Friday, September 29, 2006

Have we met before? (Vegas showdown, Wildlife)

Kozure purchased two new games recently, so we gathered Wednesday night and gave them a spin... both were strikingly reminiscent of other games we've already played while also being good enough to stand on their own.

Vegas Showdown

The first game was Vegas Showdown, a recent Avalon Hill title which got some pretty good reviews at BGG. The board, bits and title suggest that gambling is involved, but in fact there is none. Players are actually building casinos piece by piece, trying to earn victory points along the way. In practice, the game is essentially a cross between Princes of Florence and Amun-Re (but with a few elements which introduce chaos which is more akin to an american game). From PoF, the game borrows a grided map which players must fill with various "rooms" in a puzzle like fashion and from Amun-Re Vegas Showdown borrows the peculiar auction mechanism (for purchasing the "rooms"). Luckily, where the game falls down on originality it makes up in delivery... the game works and there is enough new in the mechanics that it stands on it's own. The biggest change is a deck of cards which is drawn from every time a "Room" is purchased. Each card will force an event, such as a monetary bonus for each "slots" room in your hotel, etc. Once the effect is applied, a symbol on the card determines which type of "room" will fill the empty space on the auction block. Since the game ends when one of the three types of rooms is exhausted, the result is a variable endgame which added a nice level of tension in our session. Other minor, but well received changes include: a "renovate" action which allows a player to replan their casino at the cost of a turn; a mechanic which reduces the price of items which aren't purchased at their existing price; a progression tree which prevents a player from building a premium room before purchasing the basic version (like the technology tree in Civilization); lastly, the casino layout is divided into three portions (the hotel, middle and restaurant) and points are awarded for certain layouts of rooms.

In our game, Kozure had the winning casino. His lead was padded by an event card which gave him an enormous amount of points for restaurants, but even without it he had enough to win. Shemp was aggressive in trying to connect the hotel portion of his casino to the restaurant, and Luch was the king of slots. JayWowzer and I had very similar casinos, but I made a critical error midway through the game and purchased a "premium" room I couldn't place since I didn't have the require "basic" room. I spent too long trying to get that back on the board and missed out on the income I would have earned if I had been able to place it. Ooops.

Vegas Showdown walks a fine line. It's heavy enough to require a certain amount of forward planning, money management and tactics, but the random events can swing the result in fairly significant ways. Despite my poor showing (tied for last), I enjoyed the game and would look forward to playing it again soon. Oh yeah, I just wanted to mention that the player mats are made of the same flimsy paper Avalon Hill used for the RoboRally mats. It's really too bad, because it really cheapens the overall appearance of the game.


A new Kramer title, which I'd never even heard of, was the second game of the evening. The setting is a small island where a variety of creatures attempt to become the dominant species. Each player plays a specific creature, from crocodile to eagle to human. The island is divided into several types of terrain, and each creature has different levels of ability in each terrain (for example, humans can migrate and expand into plains, but get no actions in deserts). Over the course of the game, players will have several opportunities to improve the lot of their creature type: expand territory, increase their abilties, aquire special powers, etc.

When regions are completely filled with creatures they are scored according to majorities, but every 3rd such scoring a "general scoring" occurs where quite a few other factors are taken into account (such as largest continuous chain of creatures, most advanced creatures, creatures with the most food, etc). As you may have already surmised, this game has more than a passing resemblance to another of Kramer's games: El Grande. However, where El Grande has chaos, Wildlife has bite. In this game, it's perfectly common for another player to come eat your creatures, to steal your card, etc.There is a level of direct competition here which is quite uncommon in german games. The expansion of territory, the conflict and the advancements opportunities for creature skills lend a "civilization" type feel to the game.

I played the humans. I started out in two corners of the board, not really knowing how to play the game. I was quickly threatened by Kozure's mammoths in both my starting areas. This, combined with a hand of cards completely devoid of the types I needed, forced me to play a game of opportunism rather than strategy. I was in last place while Luch's bears, Shemp's crocodiles and, particularly, JayWowzer's eagles were taking commanding leads. Lucky for me, I stumbled into a way to bring me back into contention: I was focussing on securing presences in a variety of territories (a common and generally successful strategy in area control games) while aggressively growing continuous chains of control. When the first "general" scoring occurred, we came to realize that chains were enormous sources of points (the largest chain is worth 10 points, whereas a monopoly in a region is only worth 5). In my case, I had two chains which netted me 1st AND a tie for 2nd longest chain (15 points, I beleive). I was suddenly back in the ballgame. As the game progressed, Shemp and Luch were locked in continuous back and forth struggles in the water, forest and desert zones, hurting both their chances. JayWowzer looked untouchable with a large lead and no obvious weakness on the board. In the end, my continuing success with chains and 2nd or 3rd place points in a variety of regions vaulted me towards the lead! As the final points were tallied, JayWowzer and I ended in a tie...
and so it came to pass that humans and eagles became the dominant species on earth.

