Thursday, July 27, 2006

How Cthulu Ate Us All, or Arkham Horror is a Harsh Mistress (Arkham Horror x2)

We've played Arkham Horror a few times before, so I won't comment in depth on the game mechanics (North American-style) or overall production values (very good).

Arkham Horror is a game not to be approached lightly. In addition, if you have players who are not in the mood to play (as I suspect we did last night), do not, under any circumstances, try to force them to play. The game requires you to keep a brisk pace and make quick decisions on your turn or it slows into the morass of dullness that any North American-style boardgame can fall into (too many rules, too many exceptions, too many things decided by die-roll).

I fear that I dragged people into a game they didn't enjoy last night, which is my personal anathema for a game evening.

Arkham Horror is a game where a single card draw (especially some of the mythos cards like "Good Work Undone" or some of the more powerful Great Old Ones, like Hastur or Cthulhu) can turn what is usually a challenging game into a brutal one. This makes it difficult to justify the hour or two you might have already invested in playing being turned upside down by random chance. This, coupled with poor dice rolling, can make a gaming session singularly unfun.

I have had lots of fun with Arkham Horror in the past. Last night was average enjoyment for me, but from the reactions of some other players, terminally boring or frustrating for others.

I think I have learned a few things about Arkham Horror after one solo play and five multi-player plays.

1. Only play Arkham Horror when everyone is in the mood to play.

2. Only play Arkham Horror when you have a solid block of 3-4 hours in which to play it. Do not attempt to squeeze in a game if you will run out of time. You cannot finish a game in under two hours unless you are really lucky or have very few players (who are also game veterans). You can (we have, anyway) finish it in two and a half hours, but you have to be lucky and have people who've played before. I should have not tried to play the second round last night with only one and a half hours remaining. I realize now as I write this that when I made the decision to play the second game, I made a critical math error. We usually stop at 11, and it was 9:30 when we finished the first game. Somehow that made 2.5 hours in my defectively quick mental math.

3. The gate/other world exploration mechanic can be big drag on the game and should probably have been differently developed. You have two (and sometimes, with a number of cards that delay you in the other world, three or more) turns where you make virtually no decisions and random, mostly bad things happen to you in which your only reaction is to roll dice (this is especially bad if you were sucked in unprepared (no clue and no elder sign) and the experience will be for nought). One unfortunate player was stuck in Celeano for four encounters (!) as a result of two trap-type encounters last night. Coupled with the fact that gates are usually opening at a rate where you will lose in six (at minimum) to eight (average) turns (in a five player game) if you don't close a gate almost immediately, you will lose. The amount of time spent in other worlds seems overly much - given the few options available to the player. I actually remembered a rule incorrectly for the first few gate encounters - we should get sucked into the other world where we then have a other world encounter on the same turn, instead of waiting until the next turn. This made an important difference in our first run through last night, and I should have caught the mistake earlier. I believe it affected two gate exploration attempts. The effect of having no decisions to make and simply watching as things happen to you in a game (as can happen in the Other Worlds) is a "locked on auto-pilot" feeling that is the exact opposite of enjoyable gaming. I will have to think of other games where this occurs, because it is not exclusive to Arkham Horror.

4. The FAQ version of monster introduction rate (two monsters per gate with five or more investigators, and monster surges of monsters = # of investigators or number of gates, whichever is higher) should only be used with experienced players for a greater challenge. It seemed overly challenging with four experienced players and one rookie last night.

5. I propose that one possible aid to play is the ability to trade clues. Aside from a game mechanic point of view, I don't see why (thematically) investigators wouldn't trade clues. In fact, thematically, they SHOULD trade clues. If you cannot close/seal a gate unless you explore it, if you are sucked through a gate and no one has elder signs to trade, you are stuck with the option of closing the gate only. Another alternative is that you can close a gate with clues or elder signs if at least one investigator in the space has an explored marker. I don't know; this might make the game too easy.

