any other props on hand (such as Ubongo gems, Maus Nach Haus mice, or this strange little creature). Players simply write and/or draw whatever theyíd like on the index cards, create a deck of homemade cards, draw a hand of cards, and take turns playing them on each other. The rest is up to the players' imagination, for better or worseÖ
Planet Steam was the surprise hit of BGG.CON for me and is currently my second favorite game of 2008 (just behind Ghost Stories). It wasnít even on my list of games to try at BGG.CON, which is impressive considering the fact that the list had 129 games on it, far more than I could ever have hoped to play at the convention. Thankfully someone else suggested playing Planet Steam and we found someone to explain the game, making learning this fairly complex game a breeze (compared to what it could have been at least). Iím left wanting to play this rather rare and hard-to-find game again, and hoping that it gets a domestic reprint. Moreover, Iím hoping that the reprint comes in a much smaller box, with a smaller board and less over-produced components. Iíd certainly pick-up a reprint, especially if it was a bit smaller/cheaper. As I said in Part 1 of this series, Planet Steam is a ďdeep and fairly long economic game with a very interesting supply-and-demand resource market (a la Power Grid). Trying to time the ebb and flow of prices is an engaging challenge.Ē While I donít enjoy Power Grid, Iíd been hoping to find another board game that employed a similarly interesting supply-and-demand resource market. Planet Steam involves producing four different types of resources in order to buy and sell them in a market where the prices fluctuate based on the supply and demand of your fellow players. Make the most money and you win. It was almost three hours long, but extremely engaging. I enjoyed other games that I expected to enjoy at the convention (such as Ghost Stories, Chicago Express, Le Havre, Dominion), but this was the sleeper hit (runner-up sleeper hit would definitely go to Red November, which was a surprisingly tense and compelling cooperative game that I quickly ordered due to its very small box size and price). It was really interesting in Planet Steam to try to generate resources so you could buy and sell them at the right time in the market as the prices fluctuated significantly over the course of the game. The market was particularly interesting because unlike Power Grid, the game itself doesnít inject new resources into the market. Only the players sell resources into the market, so unless someone gets around to producing a resource, itís guaranteed to be in short supply or nonexistent. The prices also seem to fluctuate a lot more than in Power Grid, so resources can go from being almost free to being extremely valuable, and then back again, over the course of the game, depending on what the players are producing and selling. Timing is key as the windows of opportunity in this game are short-lived and if you donít seize them, then your opponents likely will, and theyíll make a killing in the process. I look forward to hopefully trying my hand at this economic simulation again soon.
Risk Express was one of the two games that I played with two nice guys from the Pacific Northwest while waiting in the registration line at the convention (the other being Hamsterolle). We didnít quite finish Risk Express before registration opened and we had to pack it up, but I think I got the gist of the game. Itís a Knizia dice game that employs the sort of risk management (no pun intended) youíd expect from a Knizia dice game. Itís a decent enough game that achieves exactly what it sets out to doÖ donít Knizia games achieve that more often than not? However, itís not the sort of game I can see myself feeling like playing very often. It was perfect for waiting in line, but thankfully I donít find myself waiting in lines like that frequently.
Royal Palace (or Palais Royal) felt very familiar, maybe too familiar considering itís a brand new game by a brand new designer (Xavier Georges). It didnít feel precisely like any one German-style board game, but was surprisingly easy to grasp despite its fairly involved rules. This may have been due in part to the excellent teaching skills of Scott Tepper, but I think itís also due to the fact that the game clearly recycles mechanics. Thatís not necessarily a bad thing and I donít mean it with any negative connotation. As I quoted in The Attia Family Tree, ďGood poets borrow, great poets steal.Ē Borrowing is an integral part of any form of creation, whether itís poetry or board game design. Recycling mechanics is a necessary process for refining mechanics and more fully exploring their possibilities and interactions with various themes and rule sets. The game that Royal Palace felt most like is Louis XIV, as Melissa Rogerson already observed in her blog Obsessing about Everything. Not only the theme, but also the mechanics of placing and moving cubes to attain pluralities in various regions that give special abilities felt like Rudiger Dornís Louis XIV. This is a good thing in my mind because I really enjoy Louis XIV, but this may be a turn off for many who find Louis XIV to be too dry and repetitive. Iím left feeling rather ambivalent about Royal Palace. Iíd be happy to play it again in order to get a better sense for whether itís worth purchasing and repeatedly playing, but I didnít fall in love with it or feel a strong urge to play many more times. Hopefully someone else nearby will pick this one up so I can explore it a bit more before committing because it appeared to have some potential, but didnít quite win me over.
Rum & Pirates barely exceeded my rather low expectations. Itís number 10 in the Alea big box series, completing the trilogy of widely panned Alea big box games (i.e., Mammoth Hunters, Fifth Avenue, Rum & Pirates), which came between the more widely praised Puerto Rico (#7) and Notre Dame (#11) on either end of this trilogy. Rum & Pirates (known in German as Um Ru(h)m und Ehre, which I gather is a pun on the word honor or some such thing) is a fairly simple game of using your limited supply of pirate figures to move the captain figure around the board to reach various places that give you the chance to score a few victory points. The downfall is the complication that comes from having countless different types of places to score victory points in myriad different ways, but all of the ways are effectively the same in that they simply involve rolling dice against your opponents. There are pubs and supply tables and treasure maps and such, but whether you move the captain to one or the other, in the end youíll simply be rolling dice to try to take chits worth a few victory points. I suppose most board games could be boiled down to sound this inane, but Rum & Pirates felt particularly aimless. The additional downside of the game is that you play five independent rounds that donít build on each other and simply serve to add artificial length to the game. This is similar to the repetitive rounds of Powerboats that simply make the game take more time without creating any sort of arc to the game play. Thereís no Act 3 climax or Act 5 denouement to speak of, thereís simply Act 1, then reset, then Act 1 again, ad nauseam.
Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas wasnít my kind of game. As I said in the Part 1 article: ďImagine an action-point puzzle game where the decisions of other players can randomly and severely interfere with your carefully planned puzzle solution. Its saving grace was that it didnít last too long.Ē The game starts by randomly placing 4 colored books on the grid for each player and the winner is the first person to walk their monk to touch each of their books. The setup involves each player placing a handful of walkways on the board, which comes in a variety of shapes along the lines of Blokus pieces or Princes of Florence buildings. Then comes the actual game which gives each player 6 action points per turn (just like Kramer and Kieslingís Java) to spend on playing and exchanging cards in order to move/rotate the walkways and move their monk towards their books. Itís an interesting concept, but was frustrating because action point games generally encourage careful planning to efficiently spend your limited action points. Yet this game seemed to involve one player accidentally and significantly interfering with their opponentsí plans, over and over. You could try to intentionally interfere with your opponentsí plans, which occurred from time to time, and is not something I mind in a game, but the frequency of inadvertently blocking and hindering your opponents seemed disproportionately high in this game. Maybe it was due to the four players all being new to the game, but it made the experience fairly frustrating and futile.
Steel Driver is my favorite of the new Treefrog games so far. Itís an interesting train game, but doesnít quite measure up to Chicago Express in my mind, particularly in terms of packing a lot of game into a little time, which Chicago Express does masterfully. Steel Driver is similar to Chicago Express in that the game revolves around auctions for shares in train companies, which pay dividends and effectively pay victory points based on your percentage ownership in a company. In addition, the train companies start with no routes when you begin both of these games and the companies slowly expand to cover the map over the course of these games. So theyíre not only about bidding the right amount on the right shares, but also about expanding the train companies that youíve invested in to reach the best cities on the map given the circumstances. There are two things that keep Steel Driver from being as good as Chicago Express in my mind. First is the playing time, which was only 60 minutes for Chicago Express, but was close to 2 hours for Steel Driver. This could potentially be rectified with repeated plays, but Steel Driver certainly isnít quite as streamlined as Chicago Express, which is not surprising given that itís a Martin Wallace game. Then again, the charm of Wallace games is often in their clunkiness and convoluted nature. Second is the end game of Steel Driver, which feels tacked on and feels like it somewhat arbitrarily determines the results of the game. While both games determine the winner by calculating who has the most money at the end of the game, Chicago Express doesnít have any different ways to earn money at the end of the game; the shares simply pay dividends based on the income of the railroads. Steel Driver, on the other hand, adds a new wrinkle at the end that seems to overwhelm everything that came before. While the players earn income during the game, the railroads collect colored cubes from the cities that theyíve reached in Steel Driver and then pay out based on the variety of colored cubes collected at the end of the game. This is good because it encourages players to develop sprawling railroads, so they come into conflict with each other as they expand their networks, but itís bad because the selection of cubes at the end of the game feels fairly disassociated with the majority of the gameplay. So you play for an hour and 45 minutes, then spend 10 minutes picking cubes off the board to determine the final payouts and the winner. The disjunction was a bit off-putting. Iíll gladly try Steel Driver again, but given the fact that it costs twice as much as Chicago Express and my first impression didnít excite me in the same way, Iíll hold off on picking up a copy for the time being.
Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion (with Ticket to Ride: Europe) is an expansion that I played twice at BGG.CON because Days of Wonder hosted a tournament. The tournament involved 5 tables playing Ticket to Ride: Europe with The Dice Expansion. The winner from each table got a free copy of The Dice Expansion and got to play at the final table. The winner at the final table got a poster with Ticket to Ride artwork signed by Alan Moon. Much to my surprise, I won at my initial table and then won again at the final table. I was extremely lucky in both games and am generally inept at Ticket to Ride, especially Ticket to Ride: Europe because I donít like and can never seem to get a handle on ferries and tunnels. I generally prefer the simplicity of the original Ticket to Ride without the ferries, tunnels, and stations. The Dice Expansion was an interesting variant for Ticket to Ride, especially intriguing because it works with all of the myriad versions of the game. However, itís somewhat disconcerting playing Ticket to Ride without the colors of the routes mattering. It was a nice change of pace, but nothing essential, except for the most diehard of Ticket to Ride fansÖ of which there are clearly many given the number of Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries copies I was able to sell after visiting Norway a year ago. Speaking of which, if anyone has any interest in a Ticket to Ride poster signed by Alan Moon, let me know.
Time's Up! Deluxe was a fun and rowdy experience at BGG.CON. Iíd played the party game before, but not the officially produced version, let alone the Deluxe version. Although I couldnít figure out what was ďdeluxeĒ about it, besides maybe the electronic timer. For those who havenít played, itís basically a variant on charades. You have a deck of cards with famous people or characters on them, you split into teams, and you try to get your team to guess as many of the cards as possible in 30 seconds. The key innovation that makes the game interesting is that you play 3 rounds. In the first round, you can say or do anything to get your team to guess the right answer, so itís fairly easy. In the second round, you play through the same deck of cards again, but this time you can only say one word. Itís much harder, but at least your team has heard all the names before so thereís a memory element to it now. In the third round, you cannot say anything, so itís purely charades plus sound effects. It can be rather difficult at the end, but there were some very clever people at BGG.CON whose silent acting abilities were impressive. There was one gentleman from Los Angeles, I believe, who was remarkable!
