Thursday, January 19, 2006

A GigaWak of Games (Carcassonne - The City, China x2, Pueblo, Formula Motor Racing x3, )

Something OLD: Pueblo
Something NEW: China
Something BORROWED: Formula Motor Racing
Something BLUE: Carcassonne - The City (ok, I'm cheating here... the original is in a blue box!)

I think we've set a new record for number of games played in a single WAGS evening... 7!

It was my pick this week. I really enjoyed our "Invasion of the Middleweight Euros!" evening in December, so I thought I'd try it again.

We started the evening with my new copy of Carcassonne - The City.

First off, it's a beautiful package (the box, in particular is very nice). The set comes with a promo pamphlet encouraging people to visit the town in France! I wonder... are they making the assumption that anyone who has enough cash to buy this deluxe set might be good targets for travel ads? (If so, it's really a shame that there's no real Catan!). It was a Christmas gift, and the obvious question was "is a Carc variant different enough from the original to be worth owning?"

I own the basic set and just about all the expansions. I quite like it for the simplicity of the original and the way the expansions each increase the complexity/strategy as desired (most of them are well conceived). Still, it has problems (and I don't mean the randomness): Roads are not well balanced, the farmers are fiddly and the endgame scoring can be tedious. On top of that, it's really much better with 2 than with 3-6.

At one point, I tried playing Hunters and Gatherers online to see if it improved on the original. There's a lot to like, particularly the way the "farmers" are scored (the hunters get points for every deer and mammoth in the field, minus one animal for each tiger which has been placed in the field). "Roads" (rivers) are better balanced with "cities" (forests). Finally, incentive to finish other player's forests is included in the base set through a "bonus tile" mechanic. It's a good game, and it does a good job of being a more interesting and better balanced game out of the box, with new mechanics which substantially change the "spirit" of the game (the deer vs tiger mechanic is overtly confrontational, and the bonus tiles can swing the fortunes on the board faster than the incremental nature of the original ever did). I hate to say it, but I thought the art was so bad that I honestly felt I'd never want to pull it out (the fact that a few of the bonus tiles seemed overly powerful and the added complication for newbies didn't help)

Carcassonne - The City seems closer to the base game in spirit. As always, the game mechanics continue to be basically the same (draw a tile, place it on the table and decide if you want to place a meeple on one of the features). In the beginning of the game, the three locations are quite familiar: 1) Roads 2) Markets (forests in the original) 3) Residential areas (Farms in the original). Effort has been made to make each strategy viable: Roads continue to score only 1 point per tile, but if it ever stretches to 4 tiles or more each tile is worth double. Markets can potentially show 3 different types of goods for sale, and the value of the market equals the number of tiles x the number of different goods in it. The residential districts are worth 2 points per market which surrounds it.

The most obvious change, in the beginning, is that tiles only need to match at the roads (a mechanic lifted from Carcassonne - The Castle, yet another previously released standalone version of the game). As the game progresses, subtler things begin to reveal themselves. The nature of the scoring mechanism for the roads and markets encourages players to end their opponent's scoring opportunities early before they are worth much. The distribution of the tiles & flexible placement rules seem to encourage smaller "fields", which are both easier to visualize and simpler to score.

The big twist are the city walls. The game is split into 3 rounds, and a few very different element are introduced once the 2nd round begins: City walls, towers and guards.

The tiles are split into 3 nearly equal piles. Once the first pile runs out, the first player to score points must place the first segment of the city wall. Every other player follows suit by placing a piece of wall, attached to the first one, along the perimeter of the tiles already placed on the table. The walls effectively limit expansion of the city and "finish" features on the board. Therefore, they can be used offensively to end a large market or road (or kill it before it's worth more than just a couple of points). In additon, meeples can be placed on a just placed wall as "knights". Knights score points for "seeing" certain types of buildings in the residential districts in a straight line from where they stand. The towers are an additonal oportuntiy for the the player who initiated the wall building to score a few points.

Round 3 is the same as round 2, except that the number of walls placed everytime a player causes points to be scored is doubled.

The game ends once the tiles run out, or once the city wall comes within 4 pieces of surrounding the city.

The end result is interesting. I appreciate that the game is better balanced, I enjoy that the rythm of the game changes as the rounds progress (indeed, at each step a new layer of things to consider is introduced), and I like that the scoring happens much more quickly at the endgame. For whatever reason, the whole thing works just as well as a multiplayer game as it does with 2 (not something I feel about the base game... I think it's the way the walls work, but I'm not sure).

Also, the whole things looks quite nice once completed. A lot of my coworkers were very interested in the game on the strength of the appearance alone! This, combined with the fact that the rules ramp up as the game progresses (rather than being more complex from the start as in Hunters and Gatherers) means the game can be quite approachable despite the added depth. One coworker bit immediately and wanted to play at lunch. He loved it.