Coming away from these games, I still feel like I want to play again. Oh, I forgot to mention - we were all devoured by Cthulhu in the first game (lost by a long shot - we didn't have a chance), but we made decent headway in the second against Hastur. I feel that with many repeated plays, you might get a situation in which you feel you've explored all possibilities, but I haven't reached that level yet after six games. I almost feel like I want to play this game two or three times in a row with a dedicated group of players to fully appreciate it, but I don't think that will happen with this group. Arkham Horror requires either dedicated North American-style game afficianados or Cthulhu-mythos fans to be a frequently revisited game. Our gaming group does not match this description (3 Mythos fans, one of which is a North American-style game fan, so only 60% of the group)

As a final side note, I find it interesting to note that the two players who appeared least enthused about the game were also the ones most distracted by comparisons of which illustrations had the sexiest women (Jenny Barnes, "cleavage girl" (forgotten her name) and the Witch) and also happened to be the youngest players (well, still well over 25, but...). Low attention-span blipheads! Can't you see the importance of focusing your attention on a board game based on the lunatic/paranoid writings of a semi-racist New Englander* for three hours? I blame MTV. Kids today... *mutter mutter grumble*

* Yes, yes, I know. His views on miscegenation and racial purity changed over his lifespan, and toward the end of his life he had changed many of his viewpoints. Doesn't change the fact that a lot of his early work was undoubtedly racially prejudiced.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Blind Leading the Blind ( Through the Desert x2, Aladdin's Dragons x2)

JayWowzer, in addition to bringing Antike last week, generously left us his copy of Aladdin's Dragons to play in his absence. After a few quick games of Through the Desert we gave it a try.

Aladdin's Dragons is a rather interesting and odd game. Thematically, players are trying to steal treasure from dragons, find useful wares at a market and ultimately try to purchase magical artifacts from the califf's palaces. However, if you strip away the theme we are left with a game where players are placing markers numbered 1-9 face down in different areas in the hopes of having majorities once they are revealed. In other words, it's a huge exercise in blind bidding.

After two plays, I'm not sure what to make of it.

The board is split into three main regions (caves, market, palace) and these cleanly describe the three main aspects of the game. The "caves" provide currency to spend later on, but those treasures are of no value in and of themselves. The "market" provides players with the opportunity to "bend the rules", such as aquire spells (powerful special action cards), alter the turn order, exchange currency at a profit or use more than one magical artifact a turn. Again, these abilities are important, but do not directly contribute to winning the game. The palace is where currency gained in the caves is spent to aquire magical artifacts. The artifacts confer special abilities onto the players, and are also the only source of victory points.

There is interesting tension on many levels. With 8 tokens and 16 spaces on the board, it's obvious that there are more things you'll want to do than you are able each round. The decision to focus on aquiring treasure in the caves vs. manipulating the board and/or aquiring spells in the market vs. aquiring artifacts in the palace (or to go for a little bit of everything) is the first of many tough decisions. Second, winning a space is not as simple as placing a token there... you have to have the highest total in the space! This means that you effectively can only place in a select few spaces, because you find yourself bolstering your presence in areas you really want to win (and occasionally slipping a token into a space others are ignoring). Lastly, since the pieces are placed face down, there is opportunity to bluff by placing tokens in areas you don't care to win just to force the opponent to commit more resources there.

All these layers of decision making are interesting, however in the end things felt a little unsatisfying for a couple of reasons:

1) The blind bidding needs to be offset by enough "public" information so that players have something to go on when placing their bids... otherwise the result is complete chaos. In Aladdin's Dragons, players can see the number of chips on the board from each player, and this gives valuable clues about their intentions. Other than that, there is very little to go on! In a game like RA, I can look at a set of tiles and approximate it's value for the other players, since I know what they are holding. This allows me to mitigate the randomness of that game by using educated guess about how they might play. Here, I didn't really feel I could do that to any degree.
2) The spell cards are quite powerful, introducing a little too much chaos in the game. For example, the ability to force every player to discard 7 treasures is devastating! I realize that the "counterspell" artifact negates this to a certain degree, but each player can only use a single artifact per round, so it's big sacrifice by an individual player to use it. I never really like it when one person needs to bite the bullet in order to protect him/herself while giving the rest of the group a free pass (sort of reverse king making). I did like the concept of "spells", though, so I wish they were just a little less impactful. By contrast, I thought the artifact special powers where very well implemented, since a player must choose a single artifact per round to use. I wonder whether the game would be any good if the spells where removed, but the artifact powers remained.