Thebes is a game that I had been wanting to try for a long, long time. It was one of those games on the borderline of my wishlist that I had been tempted to pick up many times, but which I wasnít sure whether Iíd like enough to warrant owning (and the large box size kept it from being an impulse purchase given my small apartment and overcrowded shelves). Iím glad I finally had the chance to try Thebes thanks to Lisa and Brian from Colorado teaching it at BGG.CON. Unfortunately, even after playing it, Iím still on the fence about whether itís worth owning. I liked it, but I didnít love it nearly as much as many others that Iíve read. I wasnít quite as bothered by the luck of drawing chits from a bag to simulate an archaeological dig as I had feared. However, I also wasnít as overcome with the sense that it was a German-style board game that especially embodied its theme. The time track is a very neat idea and one thatís used to great effect in both Thebes and Red November. I expect to see more games in 2009 that employ this mechanic, and perhaps a whole genre of time track games develop (like the recent outbreaks of worker placement games, cooperative games, and racing games). Iím tempted to pick-up Thebes, but I also fear that it might be caught in the no-manís middle ground between gateway game and more complex games, just like Thurn & Taxis (although certainly not as boring as Thurn & Taxis). Itís certainly more complicated than Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, but not a very complex game by any means. Iíd like to play it again, which seems to be my mantra for many of these games I tried at BGG.CON (except Boss Kito), but shelf space is at too high a premium to fit Thebes for the time being.
War of the Roses is a prototype designed by Peter Hawes, who also recently designed Heads of State (and Colonial Diplomacy many moons ago). This was actually the only prototype I tried at BGG.CON, which means I unfortunately missed out on the Pandemic expansion prototype, so I guess Iíll just have to wait until Z-Man releases that in 2009. War of the Roses was the last game I played on the last day of BGG.CON. I played with the designer and with Jeff Anderson and his brother (who I also enjoyed Duck Dealer with earlier in the convention). Itís a partnership game, so Jeff and his brother teamed up, and I was on Peterís team (which I thought would guarantee a win, but Jeffís brother squeaked out a victory in the end). However, itís a partnership game where you donít win or lose as a team, but rather a game where only one person wins, like Peter Struijfís new Krakow 1325 AD (and also like Krakow in that itís strictly a four-player game). I really like this concept of a partnership game where you have to work with your partner but also be suspicious of your partner and his or her possible attempts to subvert you (which is why Iím looking forward to the impending arrival of my Krakow order). The game also reminded me vaguely of Hammer of the Scots because a significant part of it involved nobles switching sides, although they didnít have to be beaten into submission in War of the Roses, but rather could simply be bribed, for the right price. Finally, it also reminded me vaguely of Wallenstein because of the simultaneous action selection for the movement of units and attacking your neighbors. It was a very interesting game, more so because of the partnership aspect that wasnít truly a partnership since there was only one winner. Peter was nice enough to demonstrate this aspect of the game by attacking me in a few places towards of the end of the game! I liked how the game started off fairly simple and the complexity grew over the course of the five game years as more units were deployed and the playersí treasuries built up, increasing the range of options significantly in the latter half of the game. It took a few solid hours to play, but seems like the playing time could vary significantly based on how much analysis and/or negotiating you and your opponents wanted to do during the planning phase of each year. I wonít go into any more details about the gameplay (so I suppose youíll just have to imagine a strange amalgam of Krakow 1325 AD, Hammer of the Scots, and Wallenstein) because itís subject to change as the game is further playtested and developed, but it looks like it will be picked up by a publisher and hopefully released next year. I look forward to trying it again once itís released (and in the meantime it has piqued my interest in giving Heads of State a try sometime too).
Wasabi! looks gorgeous, but is too chaotic for my tastes. Itís a new tile-laying game from Z-Man games that Simon Hunt was kind enough to teach expertly at BGG.CON. Iíve played it twice with four-players and would like to try it with two or three players to see if itís less chaotic at those player counts. Seeing as Iím someone who greatly prefers games like Through the Desert, Hey Thatís My Fish, Ra, Louis XIV, and China with the minimum number of players, I might like Wasabi! a good deal more with only two players. With four players, too much can happen on the board between your turns, so your ability to exert much control seems minimized. Itís a fairly simple tile-laying game where you try to line up tiles of ingredients to satisfy secret recipe cards, which score points based on the size of the recipe (ranging from two to five ingredients) and score points based on whether you lined up the ingredients in the correct order or not. You basically just play an ingredient tile from behind your screen and then draw back up to three tiles from the open supply. The spice is added to the game with the cards, which you are awarded for completing recipes and which give you special abilities, such as being able to remove an ingredient tile from the board, switch two adjacent ingredient tiles on the board, or play two ingredient tiles onto the board in a single turn. I think the game accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish, and is a good middle-weight tile-laying game with very high production quality, but itís fairly chaotic with the full complement of players and just like in Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas, your opponents can definitely accidentally interfere with your best laid plans.
