Friday, April 24, 2009

The Lighter Side of Rice Famines (Shogun)

I don't have a lot of time for a long post. We played Shogun, which we've played before a few times. Unfortunately Bharmer, the owner of the game, was a little delayed even for our delayed start time, so we didn't get underway until about quarter to 9. Since we had a late start, we opted for the "canned" (pre-set) start positions, chosing who was player A, B, C and D randomly.

The game was generally closer than most of our earlier runs, with the scoring round at the end of the first year resulting in everyone within about two points of each other.

I managed some lucky last-minute conquests in the second year, spreading myself dangerously thin, and the dice-tower gods smiled upon me, causing revolts in two heavily garrisoned provinces which were easily quelled and only one in a undermanned area (losing me the province). Unfortunately for Shemp, two of three revolts caused a province turnover and one of Luch's revolts cost him a castle. I finished with a fair (but not unsurmountable) lead over Bharmer, who was in second place and Luch and Shemp were not far behind.

A good game, with the usual strange results from the dice tower (one turn I attacked twice at fairly substantial odds in my favour and lost in both cases; doing the math, I had at least 6 cubes hung up in the tower). It does seem strange to be able to (potentially) time your attacks based on cubes you can see sitting in the dice tower tray. As an odds-smoothing mechanic, it is quite ingenious.

A good game, usually welcome at the table, but not one that I would typically pick. Something about the artwork bugs me at times, for some reason. I was happy in that this was one of the few times I recall winning, though. Looking back through our session histories, it's been won by a variety of people, so it is not necessarily, as we had suspected in the usual after-game kibbitzing, a game that Agent Easy usually wins.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Conan would be proud (Age of Conan)


Kozure recently acquired The Age of Conan. He challenged the puny lot of us to play him. Meekly, we submitted to his will.

Let's get this out of the way: The rules for Conan take a hell of a lot of time to describe. We came in expecting to be able to switch on our Conan brain, and at first I was pretty concerned that this was actually a really fiddly brain burner. We've learned a large number of games in the years since we've started WAGS, and despite that I was surprised at how many there were and how complicated the game seemed (this is not meant as a slight to Kozure regarding his rules explanation... there is a lot of ground to cover). Luckily, in actual play it doesn't feel nearly as complicated and the theme of conquering territory in the land of Conan comes through just fine.

This is one of those games were there is a map, separated into regions, and each player has a number of units that they must use to conquer as much territory as possible. There are, of course, subsystems that attempt to give this game it's own particular flavour. in fact, there are a lot of them.

The first, and thematically most important, of these is the Conan figure. Over the course of the game, he will embark on 12 adventures over 3 ages. In each adventure, a card is turned up which identifies the region Conan is trying to reach. Players will bid to control Conan's movement, which is predictably important as it provides opportunities to share in the spoils of his adventures (treasure, women and defeated monsters) and, you know, if Conan happens to stroll through a region you plan on battling in while you control him... well, it's pretty good. Despite all this, the Conan figure is primarily an elaborate timer mechanism that is interwoven into the game but doesn't define it. In keeping with the it's name, players are playing a game that takes place during the age of Conan... not playing Conan himself. Although he has an important influence on the game he isn't the main focus... most of the game is about expanding your kingdom into new regions through conquest and political intrigue.

Actions are selected by rolling a central pool of 7 dice. Each dice has an action depicted on it, and on a player's turn they must select one die and perform that action. There is a therefore a random and shrinking set of actions to choose from. Once all the dice have been selected, the seven dice are re-rolled and form a fresh new pool. Choices range from military actions, to intrigue actions, to drawing cards and controlling Conan.

To conquer an empty region using military might a player must succeed in a series of battles, each one potentially on different terrain (the terrain is only important in as much as various cards and abilities can improve the player`s chances if they match). It's possible to force march and attempt more than one of the battles on a single turn, but it costs additional units. If the campaign is a success, the player scores VP and places a fort in his/ her colour on the region. Conquering a region that is occupied by enemy units is the same, except that a series of battles to eliminate the enemy units must be completed before moving on to the series of terrain based battles (and the attacker receives a Crom token for defeating the player's forces)

To conquer a region using intrigue, the player needs only make a single successful roll, but the odds are not calculated using military units. Instead, emmisary units are deployed and having them in proximity of the regions improves the player's chances. Unfortunately, no VPs are gained through Intrigue... instead a tower is placed and gold is awarded.

For every era, a number of Goal cards are layed out (similar to Railway Tycoon) which gives players VP bonuses for achieving certain criteria such as having the most towers in a specific region.