Our first game was extremely chaotic, and we mostly flailed around trying to figure out what we were doing. Everybody except Kozure, that is, who masterfully swept just about everything he wanted from under our noses. He won by such a large margin that the result was pretty obvious halfway through the game. On the strength of the first game, I wasn't a big fan. Still, there was enough time so we played another.

Our second game was much better. We anticipated each other a little better, and we fought more competitively for the important spaces each turn (now having a better feel for the spaces that are more important at different stages of the game). I focussed largely on aquiring goods early on, hoping to spend the last half of the game aquiring artifacts with them (this strategy seems both obvious and basic, but I had to try it to see if I was right in that assessment). I was having reasonably good luck with the strategy, even claiming a few cheap artifacts along the way. When I switched gears and started purchasing more heavily, I was able to grab a fair number when I needed them. When all was said and done, Luch and I tied on artifacts AND on scrolls, but he had more of everything else you might use as a third tiebreaker, so he won. A very tight game!

I think it's entirely possible this game gets MUCH better with repeated plays, particularly with the same group. Judging by the improvement in our second game, I'd guess that much of the "Chaos" I'm seeing is really caused by my lack of familiarity with the system (for example, it occurred to me as I wrote this that the purpose of the "eliminate 7 treasures" cards might be to prevent players from adopting the strategy I used... gathering treasure in the beginning and spending them at the end... every game). So it's possible that behind the surface chaos there is a system here which self balances with experienced players.

Damn, now I want to play it again.

Aladdin's Dragons: 7.5

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Getting Greedy (Pitchcar Mini x2, Antike, Fantasy Business)

6 people tonight.

We started out with my new copy of PitchCar Mini (with expansion). It's a nice set, with sturdy MDF components (not wood, as some have claimed). Some of the pieces seem a little thicker than others, which can be problematic as you flick and watch your disc bounce off the board and across the room, but I'm willing to forgive it these imperfections... it's a good, fun, silly game. I'm looking forward to trying this out at a family gathering with 8 players!

My first game was just against Luch, who trounced me (I was nearly lapped!), but my second game was a threesome with Bharmer and Luch and I recovered my honour by winning a close match. The shot of the night was in the first game, when Luch expertly flicked his car along a full third of the track! By comparison, all my attempts at ambitious shots failed miserably, so I played it pretty safe. I'd still like to play the full size version some day, but I'm happy with the purchase.

With everyone now arrived and ready, we broke out the main event, a second playing of Antike. JayWowzer was kind enough to bring back his copy, and I was really looking forward to another match. Our first game had been a lot of fun, and I was really impressed that a civ. type game could be so simple and short while still providing a satisfying feel for the growth of a world power, an impressive feat! Still, the reviews I had read since then were decidedly...mediocre, with frequent complaints of long playtime, tedious endgames and general lack of "spark". Needless to say, I really wanted another go at it to see if my first impressions were incorrect.

Last game, I went for an all out civilization advancement strategy. Mainly, I had done so because it seemed like the "wild" currency bonus for completing all the advancements seemed very powerful. It worked, I won without ever having a battle! (the others WERE hot on my heels, though) . I'm sure part of the reason it worked is because we were all learning the game, and the others only realized what I was doing when it was too late, but it did seem a bit out of balance. The rules have been updated, however, so that the trades are now 2 for 1, which seems much more balanced (though I am still unsure about the bonus victory point for completing all 8 which was added at the same time... it didn't come up in our game, however).

We played the german board this week, and I was assigned 3 regions in the lower right corner (+/- greece). I thought this time I would try two things: boats and suicide runs. Basically, knowing that victory points are aquired and then kept no matter what, I wanted to see if I could repeatedly stretch myself extremely thin to reach a victory point and then concede the ground I gained without contest. I hoped to make the majority of those points by building cities and getting boats into sea spaces. I got the point for 5 cities and 7 sea spaces quickly, and then started angling for 10 cities as the land areas were getting crowded faster than the sea spaces. I figured I would penetrate deep into other territories where cities were still available, get my 10, then use them as beachheads to build boats for further sea points. The problem was Luch started threatening my thinly spread out forces and Shemp was eyeing the same territories to the north that I was (there was a bit of a conflict there, as Shemp could not understand why I was heading in that direction). I did manage to advance my defenses in time to ward off too many losses, but getting the 10th city ended up taking too much time, and I lost a few boats on the way. Despite picking up a few advancement VPs, I still needed 2 more and my prospects looked like they would take too much time (there was no way I'd get to 15 cities, and it would be hard to get to 14 boats). My only hope was to diversify into temples or advancement VPs.