Witchís Brew is #4 in the Alea medium box series of games. Itís only the second member of the Alea medium box series that Iíve tried, the other being Louis XIV, which is in my Top 20, although both Palazzo and Augsburg 1520 are on my list to try. In fact, Augsburg 1520 is the game that BGG most recommends based on my existing 504 ratings, so I suppose I do need to give it a shot sometime soon. Witchís Brew is a role selection game where players simultaneously and secretly select a hand of five role cards out of a possible twelve. These role cards will give you potion drops, money, let you spend potion drops to buy cauldrons full of potions (worth victory points), or various other special abilities. In each round, one player leads by playing a role card, then clockwise each player must play that same role card if they had selected it as one of their five for that round. When playing the same role card as someone else, you have to decide whether to take a diminished reward or whether to claim the full reward. If you claim a diminished reward then youíre guaranteed receiving it, but if you attempt to claim the full reward then you are thwarted (and receive nothing) if anyone after you plays the card and claims the full reward. It has some interesting decisions as to how risk averse or risk preferring youíd like to be, but itís also very random in terms of what roles each player selects each round and the order in which those roles come out, as well as where you happen to be sitting in the circle. Itís not quite short enough in relation to its randomness. If it could get down to 30 minutes or less then it might be in about the right proportion, but coming in at 50-60 minutes, it dragged a bit towards the end. It would probably be quicker with experienced players, and Iíd be willing to play it again, but as for it being in the same series as Louis XIV, thereís a clear winner in that bout.
Expansions are the Spice of Life
Iím not always a fan of board game expansions, as I discuss in another article, but the three that I played in November were all actually very good. Iíll actually consider adding all three of these expansions as permanent parts of their respective base games when I play in the future.
Agricola - Through the Seasons adds a very nice extra layer of decision-making and planning to Agricola. This expansion was conveniently printed on a postcard and distributed by Lookout Games at the Essen fair in October. Thankfully, Grzegorz Kobiela was incredibly generous and took the time to distribute the expansion to countless BoardGameGeek users. Iím very thankful to Grzegorz for mailing me a copy of the expansion, which Iíve since played and enjoyed very much. Hopefully there will be a relatively easy way for others to get a copy of this expansion down the road. Basically itís a postcard divided into a four boxes, one for each season of the year. Each of the 14 rounds of Agricola now occurs during a season, which rotates in the normal fashion, beginning in Round 1 with the current season whenever (and wherever) you happen to be playing the game. Round 2 will be the next season and so on. Each season has 3 effects on the current round. These effects will be very clear if you just take a look at this image. First, each season adds a new place to put a worker to take a corresponding action. Second, each season alters the amount of resources you receive from the rest of the spaces on the board (e.g., extra stone in Spring, extra reeds in Autumn). Third, each season has one other rules modification that affects the rest of the game in some minor way for that round (e.g., major improvements cost 1 less for that round, two free fences if you build fences during that round). The nice part about this expansion is that you can plan a few turns in advance for taking advantage of the bonus of a particular season since you know that if itís Summer in Round 5 then it will be Spring in Round 8, so you might want to hold out to build your fences until then if you can afford to wait, so you can get the bonus from the season. As you can probably tell, this expansion doesnít drastically alter the game, but it does increase your options slightly and encourage a bit more advance planning. I think my preferred way of playing Agricola is now with the drafting variant (keep 1 of your 7 occupations, pass the remaining 6 to the left, keep 1 out of 6, pass the remaining 5, etc. then do the same process for minor improvements) and the Through the Seasons expansion.
Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion is more of the same, which is a very good thing for fans of Galaxy Trucker. Itís more tiles to build your ship, more aliens to man your ship, more adventure cards and rough road cards and new evil machinations cards to blow your ship apart. Itís not revolutionary, but thatís fine by me. I love the base game and have played it 20 times now, and I love playing with the expansion even more, which Iíve played 3 times so far. I donít expect to play without the expansion ever again, except when teaching the game to new players. I particularly like that The Big Expansion increases the difficulty level of the game significantly. Iíve gone from always making 80 to 90 credits, to now making 10 to 20 credits. Iím looking forward to slowly building myself back up as I get more familiar with the new tiles and cards. I really enjoy the increased challenge of the game with The Big Expansion. I heartily recommend it to any fans of Galaxy Trucker, and I heartily recommend to avoid it if you didnít enjoy the base game because it certainly doesnít alter it significantly. Itís more of the same, which is fine by me!
Mr. Jack Extension is one of the best game expansions Iíve ever played. Iíve already written an article praising the virtues of the Mr. Jack Extension, so I wonít go into too much detail here except to recommend that article and reiterate that anyone who enjoys Mr. Jack owes it to themselves to try out the Extension. I think it does for the game what Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders did for Carcassonne, that is to say, it pulls the game up from very good to incredible. Mr. Jack was an interesting game for the first 15 to 20 plays, but the same setup and character mix every time gave it a limited shelf life in my eyes. The Extension provides numerous possible mixes of characters and interactions and a different setup every time. I think there are 3,024 different possible mixes of characters if my math is correct, since you use 4 set characters and then 1 of the remaining 9, then 1 of the remaining 8, etc. More importantly, the Extension manages to seamlessly blend the new characters into the base game without introducing any radical new concepts into the game. If youíre not convinced, I recommend trying out the game with the expansion online with the Hurrican Games site and its very nice interface.
Iím not normally a huge fan of abstract games, probably due in large part to my unbelievable ineptitude at them, but I got to try a few new ones in November, as well as a few old ones, so they deserve their own section here. Of the six abstract games I played in November, Ta YŁ is by far my favorite of the bunch. I just love the way this game scales to accommodate various player counts and I love the look of the game, that is the old blue version, not the new red version. I did enjoy learning (and getting crushed at) Quoridor though, and I am always up for Ingenious as well, which is my sixth most played game with 58 plays.