I feel this is already going long, so I won't get into every other detail, but there are also Kingdom specific decks of cards that players get throughout the game, sorcery tokens that can be used to re-roll dice, etc.

Every fourth adventure Conan completes ends an era. between eras, players gain gold, buy units and upgrade forts into cities (useful to satisfy goal cards).

At the end of the game (once Conan finishes his 12th adventure), bonus points are awarded according to criteria such as "most Crom tokens", "most gold", "most spoils tokens in a given category", etc. The most VPs win. There IS another way the game can end: If, in the third age, the player who controls Conan manages to bring him to his starting region he/she can attempt to crown Conan. This is done by declaring a category of Conan's spoils that he/she feels confident they have more of than any other player. If they are correct, the game ends immediately and only that player can gain bonus points for having the most spoils in any category. Although this doesn't translate into a huge amount of points, it could mean the difference in a close game.

Session report

I started in the central West region. Kozure to the south and Luch to the East. North was out of play.

I bid to control Conan, jus to see what would happen. With the cards I was drawing, I was able to win the auction for Conan on most rounds throughout the game. Given that controlling Conan is the best source of Spoils tokens, I had quite a lot of those.

Since there was a goal card for conquering a Wild Province (which is a characteristic identified on the board), I proceeded to attempt that on my first turn. It worked, though it was pricey as I chose to lose a few units and force march to get it done in one round. This continued round after round, as I focused on expanding through military conquest, typically force marching as I went to get it done quickly. I set up a single Intrigue takeover, and was succesful. Meanwhile, Luch appeared to be struggling to succeed at any of his takeovers, despite most of them being Intrigue based. Kozure was working his way north, and quickly was within a stone's throw of the regions I had conquered. Bloodshed was inevitable.

On two occasions, I took on Kozure's forces and was successful in eliminating him and then setting up my own fort. I have to admit that I always seemed to have powerful cards at my disposal (cards that allowed me to save a unit that should be eliminated, others that allowed me to force march without sacrificing a unit, etc).

In addition to this, my earlier success at conquering the Wild province and setting up a few forts and towers meant that I was scooping up nearly all the Goal card bonuses.

As a final nail in the coffin for Kozure and Luch, I managed to crown Conan and have majorities in two categories of spoils, gold and Crom tokens.

It was crushing victory which Conan would have been proud of. +/- 40 to +/- 10 each for Kozure and Luch.


Age of Conan is a good game. In the category of conquest strategy games, it is certainly a complicated one, but that would be measured in terms of amount of rules not in fiddliness of play (players of StarCraft, or other similar Fantasy Flight conquest games will feel right at home). During the game, things move smoothly and logically. With the exception of battles, the game moves quickly as well (a surprise, given everything going on). Battles are potentially boring for those players not involved, but they don't happen all the time so it's not too big a deal. It is a slightly long game, but the pacing is good throughout (again, with the exception of some of the longer battles). For a Fantasy Flight game, this is often a concern for me.

The game heavily favours the bold, with an important caveat. The odds of attacking successfully are simply better than defending (whether we are speaking of a region's innate defense or attacking ennemy units). That's not a bad thing, but if you don't like to play this way you will lose. Some might see that as limiting strategic options, others might feel it suits the theme of the game just fine (I agree with the latter in this case). The caveat is that since taking an empty region also involves attacking, the most effective route to victory is to be "bold" and attack empty regions. The bonus for attacking other players (the Crom tokens) aren't worth enough to balance the fact that if two players kept attacking each other, a third player would easily win by going off on his own. Definitely pick your battles against other players.

I have a sense that the luck of the draw is a little overly important. Not in the combat, where you'd expect, because of the many subsystems which allow for planning ahead and mitigating the luck of the die... rather in the Goals that come up (which often favour earlier successes as much as future ones to undertake) and the Strategy cards that are used for bidding and combat (having the right card makes a substantial difference in your probabilities for success in combat, and having a 6 card for bidding on Conan is substantially better than a 2). The last place where this seemed to be an issue was the spoils tokens. A value 3 token is 3x more valuable than a 1, and your choice of token is often dictated by the seating position relative to when Conan happens to complete an adventure. There is opportunity to control this by bidding aggressively for Conan, but if you didn't get the right Strategy cards to bid with...

My runaway victory seems to point to a potential snowballing effect problem. We discussed it after the game, and it seems like other than the effect of infrastructure on Goal cards and income, it's not too bad. Since Kozure's previous plays did not exhibit this problem, I will chalk it up as an unusual occurrence rather than a problem with the fundamental game mechanics.

