Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shiny and New (In the Year of the Dragon, Race for the Galaxy)

I've been pretty good about not buying new games lately, so when I went to Waterloo on business I took advantage of the occasion to drop by one of the best game stores in Ontario... J&J Cards. I walked out with In the Year of the Dragon and Race for the Galaxy...

In the Year of the Dragon

I'm a sucker for a good strategy game, so when I heard that the Alea release was a good one I knew I'd eventually succumb to temptation.

First impressions weren't so good. There are a lot of pieces, and it takes a fair amount of sorting to set things up. Also, the whole thing is really bland looking. To top things off, the components are definitely lower quality than earlier games in the series (thinner counters, board warp). Oh well. Kozure in particular seemed put off by the presentation, and I could feel he wasn't particularly looking forward to playing it.

Luckily, the rules are short and the included player's aids are very helpful (though they have to be the tiniest ones I've ever seen... is that a 2 point font?)

So, we're in China and it's the Year of the Dragon. Each player needs to recruit the right workers in order to weather the hardships of the year ahead. Unfortunately for the players, it's going to be a brutal year.

Without getting into too much detail about the rules, each game round (one of twelve "months") consists of:
1) Choosing from a series of potential actions
2) Hiring a worker (which will make you more effective at various actions in the future)
3) Weather the calamities of the month.

A part of me was afraid that playing a game about surviving a series of disasters would be kind of... you know... depressing. Luckily, although the game is far from a cakewalk the process is engaging and fun. You see the year ahead right at the start of the game so you you try to hire the right people at the right times to succeed and prosper despite the hard times. the workers may not survive long, but whatever.

On a purely mechanical level, there's a couple of nice things going on. The choice of workers is the meat of the game, but turn order is almost as important. Wouldn't you know it, the better the worker, the less it helps you go first. It's a simple problem, but it works really well. Similarly, the way actions are split is very effective at forcing players to be flexible (which is an interesting problem when things get as tight as they do in this game). It feels like Princes of Florence with the passive aggressive tendencies of Puerto Rico.

In our first session, I tried to manage a small series of three buildings throughout the game, and tried to avoid going for cash at all costs (though I was in for a rude awakening when I discovered that the following month's event was a tribute of 4 Yuan to the emperor). I focused on getting victory points through dragons and scholars. For 99% of the game, things looked good for me. Unfortunately, the endgame bonus points for buddhas put Bharmer 2 points ahead for the win.

From the reactions at the end, I'd say it was well received. I wouldn't say it's exceptional or anything, but it was very good. Looking forward to playing again.

Race for the Galaxy
A while back, Puerto Rico was made into a card game called San Juan. I had hoped that it would bring the fun of the Puerto Rico game system while removing the fiddliness of the setup and some of the gameplay. It more or less worked. The loss of the shipping aspect of the game was a bit of a shame, but my biggest dissapointment was the loss of the player interation. In comparison to it's bigger brother, the card game was a bit muted (particularly with 4). It's a very good game, but not as much as I'd hoped for.

Then along comes another game by one of the designers of San Juan. In fact, it's more like another version of the same game. Rumour has it that it's quite a bit more complicated, but also more satisfying. Sounded good to me.

Race for the Galaxy shares much of the same rules as San Juan, but the devil is in the details. For example, roles are selected simultaneously and secretely instead of sequentially. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but it makes a big difference in gameplay because you spend a lot of time guessing and second guessing what the other players will pick (can I assume he'll pick settle so I don't have to?). This otherwise small detail made me feel much less like I was playing a multiplayer solitaire game than I often do with San Juan.

In a way, it feels like Race isn't so much adding to San Juan as stripping LESS from Puerto Rico. Shipping is back. Goods of various types are back (or, more specifically, they mean more than just picking up a different amount of cards). A few things are new, such as the concept of controlling worlds (through discovery or military conquest).

Anyway, the additional complexity is manageable and the game works well. The cards have an iconography which seems difficult at first, but I think it will likely become easy soon enough. As in San Juan, getting to know the cards is essential to really understanding the strategy, but in this case getting to know the cards and their combinations will take a while (and it's kind of fun anyway).

Bharmer built the fastest and won the game, but my New Spartan empire of military conquest and alien tech. came quite close despite having built much less. I feel like there's quite a bit to explore here... I'm looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed both games and look forward to playing them again. I have to admit that Easy is correct in that after seeing Year of the Dragon laid out, I wasn't particularly impressed by its presentation or component quality. However, this is definitely a game which is more than meets the eye and has a significant component of competition, which sets it apart from many player-mat improvement-type games.

    I almost wasn't able to recover from an early miscalculation which left me wide open to both Mongol invasions, but fortunately points from other sources compensated enough to make my (admittedly last-place) finish an honourable showing, at least.

    Space Race is another game where I disliked or am lukewarm on presentation but enjoyed the gameplay itself. I definitely like it better than San Juan, and can see how it would grow strategically with subsequent plays.

    Both winners. Well chosen, Easy.