Khet: The Laser Game (originally known as Deflexion) is one of the three abstract games that Iíd played before, but was happy to have a chance to try it out again in November. Iíve now played it 3 times and can say for certain that I am unbelievably bad at Khet. If there was a tournament to determine the absolute worst Khet player, Iíd definitely be a contender if not outright favorite to lose it all. For some reason, probably the laser, I still enjoy the game. Itís simple and straightforward, yet subtle, at least for someone who can never seem to correctly predict how his moves will affect the path of the laser. Definitely a clever idea for a game and a game that everyone should try out sometime. It looks like it certainly has more to it than just the laser gimmick, although Iím not the one to try to explore its depths.
Quoridor is a simple yet vexing abstract game, arenít they all. Itís simply a game of trying to get your lone pawn to the other side of the board before your opponent manages the feat in the opposite direction. On your turn you either move your pawn one space or place a wall, which blocks movement for both your opponent and yourself. Seems simple enough, but I got crushed at Quoridor twice. It was actually the new-to-me abstract game that I wanted to play again the most (more so than either Quarto or Fire and Ice) because its simplicity was intriguing. I think Iíd need to be able to see further ahead to have any hope of improving at this game. Itís nice and quick, if a bit embarrassing how boxed in my pawn becomes as my opponentís always seem to run to the goal line.
Quarto! was another simple abstract game, but didnít capture my interest the same way Quoridor did. Itís a game of trying to get four pieces sharing an attribute in a row. Those attributes are tall/short, dark/light, square/circular, hollow/solid. The trick is that your opponent chooses which of the 16 pieces you place, and you choose which piece your opponent places on each turn. It boggles my mind how to do well at this game, just like it boggles my mind how people can recognize sets sharing an attribute in the card game Set. I think I must be missing that part of my brain.
Fire and Ice is an odd tic-tac-toe variant where youíre trying to get three in a row, but the game canít end in a tie. Itís actually a game within a game because youíre trying to get three in a row on an island in order to control that island, but youíre also trying to gain control of three islands in a row in order to win the game. I somehow stumbled into a win with this one, which is more than I can say for the rest of the games in this section.
Ingenious isnít necessarily an abstract game due to the randomness of the tile draw, but it has no theme and this section needs more games to fill it out so Iím counting Ingenious as an abstract game for the time being. I played it for my 58th time in November and still enjoy it. I donít love Ingenious, but itís quick and fun, so Iím always happy to play it. Iím somewhat skeptical of how much control players really have in the game, but itís one of the few board games that allows four players to split into two 2-person teams so Iíll keep it around if only for that purpose. I particularly enjoy team games and I think Ingenious is best played that way (same goes for Nexus Ops while Iím at it).
Ta YŁ is my favorite of these abstract games, although itís another one that is questionably an abstract game due to the random tile draw. Itís hard to really define the genre of abstract games. Project GIPF, Chess, and Go are all obviously abstract games (despite the nominal theme of Chess), but once you start to expand the circle it begins to get hazy very quickly. Ta YŁ is particularly clever because of the different rules for playing with 2, 3, and 4 players, which make it scale very well and make for a very different game experience depending on how many people are playing.
I definitely prefer playing board games in person, but Iíve been known to play them online from time to time. There are so many great websites where you can play board games either in real-time or with a turn-based system where the game may stretch over a few weeks. Iím particularly fond of Spiel by Web and MaBiWeb for turn-based play and BrettspielWelt of course for real-time play. I only played four different games online in November, although I played one of them a decent number of times.
Amun-Re is one Iíve played 17 times on Spiel by Web over the past few years (and 5 times in person over that time). Itís often thought of as one of Kniziaís best, and I do appreciate the game, but if I had to pick a Top 3 of Knizia, Amun-Re wouldnít be in the running (Hint: Iíd go with Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, and Through the Desert). Itís still one well worth playing, even if sometimes I feel as if my decisions are somewhat constrained, particularly with the triangle pattern for purchases (i.e., 1-3-6-10-15), which severely disincentives specialization in the purchasing phase.
Dominion is the one that got some repeat plays online, although not nearly so many as it got in October when the game was first released. I played Dominion on BrettspielWelt 74 times in October, but a paltry 19 times by comparison in November (plus 1 time in person in November at BGG.CON and 9 times in person in December so far since my copy has finally arrived after being held up by some other games). For those keeping track, thatís a total of 103 times, which means that it has rocketed towards the top of my all-time plays list in just two months since its release. The funny thing is, Iím not even sure if I like the game, but I do know that itís fast and addictive. I enjoyed learning it and playing it many times in a row to explore it. It was surprisingly addictive, extremely addictive in fact. But Iím still not sure how much I really like it or whether I'll continue to play much down the road. Itís a very odd and intriguing game. However, I already feel like I need an expansion to inject new life into the game. It has a large amount of replayability with the countless possible mixes of cards, but after 103 plays, Iím starting to feel like I could use some more action cards. And not just more of the same like the Envoy promotional card expansion, but some really different cards that shake up the system a bit if thatís possible. Iím eager to see where this game goes in the coming years and what the designer and publisher decide to do with the system, but Iím not entirely won over quite yet despite my proclivity to play it repeatedly.
Notre Dame is one of my favorite Alea games (which is one of my favorite publishers), but itís one that I donít have the chance to play often enough. I suppose 26 plays overall of Notre Dame isnít too shabby, but 6 of those plays were in November as I was remembering how great this game really is. I hadnít played it in a bit and had literally forgotten how good it was. Then I played it on BrettspielWelt again just to take a break from the constant Dominion playing, and then I wanted to play it again and again. There are some really good players on BrettspielWelt, so I got my clock cleaned a few times, but started to pick up on some of their strategies and hold my own a bit better towards the end of this run of 6 plays. The important thing is that I remembered how much I like Notre Dame. How it embodies everything thatís good about an Alea game with its tense decision-making where you constantly want to do more things than you have time to do. Itís not a survival game in the same sense as Antiquity, Age of Steam, or In the Year of the Dragon, but itís still a pretty brutal game that serves as a good introduction into that genre.
