Sunday, January 07, 2007

Twice as nice (Santiago, Mission: Red Planet)

Two games played this week, each of which I had played once before (though the rest of the group hadn't yet played Mission: Red Planet).

Tili, Shemp, Bharmer, Luch and I played Mission: Red Planet first. The rules were easily explained, and the game began. When I played this on new year's eve, I enjoyed it but predicted it would get better on subsequent playing and I'm happy to say that this is the case.

In my first playing, my concerns about the game were that I felt that there was too many roles, that it was annoying to relate the destinations of the ships to the regions of Mars and, ultimately, the chaos was a little over the top. Surprisingly, in my second playing most of these resolved themselves.

Despite the fact that I still feel 9 roles is an awkward number, I was surprised at how quickly I internalized them all this game. I normally knew which role I wanted ahead of time, so the multitude of options didn't really slow me down. I suppose that it still would have been better, from a game design standpoint, to include the full 11 roles (to allow a player to try to go the distance without resorting to the prospector) or drop the number to 5-6 (to simplify the choices)... but it doesn't bother me much already.

The destinations on the ships were very frustrating in my first game. Getting a handle on what I was trying to do involved too many steps for what was supposed to be a fun, fast game (correlate the destinations of the ships available to the regions of mars they are going to/ see how many astronauts are already in those regions, and how many are on their way/ decide on the destinations you are interested in/ see if those ships are full or if they risk filling up before you get to to play / figure out which role to play based on how quickly you need to get them on the ships and which power you want to use). Again, despite the fact that the process doesn't really get any simpler on subsequent play I was surprised at how much easier it all was this game. I think the key is that the regions names started becoming familiar, so I didn't have to do as much cross referencing for every step. Combined with my newfound familiarity with the roles, things were becoming far more manageable!

Finally, with my increased comfort level with the mechanics the chaos seemed to drop dramatically. On one hand, no one is going to confuse this with Princes of Florence... there is definitely a healthy dose of randomness and chaos in the game. On the other, I honestly felt like I was in control of my destiny for most of the game. In other words, I had a plan and I was able to pursue it, though other players were also able to do their best to mess with it.

My initial mission card was to have the most total astronauts in the central regions of the planet. With that goal in mind, I was disappointed that none of the initial crop of ships led to any of them! I played the travel agent in the hopes of getting my numbers up on the planet (I could always move them around later with the explorer). Alas! 3 players chose the secret agent and launched ships prematurely, leaving me with no options to place astronauts. Only one round in, and I had already been outplayed. On my second round, there still were no ships to the center so I went with the scientists in the hopes of getting a second bonus card. Instead, I picked a discovery card, but it was a good one: at the end game, the region with the card produces 5 goods instead of 3. I placed the card in Sirtis Major, a region I could get to that round and loaded the ship.

Over the course of the game, I fought over majorities in just 3 regions (two in the center and Sirtis Major). Every round, even if I couldn't do EXACTLY what I wanted (no ships going where I needed them, etc) I felt there was always something useful to do and some way to reach my long term objectives... a sharp contrast to my first game. In the end, I succesfully met the criteria in my bonus card by beating Tili in the center, kept control of Sirtis Major from Luch and managed a win by a large margin (not surprising considering how much of an advantage I was drawing from having experience with the system). I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I am impressed at how much the game system seemed improved for me over the first play. I'll have to choose this one again soon in order to allow others the same advantage. I am also looking forward to further plays because a few possible future strategies crossed my mind that I'd like to try!

Our second and last game was Santiago (Kozure joined us and Tili bowed out). This game of crop speculating was well received last time and it held up well. Things were looking up for me in the beginning, as I had successfully planted and dominated a large red pepper crop. Unfortunately, I took a gamble at one point and placed my 1 free irrigation marker at the edge of the field hoping to encourage anyone who would choose red pepper in next round to place there. NO red peppers were turned up, and so all the players closed off my field with different crop types. Meanwhile, Bharmer established an even larger green bean field, Luch had a potato thing going, Shemp was banana master and Kozure had interests spread out everywhere. Bharmer's combination of giant bean field and smaller crops elswhere gave him the game.

Although could be boiled down to a rather dry, mathematical game, I quite like it. I enjoy the simplicity of the system, I like how the auction relates to the tile placement and the overseer role going to the lowest bidder adds a nice twist to keep things interesting. It has many of the hallmarks of a good german game (short playing time, simple rules, clever mechanics, abstract, auction+tile laying, small board+wooden bits). For this reason, I would think this is a good choice as a follow up to Carcassonne or Settlers of Catan for anyone wanting to introduce themselves or others to German gaming.

My only complaints about the game are that a player can get paralysed considering tile choice and placement since everything is open information, and it can slow things a little (I'm guilty of this). I do like the fundamentals of the mathematics, though. If I add a tile to a crop, I'm giving other players a point for every token they have in the field, while I gain 1 or 2 times the size of the field. It's a good thing that the order of future crops is unknown and that the overseer is ultimately in control of the flow of water, as this forces players to speculate on the future and take chances. I suppose it's probably possible to accurately analyse the worth of every move in the last few rounds, which could also make the game drag, but thankfully our group didn't really play that way.

Ultimately, this is a very fun game. Thanks to Shemp for buying it!

1 comment:

  1. I am terrible at Santiago. One of these days I will come close to placing not last... one of these days.