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.


  1. How often, and how awful, is it for you folks to go overtime?

  2. Not sure if this is a real/serious comment or not, but in case it is:

    We normally finish at 11pm, but on occasion it goes long. This week we went until 11: 45 or so.

    I am normally the most affected since I drive a certain distance to go home, but it doesn't really bother me at all.