Things were quite tight near the end. Shemp had quite a large and solid empire in the north, despite having made zero progression on the advancement track. JayWowzer was building a city of temples in the north west. Kozure and Luch were spreading out in the mid board.

Things were getting quite congested. Territories were changing hands and everyone was scanning the board trying to formulate a plan to get their last point or two. Kozure managed to win by purchasing the last unclaimed advancement before anyone else could get it. He played a good game, because it certainly appears that the players in the middle of the board should be at a dissadvantage by being threatened on all sides. All in all, the whole 6 player game took less than 1 1/2 hours and played just as simply and cleanly as I'd remembered. I'm glad to say that unless Tempus turns out to be really incredible, Antike will definitely fit the bill as a great, simple and short civ style game (maybe world domination would be more accurate). Antike has achieved this by focussing it's efforts on being a good, clean strategy and resource management game... anyone looking for anything beyond basic negotiations or politics should look elsewhere. Also, the "advancements" track, while important to the game, do not really feel like the slow buildup of technological innovation which some might want. To me, the tradeoffs are worth it. I really like the game.

Last up was a game of Fantasy Business. When we last played this game I absolutely sucked at it. I started screwing people too early and simply couldn't make up for the masses of cash the other were making by playing it straight. As I recall, Shemp was excellent at it, winning both games. I was determined to turn a new leaf and try something different.

I purposefully avoided monopolies, but focused on high valued goods. I wanted to keep the incentive high for the other player selling the same types of goods as me to stick with the max. value, so I tried to ensure that I had equal or fewer cards than they did in a particular good. More importantly, I stayed honest until round 7.

Meanwhile, Shemp had become the Herbs and Armour king, having substantial monopolies in both. The cards which break up monopolies never surfaced, so he seemed to be doing quite well. Bharmer struggled at first to stay in the black, but eventually recovered. Kozure and Luch seemed to be playing a conservative game, occasionally screwing their trade partners, but otherwise laying low. JayWowzer had a number of horses which were taking in a LOT of cash. In my mind, the lead was either Shemp, JayWowzer or I, so on the 7th round I started shafting the market (I undercut Jaywowzer for the horses and used a card on Shemp which denied him income from his armour, for example).

I was most proud of the following, though: I had a card which allowed me to wait until the others fixed their prices, and then I could look at them and alter my prices to undercut them. Problem was, I had just screwed everybody moments ago, and I feared they would all drop their prices to the minimum in order to avoid having that happen again. Obviously, if they did that my card would be useless (the best I could do would be to tie them, giving everyone the same income). To avoid this, I wrote my prices in plain view, giving my opponents the assurance that they could safely match my prices! It worked, I played the card and 2 of the 3 were denied their income that round. Hey, I was proud I pulled it off!

The result: I beat out Shemp by a hair for the win. Surprisingly, Luch, who was laying low most of the game, was also very close to winning.

Like Intrige, this is a game where the metagame is probably just as important as the ingame. I could never try the same tricks twice, because everyone would see right through me. Also, if the same player wins a few times in a row, they are likely to be targeted and not have a chance. Unlike Intrige, Fantasy Businee uses special cards to introduce chaos and chance into the system (for example, I was lucky that I drew the powerful and useful cards I did, and I wouldn't have been able to blindside my opponents without them). Not sure if that means the game will have increased long term playability, or a shorter one (once the novelty wears off and the surprise moves stop working). Time will tell.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Control your Areas (China x2, El Grande, Saboteur)

Area control was the theme of the evening. China, El Grande and Louis XIV were chosen, but we ran out of time and had to substitute Saboteur for Louis.

The first game we played was 3 player, my favorite number for China. At 3, you can react to what is going on and feel like you have some control over the board. At the other end of the scale, too much happens between turns and I feel like my only option is to see "what points can I score/ secure RIGHT NOW", with no regard to long term strategy. Shemp and I went for a balanced approach between roads, houses and advisors. Luch, who often uses the advisor angle, did so again to good effect: when all was said and done, he made huge gains and leaped to the forefront. Lucky for me, I was the only one to complete a long road, and those 4 points gave me a slim victory.

