Sunday, December 24, 2006

Enjoying Ameritrash (Robo-Rally, Railroad Tycoon)

If last week was about excellent eurogames, this week we played some of our favorite "Ameritrash" (I actually dislike this term, but whatever)

We started with Robo-Rally. As usual, I chose a "short" course... "Chess" I think it was called. The board layout features a large double conveyor belt which surrounds an alternating grid of single spaced empty squares and single conveyor belts. 2 flags.

With 5 players, I didn't expect things to be too crowded (it is a course designed for 5-8 players). I feared interaction would be minimal. That didn't happen.

Right out of the gate, Shemp committed the mistake I normally make, he mistook his robot for a different one. Poor Twonky flew right off the edge of the board.... My path went smoothly, with one exception: By the end of the first turn I had been shot so many times my first register was locked! Trying desperately to get out of the line of fire didn't help. By the end of the second round I had four registers locked. I was on the double conveyor belt, and for the rest of the game I circled the other players, unable to get off (Having only a single register left open meant I was only being dealt one card, and it was a "turn left" card ON EVERY ROUND until the end of the game). Oh well, I find this game fun even as a spectator so there you go.

There was some good competition for the first flag. I beleive that Brian, Luch and Kozure all achieved it within a few phases of each other. Shemp wasn't too far behind. In the race for the second flag it looked like bharmer had it in the bag until a bad card draw left him spinning his wheels for a turn. Luch stepped in and bumped him off course... inadvertedly correcting bharmer's path and leading him to victory...

Well, such is life in Robo-rally.

Railroad tycoon came next. I decided to try a variant I had come up with which I felt might address a few of the minor complaints I have with the game... namely that the player to the left of the auction winner is often at a large advantage and that cards don't refresh with enough frequency. The variant is pretty simple: Players bid for turn order, not just first place (Over the course of the game, we settled on a method stolen from "For Sale!". Bid goes from player to player according to the previous round's turn order. Bid starts at $1000, and the first player to drop out goes last, second player goes 2nd last, etc. Half of your current bid goes to the bank, rounded up, when you withdraw). Also, a number of cards equal to the number of players is turned up every turn.

It took a bit of getting used to, but I think the turn order modification is a winner. It didn't make an enormous impact in the game, but I definitely felt that players were earning their advantages a bit better. One nice thing I hadn't anticipated: Since bid order is determined by last round's turn order, the player who went first is less likely to be able to lead again (since he/she bids first, the value of the bid will always be higher than the other players). It turned out to be a nice balancing mechanism.

The change in rate for revealing action cards also worked reasonably well, but it wasn't perfect. Having that many cards turn up every round certainly kept the game interesting by injecting good reasons to compete for turn order into the mix, but it also led to every card getting turned up before the end of the game. On one hand, this means that players can reliably count on all the major lines eventually coming out and plan accordingly, but on the other hand it begs the questions: "if all the major lines are going to be revealed anyway, why not just start with them all revealed"? and "Is the game better when everyone knows all the major lines will be revealed"?

In the end, I think I'd like to try the next game with a different rule for the cards: Split out all the major lines and reveal a number equal to the number of players. With the remaing cards, reveal a number of cards equal to the number of players minus 1. I think this would do a better job of keeping each game fresh (by alternating the available major routes), but keeping the auctions interesting throughout the game.

In this session, I had the tycoon card for building a western link. I decided to focus on a section of the east coast to start off and build a bit of income before heading west. Kozure and I wound up trying to carve our own little section of that area, but we coexisted reasonably well. Bharmer was further south, Luch went central and Shemp was all about Chicago.

Early on, things were looking good for me. I grabbed the hotels for New York and Chicago, and both were proving to be quite lucrative for me. Shemp, in particular, couldn't help but give me points on most turns. Unfortunately for me, all routes out of chicago were snapped up by Shemp and Kozure, leaving me with the unfortunate prospect of giving one of them points every turn when I built the western link. I did eventually head out there, and since I was raking in the cash it wasn't onerous to build the tracks and the western link to give me a lucrative 4 link run for Kansas City to Chicago via Kozure's link. OF course, since Shemp had tied up most of Chicago and had a very good network out of there, he actually profited more than I did from the western link... but I hoped that my lead was big enough to give me the win (and increasing my lead over 3 players seemed worth it, even if Shemp might catch up a little). That's when Kozure steady progression west paid off: he picked up a major line (washington - Chicago?) worth 10 points and a second (New York - Kansas + western Link) for 20. The lead I had evaporated. I should still have been within striking distance, though. Sadly, my delivery network went dry and I couldn't catch up! Very well played on his part!

A very fun evening. There is some chance we'll be playing next week, but in case we don't I wanted to wish anyone reading this a happy holiday and new year!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Gettin' better all the time (Taj Mahal, Maharaja)

What an excellent evening of gaming...