Stone Age is simply not for me. I ranked it 28 out of 30 in Part 1 and explain more about my distaste in my Attia Family Tree article discussing the hierarchy of worker placement games (Hint: Caylus is still king). I gave Stone Age another try online to make sure, bringing my total plays up to 6 just for the purposes of being 100% certain I donít like it. Case closed.
Many of the categories up until now have been paltry compared to the overwhelming number of dexterity games that I played in November. I played 16 different dexterity games in November a total of 38 combined times. I believe only two of these (Street Paintball and Sorry Sliders) are new 2008 releases, so this category doesnít really belong on a list discussing new games, but many of them are new to me, and I called the article November Madness to get around just this problem of potentially restricting myself to new Essen games. Iíll go through these 16 dexterity games in alphabetical order for lack of a better organizing principle.
Crokinole got another 5 plays in November bringing it to 157 total plays since I got my board 2 years ago. What more is there to say about the masterpiece that is Crokinole besides the fact it continues to be my most played game of all-time and a permanent member of my Top 10. If you havenít played Crokinole then you owe it to yourself to try it and find out what youíve been missing. In the meantime, check out my Hilinski Brothers Tribute to see a number of gorgeous Crokinole boards.
Crossfire is one of the many late-night dexterity games that I played at BGG.CON with Morgan Dontanville, the king of dexterity games, who has introduced me to such classics as Bamboleo, Kapitšn Wackelpudding, Chairs, Alfredoís Food Fight, Fire, and Arbos. We played Crossfire 3 times, remembering why itís such great fun in the process. Loud and raucous, but a blast to play (even with Aldieís broken version where you have to counter-intuitively hold the trigger to prevent firing and let go to fire, and no we didnít break it, it came that way).
Destruct 3 is a strange dexterity game that was one of many in the common room at BGG.CON, which was filled with enormous dexterity games (e.g., Weykick, Zopp, Spinball, Piratenbillard). In Destruct 3, players take turns building a tower out of wooden blocks, then your opponents try to demolish your tower with wrecking balls. Thereís some sort of scoring system based on how well your tower stands up and how well your opponents knock it down, but itís really not about the score as youíre too busy trying to build stable towers and to knock down your oppositionsí creations into which theyíve put so much thought and effort.
Hamsterrolle is a Zoch game (from the same people that brought you Bausack and Bamboleo) that I played 5 times in November. Itís yet another game where the winner is the first to get rid of all of his or her pieces, you place one piece per turn, and have to gain pieces when you knock the teetering structure over (just like Tier Auf Tier, Arbos, and Chairs). Itís got an interesting element that those other games lack, which is that the whole structure rolls as more pieces are added because youíre adding pieces inside a giant wheel, forever going clockwise so that the wheel inevitably rolls, knocking pieces out along the way. Itís familiar, but with a neat twist, just like youíd expect from a Zoch game.
Jumpin' Monkeys was pretty miserable. Itís a childrenís dexterity game, but so difficult that it takes far longer than it should. Each play is trying to launch his monkey figures so that they stay hanging on a central treeís branches. However, you have to get all four of your monkey figures to hang simultaneously before your opponents knock one or more out. Once someone finally accomplishes this feat, they win the round, but the game involves many rounds. Itís amusing, but overly long if played by the rules as written. Maybe my attention span is just too short for Jumpiní Monkeys.
Le Passe-trappe is a strange dexterity game where the winner is the first person to get all of the disks to the opponentís side of the board. The trick is that there is only a small gap in the middle of the board through which the disks can pass. The second trick is that you have to bounce the disks off of a taut string at the back of your end of the board, rather than sliding them directly towards the other side. These two things combined make the game rather difficult for beginners, or at least for me, especially when youíre playing against Dan Karp, who later reveals that he owns the game!
Loopin' Louie is one of my favorite dexterity games of all-time. I played the Japanese version at BGG.CON where the chickens are replaced with pigs. It was just as fun as ever.
Piratenbillard was one of my favorite new dexterity games that I tried at BGG.CON (tied with Weykick for that title). Itís another strange dexterity game where you hit the bottom of a platform with a mallet to launch your marbles resting on top from one side of the platform to the other. That is to say, you try to do this. Instead, if youíre like me, you end up launching your marbles half-way across the room. While you might have to crawl under tables to recover the marbles, itís still a blast to play ineptly.
Snifty Snakes was not nearly as fun as it looks. Turns out the glasses are too small for an adultís head and itís maddeningly frustrating to try to push your pieces into the right spot with the long nose of your plastic glasses. Itís amusing at least.
Sorry! Sliders is the hot new game on BoardGameGeek, where Ben Lott has written a glowing review and Scott Nicholson has uploaded a nice video explanation. I picked up a copy on Amazon when it was on sale for only $10 and Iím amazed to see the price up to $40 on Amazon. I think itís a fun diversion for $10, but definitely not worth $40. It is the poor manís Crokinole that everyone says it is, which means that Iím unlikely to play it at home since I have Crokinole, but am happy to have a more portable version of Crokinole at least. Itís not quite as portable as I was hoping, given the fairly large box size, but itís still more portable than an actual Crokinole board. I do enjoy the variable setups and rules variants that come in the box, which have made my 15 plays so far feel quite varied.
