Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Sprawl

This weekend I played URBAN SPRAWL for the first time. This is a Euro style game published by GMT games that seems to be getting good reviews.

For now.. I'll opt to reserve my opinion on the game, but offer you a few first impressions.

FIRST, the game is BIG!!! Lots and lots of cards, along with a nice map, and some neat colored wooden blocks.

Second, there is a lot of stuff going on. Maybe too much! Lots of events occur that make me feel completely out of control. This is one of those games where you cannot really figure out the strategy without playing it a time or two, knowing that certain events happen and being prepared for them. Once you have an idea of the possible events you realize that you have to set yourself up for them. Sadly, for most of the game I sat back and watched events earn the other players money, victory points, etc. while I lagged terribly behind. One event, despite a reshuffle and only one copy in the deck happened THREE TIMES in one turn, pushing one player ahead in both money and victory points.

The basic design (outside of the events) is clever, with profits occuring for nearly every player on nearly every player's turn. The concept of bidding on projects (by selecting them using action points) and then having the leftover projects become cheaper for the next player's turn is neat. Having to have the appropriate "permits" to build these projects is also a neat design.

I really believe I was overwhelmed by my first play of this game and therefore, I reserve judgment.. overall, it looks and seems cool, but the extent of the events sort of put me off a bit. That may change with future play.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Building Your Kingdom in Kingsburg

I recently had several occasions to play a combination dice-driven/placement game called "Kingsburg." This is not your typical placement game because it allows players to create their own path to victory based on the buildings that they build.

The dice rolling and placement element of the game can be sort of cut-throat. Each player throws 3 dice (though there are sometimes extra) and then uses the results. There are advisors each numbered 1-18 on the board. In turn order (from the lowest number to the top number) Each player may make a placement. He can place all of the dice, one die, or two dice on one of the spaces (once a space is taken, no other player can select that advisor) Each advisor grant a different benefit. An advisor may grant one or more resources, military strength, or even a die-roll modification chit (which can be used to add +2 to a dice placement, but not alone).. Often, a player will have one die left over because the turn order allowed another player with the same die result to place before him. While this is something I normally don't like in placement games, something I call getting cheated by the turn order, in this game it seems to work because player's choices are all limited to what their die results are. A player might choose to make a choice that body checks another player, but he can only do so based on his die roll so it is not simply making a placement in order to be cruel to another player.

At the end of the "season" (the name for a round in play) each player can use the resources he has gained to "build." The buildings he builds can provide extra benefits like increased military strength, the ability to affect a die roll, a possible reroll, increased victory points, etc. Each player has a mat (shown below) and can build on any level, but cannot build to the right until he has built the buildings on the left.

At the end of the year, all players have to fight the "monster" card. Some players may know how strong the monster is because they were permitted to look at the card based on their dice placement. Each player who has a strong enough military strength + the die roll (same roll for one player) to beat the monster gains a benefit. Each player who is defeated by the monster suffers a penalty-- which may mean losing a building or victory points. The blue section at the bottom of the card show the Victory points gained by players who defeated the monster.

Two samples of monster cards are shown above (these are among the stronger monsters).. the number at the top, next to the name, indicates the number that the player needs to beat in order to defeat the monster. The middle section of the card show the penalties for losing against the monster. For example, it is a straight -5 Victory point loss if the dragons defeat the player while if the demons do so the player loses 1 bulding and number of victory points. When a monster kills a building it always kills the rightmost (most expensive) building. If two buildings are both in the same column then the buiding highest on the player's mat is the one that is eliminated. Also, any victory points that the player obtained for building that particular building are also lost. Players have to provide military strength to add to a single die roll in order to built the monster.

This game mechanics reward cuthroat die placement! Still, players are forced to balance the choices of building for Victory points or other benefits and building for military strength to protect from the end of the year and the monster's attack.