We started out with our second play of Taj Mahal. This type of game really benefits from a second game soon after the original learning game. In the first, I was pretty much lost on the strategy, in this game something clicked.

When I play strategy heavy games, I have a tendency to want to find an "angle". In other words, I try to identify the various paths to victory, pick one that doesn't seem too obvious, and see if I can stick to it. In games where I don't feel I can even competently assess the various strategies, I often will try something just to see how the game system reacts. One thing I've learned about Eurogames is that a winning strategy is often simply doing what the other players aren't... This week it worked for me (though it often doesn't!)

Last week, I couldn't get any synergy going with the goods or the palaces connecting. Worse, I couldn't get the cards to work for me. I figured I'd see what would happen if I sat back for a few rounds and just collect cards (there is a bonus card for any player who withdraws without playing anything). After 3 regions were scored, I found myself with an enormous hand of cards and two strong suits. With a more complete hand, I was able to identify the goals I was able to meet and then make them happen. After that, I was able to snowball my points by overpowering the others to win the regions which matched the goods I had while laying back and drawing cards when they didn't. I'm not sure what would happen if everyone tried this technique in the same game, but when only one player does it he/she seems to have a definite advantage. At least for this game, it worked for me and I won.

I was also able to notice some of the subtler strategies in the game now that things have had a bit of time to sink in:

1) If both you and another player have a noble chit (the princess, for example), and both of you are aiming to get the second one, let the other player get it first. In particular, don't get into a bidding war over it. Whoever gets it first is actually at a disadvantage because the second player can easily get their second chit the next round and steal it away, but the first player will have to take a number of rounds to get the two nobles again.
2) Focus on building one or two suits. This is probably obvious to pros of the game, but in our first session I was much more focused on picking cards with the symbols I wanted and it often left me unable to go the distance when I actually wanted something.
3) The princess is a good source of points, and placing palaces which connect can also help, but nothing can touch goods for scoring huge points.
4) Tying players in the symbols they are playing is important, If you're going for the elephant and have a choice of the second character it is tempting to play whatever one hasn't been played yet. However, the opposite might be more beneficial! The other player is forced to waste further cards or pull out with nothing. It prevents an easy win for the other player and can throw a wrench in their strategy without affecting yours. Last week, I saw Kozure wind up with 2-3 prizes on several occasions by tying just long enough for us to pull out and he'd keep the rest. He also creamed us that game.

It's only been two games but so far I'm really enjoying this one.

The second and final game for the evening was Maharaja. I haven't been overjoyed with this one in our first several games but I'm happy to say that this was by far the best game I've had. What changed? We put up a fight, for once.

Bharmer has a 100% win rate on this game, and we've played +/- 5 times (always 5 players)! He seemed to understand the layers of the game better than we did, and he would use that to his advantage every game (the most interesting thing being that he always seemed a step ahead of us, pushing a different mechanic every time just as we tried to replicate what he did in the LAST game unsuccessfully). How can one player in a five player game routinely score first in almost every region? We were all clearly spinning our wheels.Compound this with the fact that it's such an unforgiving game that a few mistakes early on can ruin your chances and the winner can be perfectly obvious several rounds before the end (in fact, the game can send players in a downwards spiral as lack of success translates to fewer funds which translates to further lack of success). It all added up to games which left me disappointed since the tension is lost when you know it's hopeless 40 minutes into a 2 hour game.

Right off the bat, things were pretty different in this game. Players were placing far fewer houses on the roads, and building in regions other than the one being scored. Competition for regions was much tighter. Role swapping and governor track alterations were being done with more effectiveness than before. Fewer people were choosing actions they couldn't do (*cough* building without houses available *cough*). With five more or less evenly matched players, the game suddenly sprang to life for me.

Ok. My first move was terrible. I sacrificed 1st place in the first region, getting only 4th in the process, and handed an advantage to Shemp (I altered the governor track, benefiting only him). After that, I wasn't doing too bad. Several turns in a row, I was sitting on nearly enough money to build 2 palaces, but I never quite managed to make it happen. Shemp, Kozure and Bharmer each had regions were they dominated and were trying to steer the governor track to their advantage. Unfortunately for Luch, he had a series of bad turns in the beginning which left him struggling until the end. This was the first game to make it to the 10th round, and just about all of us had the potential to win. In an ironic twist, the last region to be scored was inaccessible to us due to lack of built houses leading to it. I stood to gain since I was last in the turn order... but I was short on cash. I needed someone to pave the way for me and then I needed 2 extra gold to come my way (a player error or someone crossing my houses). Neither happened, so when bharmer did build a path to the region as the second last player, I wasn't able to capitalize on it. Bharmer won again, but it was close. I'd be willing to bet that he won't win the next one.

