Thursday, September 11, 2008

On Winning (Glory to Rome, Agricola, Race for the Galaxy)

One thing that this blog doesn't really focus on is who wins and "winning strategies". I think that is largely due to the fact that we're a pretty laid-back group and it's not really the main intent of our play - that is, although we do our best and definitely are competitive, we're not aggressively (or ridiculously) so. I've read a lot of horror stories on BGG and even witnessed a few games playing with other people or groups where it was obvious that winning was the main goal of a particular player. I've seen people storm away from a gaming table; I've seen Paris Hilton-level pouts and sulks and seriously obnoxious rules-lawyers, know-it-alls and "gotta-wins".

Generally speaking, and in fact with probably 97% of boardgamers, they're nice, well-balanced people. That percentage may be a little lower with RPGers (not to knock RPGers, since I am one, but the weirdness factor definitely is a little higher in that social circle).

I do want to comment on what a pleasure it is to play with this gaming group. It's one of the highlights of my week and I always look forward to it, as much as a day or two beforehand. Agent Easy, Bharmer, our occasional visitor Jaywowzer, Ouch, and Shemp are all pleasant opponents and good friends.

That said, (and at the risk of sounding obnoxious) it does feel awfully good to win all three games in an game night. I guess the victory is somewhat sweeter knowing that you're up against decent opponents and often coming in a close second in some tight games the previous three evenings I've attended.

The first game of the evening was Glory to Rome, one of the triumvirate of similar card-based resource optimization games started by San Juan and continued by Race for the Galaxy. I like the theme and general mechanics of this game, but I still have trouble with the powers of some of the building cards, which occasionally seem unbalanced/overpowered or somewhat... I don't know the best word... arbitrary?

The Catacombs - for example. A card which ends the game at the whim of the builder? Or the Forum, which wins the game regardless of influence if you have one of each clientèle (not a difficult situation, with some combos - like the one which lets you perform a patron action for each influence on completion of the building). Another, whose name I've forgotten, lets you perform an action twice for each of your clientèle if you lead or follow an action. The Ludus Magna (allows client Merchants to act as any other occupation) in combination with a few Merchant clients can also be a killer combination. Similarly, the Temple, although difficult to build, can give an amazing advantage to a player (nine card hand!).

The game seems more interesting than San Juan, but simultaneously less balanced, so I'm not sure if one is better than the other as a game design. Given the choice, I'd still pick Glory to Rome, but San Juan is probably a "tighter" design. Glory to Rome also lacks one outstanding characteristic of its two brethren games, brevity.

Since I had missed out on vaulting materials in previous plays, I made sure I did so about mid-way through the game, instead of scrambling at the end. I also built a temple early on as my first building, which helped immensely when I did the thinker action. The combo of decent buildings with a lot of marble and brick in the vault put me well in the lead. It also helped that Jaywowzer was struggling a little with the rules, so his usually savvy play wasn't interfering with my nefarious plans.

Agricola is also a somewhat overlong game in which the deal of certain cards (occupations and minor improvements) singly or in combination can give a player a secret and fairly distinct advantage. This is a different criticism than the imbalance of individual cards which are available to everyone as in Glory to Rome. Inasmuch as that is true, you can still lose with poor play even with the best of card combinations. I think (though I must have at least ten or more plays of the basic game to be sure) that the best way to play this game would be to have a common pool of available occupations and minor improvements dealt at the beginning, with players using coloured markers to indicate which have been purchased. This way, each player has the same opportunity to use and benefit from the same occupations and minor improvements, and the replay value is retained through the cycling of cards (the family game, though interesting and good as a learning tool, does seem like it would become repetitive after a dozen plays).

I pursued my usual strategy of a balanced approach with a slight focus on planting/sowing. This time I did manage to get more animals earlier in the game, which helped with feeding my family and with end-game scoring. Once again, however, I lost out on a fifth family member and a five room house. I also have yet to upgrade to a stone house in this game. I had actually been trying for a build strategy this time around, since I had the master builder card in my hand, but it didn't pan out.

A nice combo appeared for me in the form of the berry picker, mushroom picker, and reed gatherer occupations plus the basket minor improvements. They are relatively short term gain occupations, but can make the difference between begging and not begging when grabbing a lot of wood.

I think a lot of what helped me to victory is managing a third family member early on. The number of extra actions helped me a lot.