For our group, it was an interesting change of pace. The game does not have a steep learning curve and plays fairly quickly, though we haven't managed to complete a game in less than an hour and forty-five minutes or so. While browsing boardgamegeek I see that there is an expansion available and I'm wondering what it has to offer. In the meantime, we'll probably get a few more plays of this one under our belts in the near future. It isn't the greatest game I've ever played, but for now, it is one that is worth playing. It combines a lot of neat elements into a nice building game that works for me, a player who normally doesn't care for building and placement games.

Friday, June 3, 2011

We all live in a non-yellow Submarine!

Imagine being on a submarine where everything is going wrong! The oxygen level is dropping, the atmospheric pressure is increasing, and heat from a malfunctioning reactor is becoming intense. In addition, some compartments are flooding, others are on fire, and your fellow crew members have got into the captain's store of "grog" and are passing out. That would be the premise of Fantasy Flight Game's "Red November" a cooperative game from their silver line of smaller, less expensive games.

I guess I should begin by saying that I normally don't care for cooperative games. I like games that let me "stick it to the other guy" and that offer fierce competition. However, Red November intrigues me because its system reminds me of an addictive computer game where the player moved crates around. As the player moved crates around he either improved or harmed his situtation and ability to complete the mission. Red November offers the same challenge. It seems like the more the player does to resolve problems the more problems seem to pop up.

The Submarine board shown above is small and if you note the track around the edge, it is very difficult to use that mini-track. This was the biggest annoyance in the game, so I thought I would get that complaint out of the way. On each turn, the player can move about freely and even choose to fix problems, etc. How many minutes the player decides to use to repair a problem becomes a target number. For example, if a player choose to spend 5 minutes attempting to repair the reactor he would have a 50% chance of accomplishing this fix by rolling a five or less on a ten sided die. Here's where the really tricky part comes in... The more time he spends trying to accomplish this task, the more time marches on. As the time marker is tracked in minutes, almost every other space on the track has an event card. Events can range from the "respite" card (nothing happens.. and that's good) to a random fire breaking out, a hatch becoming jammed, missile malfunction, oxygen disaster track increasing, reactor heating up, pressure increasing, etc. Even sudden death events occur which set up a ten minute track window of resolving a problem or dying immediately. Players have to balance the use of time and the urgency of a repair because as time marches on those events keep happening. By the way, a failed repair doesn't make matters worse, it just allows time to keep on slipping into a future filled with more and more frustrating events.

Tiles represent objects that the players find to assist them in their tasks. For example, a crowbar gives a postiive modifier to unjamming a hatch. A fire extinguisher allows the player to put out a fire (so does grog, but we will get to that in a moment. One item, the lucky charm, allows a player to use up minutes but skip drawing new event cards. Events often cause a player (or all players) to discard tiles (and they are out of the game until all tiles are drawn.

Players can go to the Captain's quarters in order to draw grog tiles. Grog gives the player the fortitude to enter a room that is on fire and attempt to put the fire out. The fire extinguisher does the same thing but without the intoxicating result. A player who uses his grog (for a nice die modifier in fighting a fire) also risks becoming inebriated. When he uses the grog he indicates with his character card the inebriation status (levels 1-4) of his character. At the end of his turn he does a faint check by drawing an event card. If the inebriation number is equal to or less than the number on the card, the character passes out and ten minutes are added to the chart. This can and does happen at the worst moments. Sometimes, it causes the "ghost marker" to cross the minute where a catastrophic game ending event occurs. In one game, a fire fighting gnome used grog to fight a fire and passed out, causing the marker to go over the missile malfunction and BOOM!!! Game over.

This is the place where players either will love or hate the game. Personally, I like the uncertainty and inability to completely game the system. I like a game that has enough strategy to keep a player interested with enough wacky random stuff to keep the game uncertain. On the other hand, an individual gnome can pass out and get burned up and die halfway through the game, and it is not fun to get shut out of a game. The rule booklet suggests an optional rule for players who don't like getting eliminated from a game. Since games are social, elimination is sometimes not the best option.

