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).

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