Bharmer then arrived and we played a second game with four. He had never played before, but as usual he picked up pretty quick. He and Luch fought over advisors, while I went for a house/ long road strategy. Bharmer made impressive gains on his placements at the end, but I received 20 points from a well placed fortification (12 for a 6 segment road, and 8 for the majority in the region) and won again. I was shaping up to be a good night for me! I don't think the other players were very comfortable with the fortification pieces, since Shemp was the only one to actually play his. In both games, this probably gave me a bit of an unfair advantage.

El Grande, the king of Area Control games, was next. I am always excited when we can play this, particularly with 5 players. Luch had talked it up to Bharmer, so I think he was quite looking forward to it as well.

It was a fun game, and unusual in the sense that the cards which came up consolidated our caballeros more than usual, and several were removed. The result was that each player had just a few concentrations in 3 or 4 regions (often predermining who might fight for 2nd or 3rd in a region). I had the lead for most of the game, but Shemp eventually breezed past me and managed to hold on to the lead. I think Bharmer came in second, which is pretty impressive for the first time out (I don't know about you, but I was pretty clueless the first time I played EG). The only downside is that things were moving a little slower than usual, but that might be because we had a new player and none of us had played for a while.

Saboteur was reasonably fun, but something needs to be done about the card mix. The game always seems heavily balanced for or against the saboteurs, meaning that whichever side wins the first hand will likely win EVERY subsequent hand unless the number of players changes. Too bad, because it's an interesting concept and simple enough to play with a wide group of people... it just needs better tension. Maybe I'll buy a 2nd copy used and try to add more "good" labyrinth pieces, relying on the hazards and rockfalls to aid the saboteurs. Either way, priority= low.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Re-Writing History (Wilderness War x2)

I've been thinking about war games recently. Some time ago we played Midway, and although I had issues with the game, I could tell that there was something in this genre which was appealing to me. Other than ASL, two types of wargames appear to be well liked at BGG: Block games and Card Driven Wargames. I recently picked up Napoleon and quite liked it (enough to now order Rommel in the Desert), so I was really looking forward to the opportunity to give a Card driven wargame a shot. As it happens, Kozure owns Wilderness War.

Wilderness War covers the war between the English and French for control of North America. Being French Canadian, the setting held obvious interest. Beyond that, the game is held in very good regard as an excellent GAME.

I spent a bit of time reading the rules leading up to the session. It's complicated, but not overly so. The base systems are fairly easy to absorb, however there are enough exception and small fiddly rules that it's impossible to remember everything at first. Luckily, in play the pace is such that the rules can be looked up as they become relevant (which we did quite a bit), and once they are put in practice they make sense and can be remembered.

We gave ourselves the entire evening, since the playbook estimated 2-3 hours for the tournament scenario we assumed a learning game would take 4-5. Things turned out differently. Read on.

Predictably, I played the French while Kozure took the British. All I knew from reading reviews was that the French have to hit hard and early if they want to win. My opening hand, in retrospect, was quite good. I was able to put some drilled troops down in Quebec and make an agressive push down the Hudson river to the heart of the face off there. Kozure hadn't fully grasped the implications of river movement, and therefore didn't see this coming. On the western front, I saw the masses of (mostly) undefended stockades and decided to raid as much as I could.

I followed though on that plan and was on the receiving end of fabulously good luck with the dice. Dumas laid waste to the stockades and forts in the south west. Combat routinely went my way. Sieges were resolved quickly and without much losses. The net effect was that the British were on the defensive the whole game. Being so difficult to activate, they couldn't keep up with the damage and I was raking in the victory points. A surprise seige attempt in (I forget the name of the city, but it was the South-Eastern most fortress) nearly made matters even worse for the British, but Wolfe came along and kicked the French out (this would mark the only time die rolling didn't go my way, as I could have had the opportunity to assault the fortress prior to Wolfe's arrival but the siege took longer than it could have). Poor Kozure did not manage to move an inch on ANY front, nor make any attempt on Louisburg. By the end of the first year, the French achieved an automatic victory with 12 points (note: I was going for broke. If my offensive failed, the British would have cleaned up in the spring due to my depleted forces)

The whole thing only took 2 hours, so we tried again, armed with a better understanding of the rules (and hopefully for Kozure) more evenly distributed luck.