Spinball was the most frustrating dexterity game I tried at BGG.CON. It had looked like fun and was high on my list of games to try at the convention, but in practice it was extremely difficult. You try to spin a ping-pong ball around a barrier and into your opponentís goal, but it requires an extremely high level of precision to be successful. Moreover, when your opponent succeeds, they get to place blockers on the board to make your task even more difficult. Itís hopeless after a while and even with countless repeated attempts, I just couldnít get the hang of it. At least Piratenbillard and WeyKick were fun while being difficult, Spinball was not.
Street Paintball was number 29 out of 30 in Part 1, only beating out Boss Kito. As I said in Part 1, the problem is that the game is ď3 seconds of fun, followed by 3 minutes of searching for the rubber balls that everyone just threw at each other, followed by 3 seconds of fun, followed byÖ you get the idea.Ē It might work in a small room with nothing but a table and chairs, but in a normal living room itís dysfunctional as the balls inevitably roll under sofas or bookcases, into trash cans or shoes, behind televisions and tangled in computer wires. It might work if the rubber balls were attached to a central base with a tether, but as is, it doesnít work.
Tumba is another stacking dexterity game with the hook being that youíre stacking rectangular multi-colored blocks and each player is assigned a color. When stacking a new piece, you need to line up your color on the new piece with your color on the existing structure. This limits your options and forces some tricky stacking maneuvers. It wasnít bad, but didnít particularly stand out either.
Tumblin-Dice is always fun and if it werenít so large, I might consider getting a copy. It involves flicking or throwing dice down a staircase ramp, trying to get as close to the bottom without falling off the end and trying to knock your opponentsí dice off the ramp. You score at the end of the round by multiplying the face value of each of your dice by the value of the level of the ramp on which it lies. Itís fairly random, but fun and quick. It can be played as a team game or free-for-all and always seems to be enjoyed by all.
WeyKick was probably my favorite new dexterity game that I tried at BGG.CON (possibly tied with Piratenbillard). Itís like hockey or soccer where youíre trying to knock a marble into your opponentís goal by moving your figures around the board. The catch is that you have to control your figures by manipulating strong magnets on the underside of the board. This makes precision a lofty goal indeed. Itís particularly amusing when your figures get disconnected from the magnets and go flying across the board, so you have to decide whether to waste a hand trying to recover the renegade figure or to play with a man-down to avoid getting scored on. It was a lot of fun and very easy to pick up and play.
Zopp is a dexterity game that Iíd played a few times before at the Astoria Gaming Society, but played again at BGG.CON since it was in the giant room oí dexterity games just begging to be played. Itís somewhat similar to Crokinole in that youíre flicking discs around the board, except that you have three discs and youíre trying to knock another disc into your opponentís goal. Itís like Crokinole meets air hockey. Itís fast-moving and frenetic, especially because of the bouncy edges of the board, which cause your shots to ricochet around the board. I enjoyed Zopp, but I think Crokinole scratches the same itch and has a bit more room for strategy, plus the option of two-versus-two team play.
I did manage to play a few ďolderĒ games in November among all of the hot new Essen games and wacky dexterity games, and I might as well end this epic article with a brief mention of those games.
Aton is a great, little two-player game that plays quickly and comes in a very small box (because they were smart enough to make a jigsaw puzzle style board). I recommend it for anyone looking for a quick two-player game if youíre getting sick of Lost Cities.
Backgammon is a classic that I had a chance to play a few times over the Thanksgiving holiday on a beautiful board that I brought back from Spain many years ago.
Brass isnít exactly ďoldĒ as itís a 2007 release, but I guess this is where it belongs. Iím happy I gave it a third try after not being particularly enamored with my first and second play. However, my third play only served to confirm my feeling that this may just not be for me. Most people seem to love this one, and I was certainly eagerly anticipating Wallace finally making another non-fighting game, since he'd been doing things like Byzantium and Perikles lately. However, I think I'd always rather play Age of Steam over Brass because Age of Steam is just a more fulfilling route-building game. Admittedly Brass is very different, and has some interesting elements going for it, such as the clever way the resource market and movement works and the upgrading of buildings (like a technology tree). I don't mind the board wiping clean in Amun-Re, but the way the Old and New Kingdoms work in Brass just doesn't sit right with me as it seems a bit too forced. I also know I shouldn't judge the game's balance after only three plays when I'm sure it was playtested countless times, but I can't see the shipyards not being the dominant strategy, so the idea of having plenty of choices seems misleading since getting your four shipyards seems like it ought to be your focus, it's certainly been the winning strategy in most of the games I played. I might be willing to give Brass a fourth try, but won't be begging to play it again.
China is one that Iím particularly glad I played again in November because it more than offset Boss Kito in the Michael Schacht department. Iíve played China 11 times and its predecessor Web of Power 10 times, and both are great three-player area majority games. They play quickly enough to be very nice medium-weight games that work best with three-players.
Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is one of the many Days of Wonder games that I had been meaning to try for a while but hadnít gotten around to playing (along with Colosseum which I finally tried recently and Shadows over Camelot which I still have yet to try). Cleopatra was interesting with the corruption mechanic and the upside-down cards, but other than a few neat parts and some very nice components, it wasnít especially compelling or memorable.
Descent: Journeys in the Dark (with Descent: The Well of Darkness expansion) is one of those huge Fantasy Flight games that Iíd also wanted to try for a long time, despite not enjoying Twilight Imperium, I thought Descent might be fun, and it was. I liked how the Overlord (i.e., Dungeon Master) is able to play the game against everyone else so no one needs to sit out to run the game. It works well as a one against many game and while it might run a bit long, itís a fun romp of a hack-n-slash.