I found "Red November" to be a quirky niche game. I would love to see someone program this one for the computer. It would be a great solitaire computer game.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's Really a Wonder!

I recently was introduced to an innovative game called "7 Wonders." Apparently, the U.S. incarnation of this game is published by "Asmodee." I found this quick game to be fun and pleasureable, though not necessarly addictive. In fact, our gaming group enjoys a few rounds of it, but it isn't one of those games folks can play all night long. The really cool thing is that every game is different.

Here's how it works. Every Game begins with the selection of a Wonder. This can be done by choice or randomized. Our group has been doing it randomly. Each wonder has its own board indicating the beggining resources that position generates and the costs and rewards for building each of the wonder, whether it is the Colossus of Rhodes or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Then each player is given three gold and seven cards. Now the fun begins.

The player will select a card from his hand and then pass his hand to the left. (During the second round the hands are passed to the right, and then back to the left again for the third round). All players will use their chosen card at the same time and then repeat, until six cards have been chosen and played. (The 7th card is discarded) There are a number of types of cards. First, there are cards that produce resources such as wood, brick, stone, ore, or cloth. A player needs to be able to generate resources in order to pay the costs for other cards. Most resource cards can be put into play for free, but some of the better ones cost a gold token. There are grey resources (used more for later game purposes) and brown resources (that are more basic).

Then there are yellow "trade" cards which allow players to use resources generated by players to the left or the right (or sometimes both) at a discount. A player can always "trade" for a resource a neighboring player (immediate left or right) generates by paying that neighbor 2 gold, but the trade cards allow such a purchase to be made cheaper.

Then there are green cards representing technological advancement. These cards can combine in the end game to multiply victory points.

The red military cards provide military strength. At the end of each age, military victory points are awarded in increasing numbers, based on a player's military strength compared to his immediate neighbors. For example, Steve is sitting between Scott and Marty. At the end of the age Steve has 1 military point while Scott and Marty both have 2. Steve will receive two -2 military victory points from each of his neighbors who are beating him. Scott and Marty receive victory points for beating his military strength. In the first age, such points are 1's, in the second age, such points are worth 3, and in the final age, they are worth 5 victory points each. While Scott may be beating Steve with 2, Arash is sitting on the other side of Scott with level three military. Scott reeceives a -1 token because Arash was beating him.

The blue cards represent straight victory points provided by the artistic achievements of a culture. Cards that represent things like temples and theaters with victory points are put into play.

The purple cards come in later, offering guilds that provide victory points based on a number of things. They may offer a bonus based on the number of blue cards a player has in play. One of them offers a bonus based on the number of military cards a player's immediate neighbor has in play. Another offers bonus points based on the number of trade cards. In other words, depending on the symbols on the card the player will receive a bonus based on either his own tableu or that of his immediate neighbors.

Now that you have a basic summary of the cards, let me tell you how they are used. A player may put a card into play by generating or trading for resources, if there is a cost. (Remember, some resources come into play for free). So if a card costs one ore and one brick to put into play and I manufacture only ore, I could purchase brick from an immediate neighbor who generates brick by paying that neighbor 2 gold. Some cards are free if you have another companion card. These cards are clearly marked. A player can "burn" a card by simply discarding it and by doing so earn three gold tokens. Finally, a player can "burn" a card by using it to build a stage of his wonder, placing it face down on his board and paying the required resources either by generating them or buying them.

In the above image, you can see the player's setup of the Pyramids of Giza. At the bottom of the board you can see by the face down card tucked, he has completed the first stage of the pyramids which cost him a card play and two stone. In the upper left corner of his board his setup BEGAN the game making stone and later on he added a resource card which generated the other stone he needed in order to complete his wonder. He is also generating wood and brick. He has one military strength (indicated by the red military card) and recieved a -1 token from both left and right players, meaning that each of them had at least 2 military strenght. He has no green cards in play and one blue card, which will be worth 3 victory points at the end of the game.