I look forward to playing again. This is a conquest game that blends some chaos with strategy, warfare and a great theme. It's not perfect, but it's definitely good so far.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought. (Galaxy Trucker, Cosmic Encounter)

I've recently purchased Galaxy Trucker and it's expansion, but I kind of did it despite my better instincts.

I have found two of Vlaada (Vladimír) Chvátil's latest games quite fascinating... Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert. Anyone who reads this blog knows that as much as I enjoy Space Alert, it fell quite flat amongst the rest of the group. Galaxy Trucker has a similar gimmicky vibe to it, and it doesn't have a whole lot of interaction, but I couldn't resist giving it a shot because to me it sounded... fun.

Galaxy Trucker

In Galaxy Trucker, each player must build a space ship out of a common pile of parts (laser cannons, boosters, crew cabins, shields, etc) onto a predetermined ship layout and fly it across the universe in a race to the finish (with extra money to be made if cargo can be delivered at the same time).

The way it works is that there is, literally, a pile of tiles face down on the table. One player yells "Go!" and everyone takes tiles, one at a time, and decides if they want to add it to their ship board. Once a player is happy with their ship, a timer is turned which limits the time left for the other players to finish building. Since everyone is drawing from the same pile, there is incentive to act fast to find the wanted pieces...

Because of the puzzle-like nature of getting all the connections right, and aggravated by the time pressure, the ships that are created are... less than ideal. Connectors stick out, gaps can be found, whole sections of the ship are held by one tiny connecting point. When the ship takes off to fly the dangerous expanse of space, bad things can happen. A deck of event cards is made up for for the trip, and every player must face the challenges one at a time. Space pirates, meteor showers and epidemics on board can have devastating effects on the cobbled together ships. On the bright side, players often have the opportunity to stop and pick up cargo they can sell later on, should they make it to the end.

It's silly, but fun.

In our first flight, my ship was actually fairly well constructed. Shemp made a placement error and had to lose a section of his ship. In the end, it didn't matter much because the flight consisted of open space and cargo pick-ups... I made a fair amount of money and was doing well. In our second flight, I once again had a pretty decent ship. I had a ton of cargo holds, and luckily our flight was again mostly uneventful. I took home a hoard of cash.

By now, Kozure, Luch and Shemp must have been thinking the game was not what I had made it out to be. In in over 20 event cards, we had a single meteor shower. The rest were all beneficial cards.

Ah, but then there was round three. I built out my ship completely, and it had a very good balance of guns, boosters and cargo holds. I was feeling confident that I could turn my lead into a win. Unfortunately, our flight was significantly rougher this time... and I had a lot of sections of my ship dependent on a single connection point. On the first card, I lost 1/4 of my ship to a space pirate attack. The second card was a meteor shower that took out another quarter. Then my shield went. Then everything went. About half way through, I retired from the race with my decimated ship left without a human crew to fly it.

Shemp made it nearly to the end, but ultimately blew up as well. Luch and Kozure made it to the end, and Luch was loaded with goods. When the score was counted, it he had 20x the score of last place Shemp (60+ to 3)!!!

Despite a number of surfae similarities (designer, art, gimmicky design, etc) Galaxy Trucker turned out to be well received by the group. We laughed a lot, and it proved entertaining and challenging. Even the event card phase, where up 16 cards need to be resolved in turn, occurs quickly enough AND has *just* enough decision making to keep things engaging. I'm very happy this experiment was a success.

Cosmic Encounter

This was our second evening playing Cosmic Encounter, though it was the first game for Luch. I was the Vaccuum, Shemp was the Pacifist, Kozure was the (I can't remember the name, but they retrieve used artifacts) and Luch was the Clone.

We played to 5 colonies this time, and the game played exactly in an hour, which was perfect.

There was a couple of memorable moments, such as the negotiations between Luch and Shemp that would have ended the game in a shared victory that were cancelled through Kozure's emotion control (which was, itself, sapped and counter-zapped). A second fun moment occured when I switched Luch and Shemp's races permanently.

The Vaccuum's power of sucking a number of other player's ships into the warp every time I lost some of mine proved to be quite powerful. The sucking noises I made everytime I exercised this power on other players proved to be quite satisfying.

I spent the last few rounds of the game trying to land a shared victory with ANYONE because my hand sucked so bad I knew I couldn't win otherwise. It almost worked with Kozure, but it came down to a tie that went to the defender, Shemp. Kozure spent much of the later rounds with only one ship on each of his colonies, which seems to be a situation that is hard to get out of.

