Monday, May 17, 2004

Extra-WAGSal Affairs

As the members of the group are aware, I am lucky enough to have a spouse who is quite happy to join in board games from time to time - she goes by Tigerlily Bumbleroot on this blog. The WAGS group being composed of roughly five members, with one provisional member at the moment, lends itself more to five or six player games. Unfortunately, games designed for four to six players seldom scale down to two players well (notable exceptions being Duel of Ages). Seeking games which better suited a one-on-one enviroment, I've bought a few games which I feel are worthy of note even though they're played outside the usual WAGS night.

Hera and Zeus was one of my first two-player purchases. It's a self contained, non-collectible card game which takes a mythological competition between the chief of the Greek gods, Zeus, and his wife, Hera, as its theme.

The object of the game is to conceal the mortal lover of your opponent (Argus, in the case of Hera, and Io, in the case of Zeus) from being recovered while struggling to get back your own. Along the way, players use a wide array of mythological creatures and personalities to probe for weaknesses and try to locate the hidden mortal. While the cards are differentiated between the two "sides", the game is "symmetrical" in the sense that both sides have the exact same number of indentically powered cards (with different names). This is quite different from a asymmetrical game, in which one side typically has strength in some areas but weaknesses in others. The game plays in about a half an hour to forty-five minutes, and there is a large amount of strategy to the game play. Combat exists, in a sense, but is abstracted, which is a bonus for Tigerlily, who doesn't find much interest in combat-themed games.

This game has a good amount of strategy and a fair deal of bluffing, but a few game mechanics allow for a largely random game-winning option (the infamous Pegasus strike). I don't find this such a "broken" mechanic as some people seem to think, as there are ways to avoid being caught with the mortal in your hand, and appropriate strategy can protect the mortal on the board.

I enjoy this game, and given its theme of spousal conflict, it seems ideal for a gamer to play with his or her significant other as a fun way of fighting the war of the sexes on an epic level. Released by Kosmos, Hera and Zeus has decent artwork (Tigerlily likes it more than I do) and well produced cards and rules. None of the rules have to be modified to play the game correctly, but a quick trip to the online site can assist in clearing up some minor interpretation questions.
Rating: 7

Lord of the Rings: Confrontation was my second purchase of a two-player game. Knowing Tigerlily's love for Tolkein, I thought she would enjoy a two-player board game which abstracts the War of the Ring and Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Produced by Fantasy Flight Games and featuring artwork by the same acclaimed Tolkein artist who did production artwork for the movie adaption of Lord of the Rings, John Howe, LoTR: Controntation is a handsome looking game.

Played on a small gameboard which has an abstract representation of Middle Earth, the game uses a mechanic familiar to players of Stratego - each piece has a strength rated from one to nine, which determines its power in combat. This strength is hidden from the other player by having the pieces constructed in such a way that the characters are only viewable from one side. If this was all this game was, it would be only a LotR-themed Stratego. However the designer takes the game a few steps further by introducing special powers for each character, as well as giving each player cards which can modify the strength number or cause other effects when played as a part of combat. The "good" forces must attempt to spirit Frodo into Mordor through a combination of strategy, bluff and good luck. The "evil" forces must capture Frodo or move a number of their characters into the Shire.

This game is a classical example of an asymmetrical game, quite different from "Hera and Zeus" above. At first glance, the good forces are weak and ill-matched - the evil forces seem almost insurmountable. Careful gameplay and a liberal dose of skillful bluffing can even the odds. After several plays, I find the sides fairly evenly matched, although some players claim one side or the other has a distinct advantage. Reiner Knizia has perfectly captured the theme and mood of the conflict with very simple powers and mechanics. Playable in about twenty to forty minutes, the game is suitable for many replays and is a delight to look at. A steal at its usual MSRP of around $30 CDN, this game is a worthy addition to any two-player game collection.
Rating: 8

Lost Cities is my most recent two-player purchase. Having bought and enjoyed LotR: Confrontation and Hera and Zeus, I was intrigued by reviews of Lost Cities being as good or better. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Lost Cities is a super simple game, themed around making voyages to fabled lost cities in Iceland (or Northern Scotland?), Central America, Atlantis, Egypt and the Himalayas. Strangely, the cities and locations are never explicitly named, so most of the time they are referred to by their colours: Red, Green, Blue, Yellow and White. Players take turns playing a card to either invest in a expedition, or advance it. You can set out without investment, but for lesser return. After embarking on a expedition, no further investment can be made in it, so the gameplay becomes a very careful balance of bluff, risk management and a healthy dollop of "screwing your opponent". Scoring comes once the entire deck has been played through, and a quick addition/subtraction plus a multiplication factor for investment (and a bonus for an eight-card expedition) scores each journey. The highest score takes the round.

Of the three games mentioned here, Tigerlily seems to like this one best. It requires no understanding of any specific language and only rudimentary math skills, but the strategy is quite deep. A round can be played in 10-15 minutes, and to balance out luck factors, a combined score total over three or more rounds is recommended. The cards are well illustrated and the quality of both the cards and the small three panel board (largely needed only as a placeholder) make this an attractive game which is also fun to play. One thing I like about this game is that, much like Eucre or Hearts, once you've gotten the rhythm, the correct play is almost reflexive - it doesn't tax your mind overmuch. It's a lovely way to help your mind relax while sparring with an opponent. This Kosmos game feels like a classic - it's one that will be around after other fads have come and gone. It's as close to perfect within the context of what it tries to be as is possible - and that's the hallmark of a fine game.
Rating: 9

1 comment:

  1. The only one of these that I've played is LOTR:C, and that only a couple of times, but I am also of the opinion that it's a pretty nicely designed game. In each of the games I've played, white ended up being the winning team, but it was quite close (and quite harrowing) both times. In my first game, playing Black, I actually could see the defeat coming two or three moves before it actually happened, but was unable to do anything to stop it. Of course, that made me redouble my efforts at "strategerizing" when we next played, and as White, I was able to pull it off, but at no point did it feel assured. There's a bit of luck, in terms of attacking your opponents hidden pieces, but after a few games, I think that it could be mitigated by playing against the opposing players likely strategies. That makes me rank the game just a little lower than you - I'm going w/ a 7.

    The other two are - intriguing -. Lost Cities sounds as if it could be an effective first step away from the Axis of Yahtzee and Scrabble for the Mrs. and I.