Thursday, December 02, 2004

Return of the King

This Wednesday we played two games which look similar on the surface, but are substantially different in practice... El Grande and Risk (Lord of the Rings Edition).

First up was El Grande. Frankly, I'm surprised at how long it's been since we've played this one. It' s probably my favorite game, yet there has been a constant flow of new games, or games I'd like a second crack at, keeping this one off the radar for a while. Either way, I'm happy we played it! The game started with Shemp letting us all know that he had been on the 'Geek, and come up with a new strategery to try out. OF course, that's all it took for us all to target him as the leader! Unfortunately, it was to no avail... in the end he won by ONE POINT. I say that with all caps because I was the one who came in second... Always nice to see a photo finish.

Second was RISK, Lord of the Rings Edition. All of us had played standard RISK before except for Shemp. After a brief recap, and an overview of the considerable changes specific to this edition, we got going. True, this is still RISK... and the game is therefore somewhat "simple" in concept and execution compared to most of our other "big" boardgames (think El Grande, Ideology, Civilization, etc), but the changes bring enough to the table to make this a pretty fun game. The movement of the ring eliminates the original's two biggest flaws... player elimination and eternal game length; the leaders, Keeps, places of power and missions add depth and strategy options completely missing in the original; the instants and events add a fun level of surprise; and finally the board and pieces are pretty attractive.
The game saw me and Shemp as good while Kozure and Luch were evil. It's a shame that this distinction has nothing to do with the game other than inital placement (and a few card mechanics). Having the good somehow work together, somehow related to the movement of the ring, might have brought the game closer to the actual theme. As it is, me and Shemp started doing what we do best... fighting each other (in the North-West) at the expense of either of our chances. Meanwhile, Kozure and Luch were amassing armies and territories to the East. Kozure was dragged into a few fights he didn't do to well in (the dice were not his friends this night), leaving Luch and his massive hordes with total control of two regions and a runaway win by the time the ringbearers made it off the map.

I had a great time, and I have to say that I was very surprised to get a whole game of Risk in after El Grande while still being out by 11pm!

Note to self: Saying "Really?!!! You're going to do that? Are you sure?" never actually deters a player from making a good move against me.

RISK (Lord of the Rings edition): 7



  1. I'm warming a little bit to El Grande, but my long-term strategies are still not as successful as I'd like. The end was exciting, but filled with the bittersweet sensation of watching a photo-finish, rather than participating. In the last two or three games I've always managed to get almost all of my caballeros on the board - despite this, I'm still losing. I'm beginning to realize that sometimes you have to bid high to get cards which will score you early points or temporarily give control of a given high-score region, so long as you get the points from it. This is in contrast to standard military strategy (which I usually approach this game from) which is to take and hold territory unless it becomes untenable - the concept being is that it is always easier to defend territory rather than to gain it.

    Another common theme in German games is that you must not only score points yourself, you must take scoring opportunity points away from opponents. Now, this seems easy enough, but you must also track who is the current leader threat. In the case of this game, I was taking points away from Hapi only because he was the only vulnerable player, whereas I should have made more effort to take points away from Shemp and Easy.

    Lessons learned.

    LoTR Risk is much much improved on the game of my youth, the old Parker Brothers version which was a horrible, overlong, downtime-riddled dicefest. LoTR Risk remains dice-oriented, but a number of mechanic changes in this version (and, I believe, the latest standard Risk variants) make it much better. The primary factor seems to be the built in timer, which eliminates the interminable nature of the previous version. The presense of "dice-hurdles" on the timer-path also makes for a random length game, which fortunately dovetails nicely with the theme.

    As Easy mentions, the good/evil designations seem somewhat arbitrary, since (as in this game) good on good and evil vs. evil combat was more common than not. A greater variation in special "Ring" card types might have been more appropriate - three identical "Grima Wormtongue" cards which cause units to side-switch seems excessive.

