Thursday, November 10, 2005

Attack of the middle weight Euros!

Six, count 'em... SIX (6) games played last night.

We focused on 3 middle weight games: Through the Desert, China and Tower of Babel.
I call a game "middle weight" when the rules are relatively simple, playtime is relatively short but there is still a depth of strategy to the game.

For context:
Light = For Sale! (very light), Caracassonne, Ticket to Ride (this is borderline)
Middle Weight = Settlers of Catan, Modern Art, Ra
Heavy = Tigris and Euphrates, El Grande, Puerto Rico

It's arbitrary, but it works for me.

Anyway, Through the Desert was first up. It was new to everyone, and I was really looking forward to it. First reaction (I bet you can't guess!)... Pastel camels... hmmm. Why did they have to be pastel? The colours blend in anything but bright light, and for Shemp (or resident colour blind player) a few were nearly impossible to tell apart. Not sure if they were trying to maintain a "bleached" look to keep in theme with the whole desert thing, but I wish they were easier to tell apart. The rest of the components are decent but unspectacular (plastic palm trees, thick chips for water holes and score markers)

The game is quite simple. Everyone has 5 starting camels on the board, one of each colour. on a turn, two camels are placed to extend on of their existing "caravans" (or lines of camels). Points are scored for crossing water holes, connecting to oasis or enclosing areas. End game points are scored for longest caravans of each colour. Other than a few placement restrictions (such as not being allowed to place a camel of a certain colour adjacent to another player's camels of the same colour), that's it. Game ends once all camels of one colour are placed.

In our first learning game, we stumbled along semi-randomly trying to figure out what to do. AS with many Knizia games (and german games in general), there is always far more things you WANT to do than you CAN do. Should I snatch the 3 point waterholes sitting right in front of my pink camel, or connect to the oasis before I get blocked? I went for water holes and oasis at first, but I did secure a medium sized piece of the desert. Kozure was unfortunately cheated as I forgot to mention that enclosed areas could not have any other camels in it. Luch ran away with the victory by successfully doing just about everything... getting long caravans, connecting to point sources and securing areas! Our second game was more thoughfully played. I managed to grab a corner of the board from under Kozure's nose. Luch's enormous green caravan didn't help him too much, and Shemp was still confounded by the colours. Despite not connecting to very many oasis, my long caravans and waterhole chits managed to give me a narrow 2nd place. Kozure won the game by 3 points (a very sneaky land grab near the end won him the game!).

China came next. I had played this at BSW as Web of Power, and liked it for being a nice straightforward strategy game. It's been called El Grande light, and I can understand the comparison, though it's pretty thin (it's area control...on a map...that's about it). Gameplay is pretty simple: Play 1 or 2 cards into a province of China. Place that number of houses or advisors. When the province is full, score it. At the end of the game, check if any player has a majority (or a tie for majority) in neighboring provinces for bonus points. Connected series of 4 or more houses are worth points too. (Game ends once the deck has been run through twice). The trickiest thing about the rules is the odd scoring for majority of houses... 1st place player gets points equal to the number of houses in the province. 2nd place gets points equal to the number of houses the 1st player has. etc, etc. This has a great impact on the strategy (in a province with 8 spaces, if 6 are controlled by red, and 1 by blue, red would get 7 points and blue would get 6. While there is little/no benefit for either player to fill the last space, a third player could swoop in and tie for 2nd with one house and swiftly pick up 6 points as well). Since the game moves so quickly, and opportunities disappear faster than you can react to them all, it's important not to overbuild unless you need to do so to block.

For an area control game, it goes incredibly fast. There are important decisions to be made, but not too much information to take in, so decisions can be made quickly. In the first game, I confined myself to the southern provinces and concentrated on establishing a network of advisors, and won. However, we discovered that Shemp and Kozure were playing under the impression that ties didn't count as a majority, so that hindered them. In the second, I tried to go for 2nd or 3rd place in as many provinces as possible but didn't succeed very well. Luch successfully grabbed a few house and advisor majorities, giving him the win. It's clear that advisors, used properly, are very powerful. I wonder whether the advanced game, wich introduces a monument which doubles the points from one province, is an attempt to balance that. Either way, I suspect that future games will see us being more aggressive in preventing advisor majorities.

