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?