In the end, Shemp managed to claw his way back from a 3 point deficit and get the win!

Again, I had a lot of fun. I like the feel of the game. Negotiation, backstabbing, chaos and fun. Not to be taken too seriously, but there is still lots of room to manipulate the outcome.

Friday, April 03, 2009

I want Money. That's what I want. (Chinatown, Chicago Express, Pit)

Bharmer made an appearance this week, so it was back to a fivesome(?)

Despite providing Luch with a number of suggestions for games grouped by theme, he stuck to the oldest trick in the book: Let's play something new.

Chinatown, Chicago Express and Pit are all games I purchased recently and were still unplayed, and those are the ones he picked. I was happy to oblige.


I've mentioned a few times that I still have a soft spot for Monopoly. I don't really want to play it, but I miss the negotiations. Sadly, I haven't really played a euro that really excelled as a negotiation game, despite trying several (Traders of Genoa, Quo Vadis?, Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, Intrige, Mall of Horror, Cosmic Encounter, etc). Many of those are really good games, but there always seems to be something in the system that prevents a wide range of negotiating techniques from being affective (There are too few bargaining elements in them to construct more than a handful of different types of trades. Of the lot, ToG comes closest: between cash, goods, cards and action chips there is some richness in what can be proposed. It's hard to pin down the reason, but the tightness of the economy forces most transactions to be short term and low value). I had high hoped that Chinatown would be the pure negotiation game I was looking for.

The game couldn't be simpler. The map depicts a few streets of New York's chinatown district. Each building is identified with a number. Each round, players get a number of cards indicating which buildings they own, and draw a number of tiles representing various stereotypical businesses which can set up shop. The player COULD choose to place those tiles onto the buildings he's been dealt, but far more money can be made by putting a number of identical business tiles adjacent to each other. So before placing, a round of free for all negotiations occurs where players attempt to secure adjacent buildings and multiple tiles in a few businesses. The process is repeated over six rounds. It's worth noting that items do not all have to be placed each round, so they can be carried forward to later rounds in the hopes of finding a better deal.

Chinatown actually comes very close to being my ideal trading game. Deals can be constructed around money, locations or businesses. They can be between two players, or they can involve a number of them. The nature of the deal can be concrete or speculative (i.e. it's possible to trade for future consideration). In short, it's very flexible and there's lots of possibilities. There were downsides, however.

The first, somewhat minor point is the lack of structure around the actual negotiations. Although in many ways it's a strength, with five players throwing offers across the table at once it became a little... noisy. If three people wanted Bharmer's tiles, three people found themselves trying to get his attention at once. In a way, I occasionally wished that offers could only be made by or towards a active player (but of course that would lengthen the game significantly).

The bigger problem is that the value of a trade can often be calculated perfectly. Particularly towards the end of the game, you know exactly how much money any particular transaction will yield. In Monopoly, players are forced to speculate on the value of a trade, based on the probabilities of players landing on their properties. Although purists might disagree, I feel that negotiations are more interesting when you don't really know how much income a trade will ultimately provide.

Although I'd be perfectly happy to play Chinatown again using the existing rules, I can't help but to try to come up with a variant that would introduce this aspect. My first idea was to introduce a probability mechanism such as Settlers of Catan, where two dice I rolled and that the some shops would pay out more often than others (probably several would pay out for every range of number, to reduce the large swings of luck). My second proposal, which I ultimately think would work better, is to take a cue from El Grande and introduce a roving element which impacts the value of the shops: the chinese dragon parade. It moves from one space to another adjacent space around the board randomly (or, similar to Santiago's canal, the path is determined through bidding/ negotiation/ blind auction). The value of a shop is determined according to it's proximity to the parade on a sliding scale (-$10 000 per intersection between business and parade, for example)

A number of variants have been proposed at BGG. One is to make it a condition that a business be street facing for it to make income, which would differentiate the value of some of the buildings and potentially add a further dimension to the trading. My fear with this one is that it would increase the effect of the luck of the draw, giving a substantial advantage to players that get street facing tiles. The other variant is a deck of cards that randomly assigns bonuses to certain businesses every round (this variant was included in the original Alea release). This type of bonus doesn't really appeal to me, because it's 100% random, giving advantages to players for dumb luck. I much prefer when a player can play the odds, or attempt to manipulate the outcome.