I liked this version of the game, but a few comparisons to Web of Power are in order.
While the 3-4 player board is a bit more constricted, the 4-5 player board (which we used) is WIDE open. In contrast, Web of Power has a very "slanted" distribution of connections, alliances (and, I think, card distribution). I think this means that China is easier to jump into right away, but I bet Web of Power has more inherent flavour (i.e. taking control of France necessitates playing a different game plan than going for Italy, for example). I'm not good enough at WofP to know that for sure, but it's my impression. 2nd, scoring provinces once they are complete seems to weaken the building strategy somewhat (in WofP, the provinces are scored both times the deck is exhausted... meaning they are scored twice versus the "Advisor" and "Road" scorings which only happen once). Again, I can't be sure but I think I the older version might have been more balanced. In the end, though, these are minor criticisms. The game was very well received and does what it is trying to do very well!

Last was 2 additional plays of Tower of Babel. Our first game left me feeling a bit puzzled and dissapointed. While I can't say that I have warmed to the appearance of the game, the gamePLAY has gotten much better. I still find it difficult to process all the ramifications of my bids: bidding high places me on the board if I get accepted, and gives me victory points if I don't, but it allows the "building" player an easy chip, a bonus card and he can keep many of his cards. Bidding low increases my chances of getting on the board for 2nd or 3rd place points, but the building player will get the majority and the bulk of the benefit. Even more difficult is the "trader"... sometimes it's best used to "sour" an offer you don't want the other player to accept, other times it's a shrewd way to trade away a majority for a chip you might need for a set. I don't think I'm doing any worse than any other players, but I often only realise the impact of my offer AFTER it's been revealed and the opponent has chosen. Similarly, making an educated decision on which "wonders" to build, and when, is eluding me somewhat.

In my mind, I keep making comparisons to Domaine: The game WANTS to be broken, I think. Just as Domaine leads to a win by "large land grab" unless players actively play to stop it, Tower of Babel encourages players to hoard cards until they can build on their own and to offer as many cards as possible at every auction to get easy victory points. I'm not sure what the best way to fight these strategies! I suppose a that all things being equal, the player who acts quickly and makes smart collaborations to build could build a lead that way. It also seems that one ways to defeat a player who constantly offers a large number of cards for every bid might be to actually accept them... he is then stripped of using them again and winds up with very little scoring power until he rebuilds his hand. Anyway, not sure. I can't quite wrap my head around it.

In the first game, Shemp led for most of the game on the strength of his building strategy (and had enough sets of tiles to seal the win). For whatever reason, most of us spent much of the game with huge hands of cards... I think we were being too stingy to accept large offers of cards, wanting the majorities ourselves.

In the second, I tried to see if it was possible to compete without going for the matching tiles, and instead trying to score as many points as possible on the board. Aided in no small part by a "take a 2nd turn" card I completed a few monuments and placed in many others. I had NO points from the chips when the game ended (I only had 2), but the others weren't able to catch up so I won.

A final note: The graphic designers for this game need to be disciplined on two counts. 1) Bland Bland Bland! (I've said this before) 2) The illustrations for the bonus cards make no sense. I'm all for language independent cards, but at least make an effort for the symbols to match the effect. The "take a 2nd turn" card is unforgiveably missrepresented! (this is a fault of another recent knizia game with semi-random and language independent bonus cards... Amun Re)

I loved being able to get in so many games into one evening, I think these will come out a lot.

Through the Desert: 7.5 (really an 8, but knocked back for the colour issues)
China: 8
Tower of Babel: 8 (revised from 7)

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