As happy as I was with my play, I still only managed a very narrow victory over Agent Easy with 38 points. Easy was super-close with 37, as was Jaywowzer with 34 and Ouch managed one of his higher scores in the game, 24. Ouch did get some nice card combos initially (master baker, potato dibber, grocer(?) and something else) but didn't quite translate them into a higher score, unfortunately.

Race for the Galaxy continues to be one of my more enjoyed light euros. It's quick, competitive and well-themed. One drawback is that it is a less interactive game than Glory to Rome (while still being more interactive than San Juan) which does lend a sense of not really having to pay much attention to the gameplay of others. That's a dangerous habit to fall into, though, because failure to notice strategies, especially produce/consume timing, can make or break a winning bid.

I drew New Sparta, but had a dearth of hostile worlds, so I had to pursue a mixed economy strategy initially. Early play of the Interstellar Bank bankrolled a lot of later purchases and once I did start getting military power in combination with the usual New Galactic Order (I think that's the one, the one with VPs for military power), I was feeling good about my chances. Jaywowzer ended the game a little earlier than I expected, though, with the play of his twelfth tableau card. Ouch and I tied for VPs with 28 apiece, but I squeaked the win with one more card in hand and one more resource in my tableau. Jaywowzer was in the 24-26 range (I've forgotten) and I believe that Easy was in the 20-24 range.

So, I won Race for the Galaxy, but narrowly. Hat Trick... woo hoo! USA! USA! USA!

I'll be quiet now.


  1. Re: WAGS

    Yeah, it's a good group. Really happy we can still make this work. Now, we need to supplement with a semi-regular wargame night. What do you think?

    Re: Glory to Rome

    I really enjoy this game. In fact, fun-wise I probably prefer it to Race for the Galaxy. Obviously, there is far more elegance to the design of Race, but for whatever reason I find GtR more compelling. I enjoy the level of interaction in GtR, which is an integral part of the game but isn't overwhelming. You have to watch for the legionnaire, you have to keep an eye on what is in the pool, and you have to be wary of the building effects that can impact your tableau. Despite that, you can build a strategy and follow it through. Also, the building powers of certain cards are certainly powerful, but there are a LOT of powerful cards, and even more powerful combinations. If so many cards are overpowered, and you listed quite a few, then aren't they all balanced in a weird sort of way? I actually like that our games have been very different each time because as powerful combos come up, you take your game in different directions to capitalize on crazy abilities you acquired (remember that game where Luch built a building which allowed him to use the power of incomplete buildings, and then built a virtual city of partially completed structures?)

    In this week's session, I was one card away from completing the catacombs and winning, but then on your turn you placed two building materials in the vault (netting a minimum of 8 points, since no one else had goods in their vault). I couldn't end it, or I would lose. True, I gathered 14 clients in one fell swoop, but I didn't have the cards to capitalize on them and fell further and further behind in VPs.

    I thought I had it in the bag, and then watched it slip away...

    Good game.

    re: Agricola

    I didn't have any good combos, and I needed wood for all but two improvements I was dealt (and then only managed to score wood twice in the game). In other words, I was largely playing the family game anyway. I followed the strategy I almost always do: go for a big stone house with lots of people. It's worth 23 points to have 5 people in a 5 room stone house, and that's a good chunk of change.

    I also find myself always raising animals, and struggling to get corn and vegetables going. I actually thought I would give it a go when I played the occupation which gives me a vegetable at the fishing pond way before vegetables were available. Of course, we all know that Luch followed up with +/- 5 vegetable and corn related improvements that made my lowly play irrelevant.

    Re: Race

    I never had a chance. As much as I like this game, I am NOT good at it.

  2. I must say, I'll have to try Glory to Rome. Of both San Juan and Race, I like them both and find them great to pull out depending on the group I'm with (San Juan for simpler/easier teaching, Race for deeper strategists or people I've played with/will play with more often).

    Agricola I'm surprised you said it is overly long. Admitedly, I've only had 2 player games with it, but it felt fast. If anything, it made me want to replay it straight away. Ditto on the occupation side, I can see how it'd be unbalanced, but I'd need to play more to see how it plays out.

  3. If you play it with five, it starts to run to just over two hours (with reasonably fast players - apparently it averages 30 minutes per player in a game).

    The two player game can definitely be played in an hour (after about six plays with my wife so far, we usually finish in just under an hour), which is definitely not a long time.

    It does become a little long with four or five, I feel, but not onerously so. It's not my biggest quibble with the game.