Hollywood Blockbuster is another game that I played over the Thanksgiving holiday (along with Backgammon and La Citta). Itís Kniziaís highly accessible auction game that seems to work well with any group. It has a neat mechanic of distributing the winning bid amongst all of your opponents, so itís a closed system where the money circulates back-and-forth among the players.
Ice Lake is the only ice skating board game Iíve ever played or heard of. Itís a pre-programmed movement game like RoboRally where everyone secretly and simultaneously gives their skater movement orders, and then reveals and moves their skater accordingly. The goal is to be the last man standing after your opponents fall through the ice when surrounded by the cracks in the ice that are left by skaters (using dry erase markers). It was a novelty, but some rules ambiguities made it a bit unsatisfying in the end.
Kaleidos is a party game where everyone looks at the same cluttered picture, you roll a die to determine a letter, and everyone writes down all of the items starting with the designated letter that they see in the picture. The game was fun, but the scoring system was a bit strange. You get 5 points if youíre the only one to spot something, otherwise you get a number of points equal to the number of people that spot it, so if one other person saw it then you drop from 5 down to 2 points, but if three other people saw it then you get 4 points. Seems a bit inverted and definitely punishes those who miss the most obvious items as those end up being the most valuable. Iím sure it wouldnít be too hard to come up with variant scoring that was more intuitive and matched the straightforward gameplay better.
La Citta is an old favorite and I was happy to introduce my family to it over the Thanksgiving holiday. It can be a brutal and unforgiving game when you canít harvest enough food to feed your population, but itís a classic German-style game with difficult and meaningful decision, and a dash of luck, what more could you ask for?
Time Pirates looks hilarious! Just check out that pirate on the cover, complete with the ďI love piratesĒ button. Surprisingly, despite itís ridiculous artwork, the underlying game is actually a fairly traditional German-style set collection game by Moon and Weissblum Ė the duo that brought us the fabulous San Marco and the less fun Mammoth Hunters. Youíre basically moving from area to area (well actually from ďtimeĒ to ďtimeĒ) in order to collect matching tokens so that you can turn them in for victory points. The game lasts 3 rounds with each round lasting until you draw a set number of ďtime policeĒ tokens from the bag when replenishing the tokens on the board. The ďtime policeĒ tokens move the time police figure, which hinders players if it runs into their figure by making them lose an action. Itís not a bad game, if a bit mundane when you get past the silly theme and artwork.
Toledo is not Martin Wallace at his best. I suppose Wallace has too much to live up to after classics like Age of Steam and Liberte, and under-appreciated gems like Byzantium. But Toledo just didnít measure up. Itís far lighter than any other Wallace game Iíve played, so feels a bit incongruous. I won on my first play without really knowing what I was doing, except that I wanted to get as many of my buildings out so I placed them for my first few turns while others skipped ahead to collecting resources. Then I focused on getting the highest value swords due to the increasing marginal returns for obtaining the most valuable swords. Then I raced to end the game as quickly as possible once I had grabbed the lead. I didnít feel like there was anything else I couldíve logically done, and unlike something like La Citta or even Hollywood Blockbuster, Iím not forced to agonize over my decisions or left contemplating my decisions after the fact. It doesnít provide what Iím looking for, but is probably aimed at a different audience.
Trias is an action-point, area majority game that I really want to like, but has fell flat a few times. The game starts with a Pangea of tiles that slowly drift apart to form different continents. Players control a herd of dinosaurs and have 4 action points on each turn to spend moving their dinosaurs around and reproducing. The goal is to have the majority on the largest continents when the meteor hits Earth and the game ends (i.e., a card near the bottom of the deck will show a picture of a meteor entering Earthís atmosphere). It can take longer than it should because itís an action-point game, which provides a lot of flexibility on your turns (which I like), but maybe itís too open-ended for its own good. I know Iíll keep trying Trias because thereís a game in there that I think Iíll enjoy. Although Iíll warn you that the two-player game has too many rules tweaks to be worthwhile and the five-player game has too much downtime to keep me awake, but the three-player game has a lot of potential.
Trivial Pursuit Ė Family Edition is the fourth game I played over the Thanksgiving holiday. Itís a nice twist on the trivia classic because it offers a set of adult questions and a set of childrenís questions so the whole family can play together. Iíd rather play Wits & Wagers or Taboo any day, but the Family Edition of Trivial Pursuit is at least a nice idea.
Ubongo - Das Duell brings us to the conclusion of this list, at long last! 158 games later, phew. Ubongo Ė Das Duell is a great two-player twist on Z-Manís puzzle-solving brain teaser. Itís nice to be pitted against your opponent on the same puzzle for once and itís also nice to have a simple and rational scoring system for once, both things that are missing from other versions of Ubongo. Itís also a wonderfully small box so it fits perfectly on the shelf. Hopefully there will be a domestic printing of Das Duell eventually so you wonít have to import it or say the name with a bad German accent.
Thatís my November Madness in a nutshell, albeit an enormous mutant nutshell. Unfortunately it took me so long to finish discussing November that December is already halfway over, and of course Iíve already played 53 games in December, including 7 new to me. Iíll save those for another day though. For now, Iíll sign off for 2008 and be back in 2009 with more garrulous gaming discussions, including my Big Apple Awards for the best of the best in 2008 (Hint: I played Ghost Stories 4 more times over the weekend... although it's going to have some stiff competition). Hereís hoping that you get to play a game or two over the holidays and maybe a chance to introduce these games of ours to your family and friends.
(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article
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