Why is this fun? Because as a player looks through his hand he has to look at what cards benefit the player he is going to pass the hand to as well as what he can afford to put into play. So there are times a player passes a card (for example a military card) that helps his opponent. There are also times when a player will burn a card to collect 3 gold (which=1 victory point if they still have it at the end of the game) just to prevent the next player from getting it into play.

The game is easily played in thirty minutes and because of the mix of where a player sits, the cards, the randomized choice of wonders (which have an A or B side that also are different and can be played by randomization or choice, depending on the group) there is lots of variety in the game. Players get to choose over and over what they are going to do to maximize points in all areas. No player can win simply based on scoring well in one area, but must be able to play a balanced game.

This isn't a game I would spend money to add to my collection. However, we have to have some games that are quick and easy in our collections. This is one I would definitely sit down and play once or twice as a filler and feel like I enjoyed it.

So how could this game be better?

We have been tempted to randomize the passing of the cards every time by rolling a die. Even we pass to the right, odd, we pass to the left. This offers extra randomization and we have not tried this yet and it may lead to chaos when we do.

Perhaps an extra reward for military strength could be offered at the end of the game, allowing the player with the most military victory points the opportunity to destroy one card from the first age that belongs to a neighborn. Such a reward would exclude the big bonus victory guild cards from the third Age, but also cut a point or two off of another player's score. It would also increase the importance of military might in the game, which may be repulsive to some players.

Both of these suggestions are untried variants thus far, I guess if we ever get around to trying them I'll tell you how they work. In the meantime, I'm waiting for a promo based on King Kong-- after all, I remember from the film that he was the 8th Wonder of the World. :-)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Quoting Charlie Sheen: A first Look at Merchants and Marauders

Today I had to choose between being a pirate or a sailing merchant in a Pirate\Trade game set in the Caribbean during the Pirate\Colonization era. Of course, I choose being a pirate and it cost me the game, sort of.

My opponents drew me in by telling me that the game was a cross between a trade game and a wargame. Not only was it a cross between the two, but it was an EXCELLENT blend of merchant\delivery vs. Pirate attacks. The Game was Z-Man games' "Merchants and Marauders" and delivered a very satisfying afternoon. I can see how the game would move much more quickly once players learned the system and there is nothing too complex here.

Players get to choose whether they will act as merchants or pirates and both have benefits as well as drawbacks. The game has excellent balance between the two choices (usually made based on the skills of player's captain (randomly chosen at the beginning of the game). Each player has three actions on each turn which are either move, search for enemy ships, or conduct business in court. Players get Glory points (victory points) for delivering three of a commodity to a port where it is in demand, defeating an enemy in battle, or defeating a non-player ship (pirate or a National Navy).

The basic mechanics of the game are clean and easily comprehended. They offer a careful balance that prevents a player from doing too many things in one turn or jumping around getting multiple victory points per turn. A player can also purchase Victory Points at a cost of 10 each, but is limited to money he put into his stash (which he can only do at his home port) to do so and can only purchase a maximum of 5 points in this manner. This means a player has to earn 5 Victory points and then balance returning to his home port to stash his gold.

Combat is pretty neat. Players can shoot, board, or flee from a combat and various items assist. For example, everytime a player earns a Glory point he gets a glory card that has a special ability (usually a one time use) and ships can be upgraded to improve either its merchant or combat ability.

The deal breaker for some gamers will be the events. Each game turn begins with a random event card being flipped and read. One event brought war between Spain and England and one of my opponents was unable to enter the port of the opposing nationality to deliver the goods with the demand he needed. Another event brought storms and minimized the number of actions my opponents could perform on that turn. Other events brought in National naval forces that were looking for Pirates, or added non-player pirates. The random events added lots of flavor but I think to a staunch wargamer these events offered a great deal of luck factor and skewed the game to some extent. One player had the worst luck with these events almost always coming at the worst possible time for him and therefore he could not wait for the game to be over.