In the second game, my hand had a number of Indian Alliance cards, but no French Reinforcements. I decided to play the Indian angle much more strongly than I did the first game. Kozure's hand seemed pretty decent, and he forced me to takes things more slowly this time around by shoring up his defences in the weak spots I had identified previously. I now had a large contingent of auxilleries heading to the south west. My own error in understanding the terrain led to a successful block of Dumas, and he essentially had to retreat and hide for the rest of the game. The Indians successfully raided one city, but then the british sent (insert name of leader here) to attack a second group before they could do any more damage. The indians were hopelessly outclassed. 2 of them vs 4 drilled troops. Should have been a massacre. Somehow, they won!!!. This would be the start of another enormously one sided game in the French's favour, from a die rolling point of view (and a string of really bad showings by that particular british leader). Those plucky indians proceeded to rack 4-5 raid markers, completely unassisted, against all odds.

My advance down the Hudson was slower, but over the course of the game almost all of my able bodied soldiers and auxilleries found themselves there. A few massive battles were fought, with the French being pushed back once and then returning for the kill.

You guessed it, the first year ended with another automatic victory for the French. The second game took approximately 2 1/2 hours.

So, there you have it. Two sessions which never made it past the first year. From reading reports and reviews, I can tell these were uncharacteristic games. The French are meant to hit hard, yes, but normally spend the majority of the game afterwards simply trying to slow the inevitable British advance. Here, the British were essentially unable to advance at all! In future games, where luck will inevitably be more balanced, I would guess that all out French assaults on the british will be fewer (and less successful). I also suspect that the intricacies of using terrain to our advantage, according to unit type, would come more into play. I would also expect to see more action and Louisburg and in the north west (which both went unused in these games).

I am left with one question, however. In our games, forts/ fortresses and stockades seemed like more of a liability than an advantage. For the french, these are easy targets for victory points! Stockades are at least cheap, so you do get some return on your investment by using them as a method to cross terrain more rapidly and provide a place to fall back to during retreats. But Forts are expensive to build and provide no (?) advantage that I can think of... certainly none in combat! I bet I'm missing something, so if anyone knows please fill me in (I know they play a critical role in wintering, but not having had to play through to a second year yet I don't fully understand the impact of the change in seasons. Do stockades help with wintering?)

Anyway, I had a great time and I look forward to playing this game again. I'm sure the British are already planning their revenge.

Tikal in absentia

Two games of Tikal were played on June 28th. I don't know how it went, because I wasn't there. All I know is that Kozure subsequently created a geeklist about terms which should exist but don't, and a term for "forgetting to play the landscape tile before taking your turn in Tikal" was sought.

Western Expansion vs Waistline Expansion (Transamerica, Way Out West, High Society)

Three games and too much food.

July 21st saw a round of Transamerica, followed by the return of Way Out West and an evening capping play of High Society.

None of these games are new to us, so I won't get into the mechanics. Also, it's been a few weeks so my memory is getting hazy already! (I'd forget my own name if I didn't hear it often enough)

[Shemp Sez: (Click here for our previous discussion of Way Out West, including rules recap.)]

The only thing I remember about Transamerica is that I led the game by finishing first for 3 or 4 rounds. This never happens! I normally do very poorly at the game, so it was no wonder that the following round I was short by 6 (I think), and then again by 4 on the last round. I didn't LOSE, but I definitely didn't win. At least I know all is right in the universe.

Way Out West was fun as usual. Bharmer locked up San Antonia, while I concentrated on Kansas (with some opposition from Luch). Luch and Shemp sewed up Abalone and Dodge City, making solid money and looking like the leaders. Kozure saw the most movement, getting hammered on and booted out of a number of locations. Still, he made a solid comeback and really looked like a contender. I tried to branch out to Deadwood, and did reasonably well at that, but it wasn't enough. After the dust had settled, Shemp emerged victorious.

The game was also characterised by a number of particularly bloody gunfights, which would come down to each player's last man standing. I lost such a battle with Shemp in Kansas and it cost me the Store (though not the majority, thankfully).

I constantly underestimate the value of cattle during the game (by focusing too much thought on getting buildings on the table), and not enough on those buildings at the endgame. I'll have to work on that.