Anyway, it's been a while since we've played two heavier games in a single night, and it's been a while since I've been so engaged in all the games we've played. We went into overtime, but it was worth it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Under the influence (Taj Mahal, Battlestar Galactica CCG)

Bharmer purchased the reprint of Taj Mahal recently, and Kozure picked up the Battlestar Galactica CCG. Obviously, we had to play them.

I personally played Taj Mahal a few times through the computer interface a few times prior to last night, but I didn't really understand the game. Having now played it using the proper rules, I have to say I'm very impressed.

The theme in Taj Mahal is extremely thin. It involves aquiring influence with different nobles in India, but has very little measurable impact on the game. The game reolves around a series of contests were players try to win the favour of the nobles, aquire goods and build palaces. Bottom line, this is a race to aquire points and there are many available paths to do so. Perhaps a more useful description would be to say that this game is what happens when Knizia mixes the board play of Web of Power with a reversed version of poker and adds a dash of Ra-type scoring.

It's a classic, and there's probably very little left to say about the game. I need to play it a few more times but on first inspection this could turn out to be one of my favorites.

1) This is a meaty strategy game. There seems to be a lot of potentials paths to victory (connecting palaces, focusing on goods, keeping the yellow noble, etc).
2) There is enough randomness to keep things interesting, but a player will rarely be at the mercy of bad luck.
3) There is very little downtime since individual decisions tend to be fairly small.

The biggest knock I can level against the game is that the myriad scoring options can make the game difficult to learn. Our first game made it obvious that if players focus too much on their own goals, they can make it easy for another player to walk off with lots of easy points (i.e. player 1 plays a card with a red and yellow noble. The other players fight over the elephants, handing player 1 easy majorities). Experience will likely solve this, but it's possible that it's too detrimental to bother and that this will turn out to be a real flaw.

I found the card management to be surprisingly difficult. Ultimately, the two biggest decisions you have to make every round is which suit to lead in and what two cards to take at the end of the round. Going for province tiles tends to be about stamina, since there seems to be so many elephants that getting out quick with a lead is very rare. I guess the trick is to try to accumulate long suits if this is your goal. The nobles are tricky because they don't seem to be equally worthwhile. Obviously leading with a dual noble card increases your chances of ducking out with a quick noble/ palace (and a good shot at picking up a bonus chit), but if you get matched you need to have enough in reserve to avoid getting absolutely nothing. This game seems to severely punish going for a goal (noble/ elephant/ etc) and failing, since all cards are spent regardless and replenishing your hand is hard to do. The palaces and road connecting doesn't seem to provide enough points to carry a player to victory, so I have to assume this is meant to supplement a lead rather than create it.

Kozure mopped the floor with us. He managed to both keep the yellow noble through much of the game AND win several fo the province tiles. Clearly, we weren't on our toes. Bharmer was not doing too badly, but Shemp, Luch and I were pretty far behind. It's a brain burner, but it's quite elegant and fast moving once you figure it out. I'm really looking forward to playing this again.

We finished the evening with a four player game of the Battlestar Galactica CCG. I'm a fan of the series, but I didn't even know about this game!

As far as CCGs go, it's quite good. Many of the common pitfalls are avoided: Each card plays multiple roles, so there is very little "resource clumping"... the frustration caused when a required resouce cards don't show up or show up too frequently (mana in Magic CCG is the prototypical example of this)magic CCG). They are also used as combat randomizers and to represent the threat of Cylon raiders.

Players go through the typical steps of accumulating resources, building up a team and duking it out. The last phase in each round involves fighting cylons as a group, which is kind of interesting. One mechanic, which involves placing cards ina staging area before they can be deployed doesn't really add up to much more than "tapping" and "untapping" (which we accidentally did several times instead)... but there is no doubt it better suits the theme.

As i said, it was pretty good. I still think I prefer Vampire, but CCGs have an inherent complexity level which I find I have less patience for than i used to (having to read, understand and consider the impact of each card and then having to keep track of the myriad cards played by other players on the table). Obviously, the only reason Vampire gets a pass on that one is because I played that one enough to know most of the cards by heart... not because it does any better on that count. also like Vampire, it seems to have the potential to run a bit longer than it should. What puts Vampire over the top for me is the multiplayer aspect... there are mechanics in Vampire (the predator/ prey relationship and the political system in particular) which give structure to the dynamics of the game and prevent free for all ganging up on the leader.

It was a pretty close game. Luch almost had an early win as his Zarek card gave him tons of points in a few rounds. Unfortunately for him, he was 1 point short of victory and was subsequently torn to shreds by the rest of us. Shemp, kozure and I hovered around the same level until we artifically declared a particular round the "last" round. Luch ended up playing kingmaker since he had one last ship to attack with and the opportunity to attack any of us with it... deciding the winner in the process (Shemp).