Wildlife, like Vegas Showdown before it, turned out to be quite a bit heavier than expected. There are SO MANY options to consider on your turn that analysis paralysis can easily occur. Luckily, downtime is minimized through a clever auction mechanic which forces every player to auction one of their actions every turn (giving each player the opportunity to get actions on other player's turns!). In the end, Wildlife is a meaty game which seems like a cross between Civilization and El Grande... not a bad thing at all. for whatever reason, it didn't stand out for me though. Like Knizia's Tower of Babel, which also blends a number of disparate mechanics into one game, Wildlife is missing the "hook" which somehow distinguishes it from the pack and makes the whole thing click as more than the sum of it's parts (though I think I liked Wildlife more than Tower of Babel, but then again ToB is a much shorter game).


  1. It may just be novelty at the moment, but downtime aside, I feel that Wildlife is one of the better games out there for me - with two or three more plays, I'll have a better sense. In fact, I'll go so far as to place it (at the moment) in my top three.

    High praise? Yup. Here's why:

    I decided to go back and check my "perfect game" criteria and discovered that this game covers every single point (with one possible exception).

    It's playable in two hours (our game took longer, but there was a long rules introduction and the usual first game downtime. It scales well with two and with five players (other reviews on the BGG say even numbers are best, and I can see how four or six would be better for balance purposes, but it was still a good game) downtime is helped by the auction, and you don't have ALL that many actions in a turn. You build up your herds and must defend them - you feel like you've accomplished something in the end. Conflict galore in the direct competition aspect of the game. It's not too random - the hand size of ten cards permits a fair deal of control over what you do and in what order. Social interaction is assisted by the auctions and the usual friendly trash-talk about beating the opponent's herds. Easy to track your position on the board relative to others; ten-card hand size is manageable (one minor issue - the adaptations are very hard to see at a glance across the table - as another player has pointed out at BGG). Screw your neighbour - definitely! Down but not out - hard to tell on this category and the next (leader rewards) because I suppose it would be possible for an individual player to have a run of bad luck with cards AND be picked on by opponents, reducing his herds to nothing and locking him out of the winning. An interesting idea that comes to me right now is what if the designer had introduced some upkeep cost for larger herds? Not present in the game right now, of course, but something to think about.

    Victory conditions are easy to track with the success track. Theme/feel is note-perfect (in my opinion), and it seems very, very replayable.

    Downtime, as Easy mentions, is a little problematic but nowhere near as bad as the analysis paralysis present in Tikal (or even El Grande, with some players) or the extended tactical battles in Titan. It's also possible to get mismatched species with a random distribution of species cards (certain creatures are obvious opponents to one another) and odd-number player games can potentially suffer from odd-man-out mechanical problems. I have no idea how you'd dig yourself out of a hole if you fell behind somehow - perhaps a lot of aggression and attack adaptations?

    In any case, this game, with Power Grid and Puerto Rico, is currently holding in my top three of favourite Euro-style games. We'll see if future play holds up to the same degree of interest for me.

    I also liked Vegas Showdown a lot - more on that tomorrow.

  2. Vegas Showdown - Princes of Florence light? Yeah, pretty much - with a difference.

    As Easy points out, it's a lot like Princes of Florence with the event cards throwing in some American game style chaos.

    Fortunately, it doesn't feel like it's a lesser game as a result. You don't feel as "pressured" to get everything perfectly right the first time out - there is wiggle room with the renovation and publicity options.

    The variable end-game makes it more tense as you get closer to the bottom of the premium tiles, there is less of the "gamey"-feeling scramble for points that you often get with a lot of Eurogames where you definitely know that the game is about to end.

    It's different and not quite as polished as Princes of Florence, but it's still quite fun.