During our first game, I was very lucky to manage a 6 tile restaurant by the second round (I drew 4 of the six tiles, and only had to negotiate for two business tiles and a few restaurant tiles). It should have won me the game, but never underestimate the ability of Agent Easy to undermine his own position...

Actually, I did ok. Properties seemed to be valued above business tiles overall. Shemp and I were frequent trading partners. Bharmer seemed to often have the tiles and cards other people wanted. Kozure seemed shut out of much of the trading... not sure if that was a result of poor luck of the draw or lack of enthusiasm (or predilection) for the game. In the end, Shemp came out on top with over $1 000 000. I came in a close second, though.

A very good game, and another sign that Alea is the company to beat when it comes to excellence in contributions to quality german games. Glad to have added it to the collection.

Chicago Express

From one game with a reputation for packing a lot of game in roughly 1 hour to another. Chicago Express is a recent game put out by Queen (in the STUPID HUGE BOX FULL OF AIR that Thebes also uses). It's very interesting because it reduces the complex 18XX railroad games into a short, simple experience.

There are four railway companies at the start of the game, and each has a different number of shares for sale (3-6, I believe) and a different number of track markers. On a player's turn, they must decide if they are going to auction a share of a company or develop a company they have stock in (either by extending the track or developing an existing section to a higher level). So, there are really two things going on:

1) Players are buying shares of a company, giving that company money to develop itself. In exchange for giving the company capital, it pays dividends at certain intervals. Logically, the more shares are sold, the more the company payout gets divided.

2) Extending the reach of the company forces it to spend the money invested through the sale of shares. The value of the companies increase as they serves more and more regions, and as those regions develop. This increases the dividends the company can sell to it's shareholders.

So, you want to buy into the companies that are doing well, but buying into it means that all the shares are devalued. You want to develop a company, but the increase in value is shared by a number of other players. When I read the rules, the strategy seemed rather impenetrable despite the simple ruleset. Luckily, in actual play it was a little bit clearer.

Upon first inspection, it seems to be about taking a stake in a few companies and investing in them equally (giving little bits of improvement to other players, but more to yourself) and putting up shares for auction as much to dilute the shares as anything else. ClearClaw at BGG writes extensively about this game, and although I haven't read it all it's clear that he feels this way of looking at things is the newbie way... that the game becomes much more about subtle strategic positioning, partnerships and posturing as experience is gained. Whatever, time will tell (I don't really even *get* the reference to posturing).

In our game, none of the companies made it anywhere near Chicago, so the Wabash did not enter play. I'd say we were mainly focused on purchasing shares in companies that seemed valuable and developing them to make them more valuable. At one point, I took out a share in a company even though it was to my disadvantage because I wanted it to have cash to develop tracks. My plan was to cut off the red line to the north that 3 other players had invested in. It didn't work, because since there were three players interested in the line, it grew too quickly for me to be able to contain it. Oh well. Luckily, I was doing quite well with the yellow line as the sole owner. On one of my turns, I put up a share for auction and Luch pointed out that I was ending the game... it snuck up on me to the point that I had no idea that we were so close! I decided to stick to my plan and the game ended. I thought my chances were decent considering the yellow cash cow I had going. Sadly, I was forced to accept second place again, because baron Kozure had the most cash at the end.

It was an interesting game. I am not sure how I feel about it, because it's so short that it's difficult to say whether my mixed feelings stem more from misunderstanding what to expect from the game or what. For now, I'll say that I enjoyed it but that there seems to be a layer of understanding missing between me and loving the game.


I'm not going to discuss this one at length. Suffice it to say that it's an old classic (that is still new to us) meant to recreate the feeling of a stock market trader. Each player is trying to gather together all cards from one suit (corn, barley, etc) by yelling trade offers such as "I've got two! Two! Any takers for two??!!", while other do the same. Cards get exchanged frantically until someone completes their set and rings the bell kindly provided in the deluxe edition. Each hand lasts about 5 minutes, but players are meant to play to a set number of points.

This is the card game equivalent to Jungle Speed. From me, that's high praise. There is no depth here, but the process is lots of fun.

Kozure started off strong with a few wins. I was dealt 10 card hands in the first few rounds (due to the way the card numbers split up) and missed a number of times when I had the nine cards I needed but didn't realize I didn't need to make the 10th card match. Meanwhile, Luch was sinking like a rock. As the time was 11:15, we figured we would call it a night after one last hand. It was mentioned by Kozure that Luch could technically win if he won using the Bull and a 9 card set. That's what he did. I guess you're never truly out in Pit.