So, is it worth owning if you've already got the original and lots of expansions? I'd say yes. Not a must buy unless you are really taken by the appearance (as I was), but solid nonetheless. I'd probably pick this as the better game to introduce to new players, so long as they are not really afraid of a little complexity. In the context of our WAGS group, I think that I still slightly prefer the base set (when played with King and Scout, Inns and Cathedrals and Traders and Builders).

Hmmm. That was a lot longer than I expected it to be!

I won the game. An unlikely tile placement wound up connecting me to Kozure's lucrative residential district. Also, I tried fairly hard to shut down my opponent's scoring oportunities before they became too valuable (my previous experience with the game gave me an advantage there). Still, it was close... I doubt I'll have any advantage next time.

We followed with 2 games of China, joined by Tili. I won't spend too much time here, but this play solidified my opinion that this is a very good (if unspectacular) strategy game with a surprisingly short play time. It was nice to see that Shemp managed a win while totally ignoring the advisors, as it proves there is more than one way to succeed.

Pueblo was played with all four sacred sites, using the advanced rules. Our Pueblo quickly became difficult to manage and "good" moves were few and far between. The location of the sacred sites effectively neutralized two corners of the board! I overbid for starting position and never quite recovered. Shemp and I were losing pretty badly through the game and it was a race between Luch and Kozure for "least proud" master builder. Luch seems to have a knack for the game... he was well protected through to the end and won.

We finished with 3 rounds of Formula Motor Racing... the silly (but very quick) Knizia racing game. Yet again, us humans were hopelessly outmatched by the non player cars (this keeps happening because we beat each other up and leave those cars alone). Luch had the lead in the first round (amongst human players), lost most of it in the 2nd, and had the choice to hand it to me or Shemp in the last round. He chose me, but that's a hollow victory. I say we call it a tie!

It's a stretch to call this an evening of middleweights, but we sure played a lot of games!


  1. I'm not a big Carcassonne fan, although I am keeping the game to play with my child(ren). I did find the City version to be more interesting. The original version has a sense of just petering out in the end, and the finale seems anti-climactic. With the wall-based turn-limit mechanic, the end-game becomes a little more exciting (almost frantic, if you're trying desperately to join some residential sections properly as I was). In all, the game is better balanced and refined, with some of the more interesting features of the other variants incorporated into the basic structure.

    I enjoy it more than Carcassonne, but the added long-term strategic goals of wall and tower placement and city wall watchmen make the game even more strategic than previous incarnations. It's a good trade-off, but it would be harder to teach the game to first time players, elevating the game from a lightweight game to a medium-light game.

    China continues to be a very good choice - since it's much more abstract than the usual sort of games I enjoy, it's not among my favourites, but it's still very well designed and has tremendous depth for a game that plays in so short a time. I will say that strategy becomes less possible in a five-player game than a four-player, since you are even more likely to have your plans dashed before your turn comes around when there are four other people playing besides yourself.

    Still, a fun game, and always enjoy it coming out.

    Pueblo is a beautifully designed game and is simple enough to learn for most people - the complexity is in the placement of blocks. I don't like it as much as either of the other two games (or indeed, most other games) for the simple reason that the downtime with people who are very carefully considering their moves is very, very long. It has to be long, really, or you're just throwing away points, and over the course of placing all of the blocks (and all of the other players' blocks) a single poorly placed block will rake up dozens of extra unecessary points.

    The auctioning for turn order as well as the placement of sacred sites changes the strategy of the game significantly, and makes it even deeper than it was previously. This one is a challenge.

    I will say that I enjoyed it more this time around, mostly because I had better learned some of the placement strategies.

    Formula Motor Racing is a great little palate-cleanser. I'm embarassed to point out that I had completely missed the "charge" rule, of being able to roll for your own car several times, instead of just once, which significantly changes the character of the game.

    Armed with that knowledge, future games should be a little more interesting.

    It just goes to prove that you should read the manual all the way through, even if it seems that the card descriptions describe all of the information you need.

    This also occurs in "El Grande" the description on the card seems to indicate one thing, but the full description in the rulebook of the card has more information which slightly (or in the case of the FMR charge card) significantly changes its character.

    As always, a fun session.

  2. Excellent comments!

    Carcassonne. I'm really glad you liked the game! I quite enjoy the Carc series, and have been hesitant to choose it because I was aware you didn't really like it. Now we have a game we can all agree on!

    I concur that the game is more complex than basic Carc (other than the removal of the farmer confusion). Still, my coworker caught on very quickly, so I think that the slow phasing in of rules over the course of the three rounds makes it manageable. Most of all, the appearance of the game has drawn people in... and that's the biggest hurdle.

    China. Agreed.

    Pueblo. I enjoyed our 3 player games more than this 4 player one. Downtime is a definite issue contributing to that, and it's definitely a brain burner. I like it quite a bit, but more as a change of pace than as a game I'd love to play all the time.

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