The most fun I had in the game was holding the lead for most of the game. This allowed me to taunt the other players by quoting Charlie Sheen and saying repeatedly "Winning." I did attempt to avoid calling my opponents "trolls" however.

I had a great time playing this game, but I think the luck factor would cause thie one to get old pretty fast. I can see how a couple of bad events could really leave a player feeling cheated. Still, I prefer events that actually have a chance of impacting the game in a strong way, so I think it is a game I will enjoy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Player's Remorse- Not Buyer's Remorse

Internet shopping for used wargames has become an addiction for me. I browse through ebay regularly. I sort through hundreds of posts weekly on the for sale forum on Consimworld. The sad thing is that I keep buying games, often which I have no time to play. Recently, I purchased several CD-ROMs from Ebay containing older, out of print (and claimed to be in the public domain) Avalon Hill titles. Will I have time to even print these out, search for a cyberboard version of them, and play them.

Recent purchases have included Z-Man's "Campaign Manager 2008" (okay, not a wargame, but by one of my favorite designers, Jason Matthews of "Twilight Struggle" fame), MMP's "Shifting Sands", and an American Civil War game from Compass games that I cannot even recall the name of. I have a copy of Avalon Hill's "Afrika Korps" that I would love to play and its rules seem simple enough to learn in a short time, however, just having a place to set it up long enough to learn can be a challenge.

If I could only stop feeding this addiction, purchasing games I don't have time to play. However, the addiction spills over into the new game department. I have purchased a number of new games in the last year. GMT's remake of "Successors," and "Washington's War" are among the new, unpunched titles in my collection. (I have played Washington's War several times, but never with my own personal copy). GMT was selling UGG's "History of the Roman Empire" at such a steep discount that I ordered two copies and sent one to my brother, Johnny, with hopes of figuring it out and playing, perhaps via cyberboard. It seems to be a lot like the old "History of the World" only limited to the Roman Empire. Still, I've done little more than lovingly and longingly skim over the rules in hopes of being prepared to play.

I have an old copy of Avalon Hill's "Wizard Quest" that I have played once with my wife. We had a good time, but she was not persuaded to try it again. I created a simple rules summary so I could teach it to my usual gaming group, but one critic ruined it for me by telling one of the player is was "Risk! with Orcs!" Having never actually played "Risk!" I don't why this is such a terrible criticism, but it was enough to kill it the night that I tried to get the guys to try it.

Once in awhile I manage to "flip" a game via ebay or Consimworld. This offers me an excuse to continue my buying.. but the truth is, I would really like to play some of the games that are filling my collection so rapidly. Playing them is preferable to making money on them.

Cyberboard (or perhaps Vassal) offers me the opportunity to play long-distance opponents, but I have to go to all the trouble to downloading and setting up, and hoping I remember to save files, etc. If that was the biggest challenge, I'd do it more. However, the biggest challenge is visualizing a game. I find it difficult to visualize a game on the computer screen that I have not played in person. The rules and the movement and the goals just don't make sense to me. I guess this means I have a larger learning curve if trying to learn a game electronically instead of face to face.

My remorse is not being able to play more. Our game club meetings have become sporadic due to not finding a good, steady place to meet. For example, last month we were supposed to meet at the local game store and I showed up for the meeting (as did a number of others) only to discover that the game store management had made an error and scheduled a miniatures tournament at the same time our club was supposed to meet. It was an honest mistake, but will likely hurt attendance at meetings at the store in the future. The store is not the best venue due to space considerations (as well as the feeling that we ought to make a purchases while we are there since they are allowing us to meet there for free).

I guess that sums up today's whining and complaining. I just wish I had more time to play. That was true when I was a kid, too! Will I ever grow up?