Friday, February 29, 2008

Déja vu (In the Year of the Dragon, Race for the Galaxy, The Kaiser's Pirates)

Last week, we liked the new games so much, we wanted to play them again! (remember, we have game attention deficit disorder. This is big for us).

As an aside, this year is turning out to be very different for me for new games. 2007 was a year that brought a series of very good "niche" games into my collection. Last Night on Earth, Jungle Speed, Dungeon Twister, Nexus Ops, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, etc, are all games that I really enjoyed for what they are. They're fun, they have a place in my collection for the variety that they bring, but in the end my true love is heavier strategy games (i.e. El Grande, Taj Mahal, Princes of Florence, etc). I didn't play a single game of that type in 2007 that really did it for me. Even Blue Moon City, which is a very good strategy game by all accounts, is at most a middleweight. In contrast, we aren't even in the third month of 2008 and we've already played Perikles, In the Year of the Dragon and Race for the Galaxy... three games that I consider to be excellent gamer's games. I couldn't be happier.

Shemp joined us, so we were able to see how In the Year of the Dragon and Race for the Galaxy played with four.

In the Year of the Dragon

This is turning out to be a great game. I can't really say whether it's harder or easier with more players, but so far I'd say it's a bit of a wash. On one hand, there are fewer actions in each group so in some ways it can actually be easier to get what you want even if you aren't first in turn order. On the other hand, if you are LAST in turn order, you have a choice between paying 3 yuan or picking the single action left over by the other players. So, going from three to four has made it easier to be in 2nd place, and harder to be in 4th. With five, I bet being 3rd, 4th and 5th will be a little miserable.

Although the game doesn't change dramatically because of the order of the disasters, it changes just enough to shake things up. Sure, you can't allow yourself to fall behind on the VP engine if you hope to win so you probably can't totally ignore palaces/ courtisans and dragons but the rest will have to be considered on a game by game basis.

I noticed a similarity to Maharaja in the sense that on a given turn, there's a good chance all players are eyeing the same one or two actions (due to the order of upcoming disasters). Just like that game, the player with turn order advantage can take the easy route and prepare for the events as they come. Players who are going later on in the turn will lose if they spend the whole game chasing the leader... they have to prepare for the events in a different order or look for an alternate approach to getting VPs.

Anyway, I picked up a dragon, a courtisan and a third palace early and managed to keep turn order advantage throughout much of the game. Scores were mostly tight, but near the end the spread got a bit wider. Unlike last game, I didn't forget about the endgame points so I managed to keep the win. Bharmer fell back on the turn order track and paid a heavy price for it (he became a fireworks specialist as, turn after turn, fireworks were the single left over action he was forced to pick). Shemp did very well for his first game... he came in a rather close second if my memory serves.

Race for the Galaxy

What a nice surprise this is turning out to be. Race manages to be virtually identical to San Juan on the surface and yet be a very different game experience. With four, San Juan was a bit dry for me (because just about all the actions are chosen every round... making most rounds pretty samey). In Race, many rounds a few of the players pick the same action so phases definitely do get skipped frequently. Also, the wide variety of cards available in the base set allows even further variety between games. There's enough going on that the simple game engine it's based on becomes a fast yet meaty game that manage to avoid most of the things I typically dislike about themed card games.

I can't remember the name of my starting planet this time (epsilon?), but there was a dose of military and consumption in the opening hand. I became fixated on building a particularly cool 6 building and therefore fell behind on the cards I was playing. Kozure, on the other hand, was a machine. When he ended the game (with twelve cards played) I was still at eight.

The Kaiser's Pirates

This was a new game purchased recently by Kozure. It's a card game about pirates and the merchant ships they raided. Players look after three pirate ships and three merchants, and try to make as many points as possible by having their pirates attack and sink other player's merchants. The actual gameplay is fairly reminiscent of others we've played. It's essentially a "take that" style game, with the good and the bad which comes with the territory. A bad hand can probably screw you over, and the free for all nature of attacks could probably make it hard for a player who gets picked on to compete. The game has a couple of good ideas which try to overcome the inherent randomness of card games... the most important of which is that each card has multiple functions ensuring that there is typically at least one useful way to use each card. I thought it was cool that each ship has it's strength represented by a mix of die types (1d6, 1d8 and 1d10, for ex.), highest single roll determines the value, so you can get an idea of the odds but you'll never really know until the bones are rolled. A variety of attack types and special abilities are represented by a similar system.

We only got through a partial hand, so I can't really say too much about it. On the surface, I'd say I liked it about as much as Zero!, Airwar: Pacific or Naval War... similar war themed card games we've played in the past.

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