Saturday, August 15, 2009

There is sizzle, but is there steak? (Caylus, Dominion: Intrigue)

I have a confession to make: I had never played Caylus until this week. A further confession... the same goes for Dominion.

Neither game interested me much, despite the massive hype around them. Caylus seemed like more of the same, but longer and with particularly ugly art. Dominion just sounded like too little game with too much shuffling.

I didn't think I'd be able to make it this week, but luckily things worked out. Even more luckily, both these games I hadn't managed to play yet got to the table and I was able to determine first hand whether my initial reactions were correct.


Where to start with this game? Caylus is a monster eurogame, similar in weight to Die Macher or Le Havre (not quite, but close). Reading the rules gives the impression that the game is unplayable, but playing the game is not nearly as hard. In a nutshell, there is a castle and town under construction. Players use their worker pawns to build parts of the castle or new buildings for the town. If a player builds a building, that new building can be used as an action later on (to get goods, build a special building, get a gold piece, etc). The advantage of building is that a victory point will be awarded every time another player uses whatever you've built. If a player builds a part of the castle, it is possible that he/ she will be granted royal favours (VP, money, goods or discounted construction actions), if various criteria are met. Whoever gets the most VP wins.

There is a lot more to the game than this brief synopsis talks about. There is a bailiff that moves up and down the road, which can limit which buildings can be used, there is a provost which times the end of the game, there are a couple of mechanisms surrounding the order that players choose to withdraw from the round, buildings can be converted and upgraded, etc, etc. Most of the mechanics are intertwined with the other mechanics.

The result is a euro which has a distinctly "kitchen sink" feel. There seems to be a little bit of everything in here, and it will surely take a few games before it's even possible to know if it all works. It's a long game at 2.5 hours for 4 players, and there is the appearance of tons of options at every turn. Something didn't feel right, though. Many subsystems seem underused. The royal favours track seems uneven, and some buildings appear significantly more useful than others, etc. One space, the bridge, had us all scratching our heads regarding why anyone would ever choose it! A BGG search afterwards revealed a large number of posts on the topic, and the conclusion seems to be that under certain specific circumstances it can be useful... but not many. A couple of things that seemed odd:

- Why would anyone pull out before they run out of money 90% of the time? The disadvantage of acting fewer times seems like a big sacrifice for a single coin. And potentially preventing another player from acting because the action cost has gone up seems equally undone by the fact that you also cannot act anymore.

- The favours seem underpowered. Money is useful, but building buildings is a much more lucrative source of VPs than going for the VP track. At the final level of the various tracks, you achieve benefits in line with many basic building actions... so why go through the trouble of collecting 3 different goods and contributing more/ first than all the other players just for the benefit of getting something so lame? I tried it out but I couldn't see the benefit of the castle beyond the base VPs it provided.

- The whole mechanic of withdrawing and recording player order doesn't seem to have much of an impact on the game.

Bharmer mentioned that different strategies become more or less useful depending on the order the various buildings are built. If that is true, and it works, then my opinion of the design would change significantly because that kind of thing is hard to pull off.

Given it's popularity at BGG, and particularly given the rest of the group's positive reaction after a few plays, I'd like to think further play will put my doubts to rest. I did enjoy the game, because exploring this type of system is usually pretty enjoyable.

Anyway, Bharmer won the game but it was very tight. I made a couple of boneheaded moves where I would try to build buildings and then spend the resources I needed before getting to that step... wasting the turn. Still, I think I did well considering I hadn't played before. I know it doesn't sound like it from my post, but I do look forward to playing again!


Dominon is a game that supposedly scratches the CCG itch but in a boardgame format.

Every game features a set of 10 stacks of cards (each stack consisting of all identical cards). You start with a small deck consisting mainly of money cards, you draw 5 cards and decide what is the best use of your hand. Normally, this means spending that money on a new card, which is then added to your discard pile along with your entire hand (no matter how much of it you used). That new card will eventually be reshuffled into your deck, and then will eventually be found in one of your hands. The idea is to "buy" cards that give you additional actions, special moves and combos with other cards. You need VP cards to win, but generally speaking these are dead weight in your hands to you have to be careful how soon you want to start adding these to your deck. The game ends when a certain set of stacks are depleted.

It's certainly an interesting game. It's harder to pick up than I expected, though that might boil down to a particular card that I couldn't quite grasp at first. It goes VERY fast. It's fun watching your deck grow and change, and trying to look out for potential combos.

I doesn't really feel like a CCG, though. It's very peculiar that the cards you build your deck with get dealt to you in discreet sets of 5, which are then discarded together. The concept of combos in a CCG involves drawing cards and then having them come together in your hand... in Dominion the hand you draw might as well be your entire deck as far as you are concerned. Well, that's not really true because one of the main mechanics of the special cards is allowing you to draw more cards into your hand, in order to hopefully make those combos you had planned. It's not worse than a CCG, but it does feel different.

I like Dominion a fair bit. It's definitely a different experience than most of our games, so that's always a plus.

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