    The dicey nature (pun-indended) of the game's combat system remains as the only minor negative flaw. Due to the mechanic of limiting attacking forces to 3 attackers vs 2 defenders, you tend to avoid the ridiculous 50+ unit armies (rolling dozens upon dozens of dice) of the old Parker Brothers game which were, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable. However, since the units are undifferentiated, there is substantially less tactical flavour to combats - only the grim number-crunching of quantitative superiority. Quality of a unit never really seems to enter into it - but I can understand this simplification in light of the target age-group of the game. Though I understand intellectually the fact that random die-based combat makes it possible, I am irrationally irked by the fact that two major combats where I had a 2:1+ superiority (12 vs 5 in one case, 7 vs 3 in another) in numbers plus a leader (adding qualitative superiority) resulted in near-utter destruction for my goblin hordes on both occasions.

    I have thus learned that in games based on the new Risk system, the old military maxim of 3:1 numerical superiority on the attack must be adhered to, regardless of leader bonuses. Another minor quibble is the rather long set-up period. This will probably improve with time.

    I'd like to play LoTR Risk again.

    Incidentally, I believe the final scores were:

    El Grande: Shemp 113, Easy 112, Kozure 94, Hapi 70-something.

    LoTR Risk: Hapi: 29, Easy 23(?), Kozure 19, Shemp 13(?)

  2. Sadly, my score was only eleven.


    I made many many boneheaded moves in that one.

    More comments after lunch, which can only happen after I deal with the dead thing in the wall.

  3. Shemp,
    That would be one of the more interesting parting comments I've heard in a while.

    I hate dead things in walls.

    Anyway, I guess I never knew that Kozure wasn't really a fan of El Grande... I guess he never really came out and said it before. If I was to pick out it's biggest flaw, it would be the one you mentioned: at a certain point, you are just kind of "watching" because you know you're not going to win (and catching up is really hard). One thing I find funny about our group is the almost complete lack of "Kill the Leader" strategy (Ideology being a notable exception). El Grande is probably counting on the fact that at a certain point players will conspire toghether to take down those in the lead. Despite the open scoring, this never seems to happen when we play. We all talk about it, and some moves are made in that direction, but all in all most of us seem more concerned with maximizing our own points on a particular move (I suppose that it's done with the hopes of becoming "Contendas"). The same thing happened during our game of Civilization... with Tili cruising to victory largely unopposed. I had two good excuses: My alliance with her, which I needed to survive past the first age, and my utter hatred for the Shempezuelans. RISK had a similar occurence, with me and Shemp fighting, and Luch mostly left alone for the win.
    The bottom line? Shemp and I fight too much. And I hate the Shempezuelans. And I think we need to put our differences behind us and cooperate on the next land grab/ war game to see how it affects our group dynamics.

  4. I should clarify that I don't dislike El Grande from a game design point of view, only that I find thinking ahead in the game quite difficult, similar in that sense to Tigris and Euphrates. I dislike the "brain burn" aspect of the game, though it troubles me to a much lesser extent in El Grande than in T&E.

    I am also testy from my recent confirmation that I am the least winningest player of the group.


  5. 1) The dead thing was quite inaccesible, reeking, and dealt with only after days - hence the comment delay.

    2) The Shempezuelan Hordes are always open to the possibilities of working with the Easylanders, despite our mutual hatred, but hold out no great hope of this ever happening.

    3) Kill the leader is something we need to do more. I am thinking that one night we should use "Kill the leader" as a theme, and only select games with open scoring.

    4) I liked this Risk variant, and would enjoy playing again. Dicefest, but it is kept pretty snappy. I'd give it a seven, subject to later revision, as always.

    5) Brief El Grande tactical points: Like Kozure touched on, holding land is worth nothing, so always go for the most points on the table. Moving pieces around loses nothing. Also, consider that men on the table in the first three rounds get counted 3 times, those laid in the next three rounds only twice, and those laid in the last three rounds only once. Putting men in the tower scores them twice. Having those basic (obvious-seeming) things pointed out on the BGG led to my tactics for this round of the game, which were generally successful. Of course, now that I've pointed them out, I will need new tactics. Luckily for me, that's the fun part!