Friday, October 16, 2009

Déja Vu (Steam, Pandemic: On the Brink, Excape)

Shemp thought enough of last week's games that he picked them again this week.

(That, and I suspect he was feeling too lazy to think about choosing different ones)


Our second game of Steam was played on the German map, which is designed for 4-5 players. As it's designed for more players than the USA/Canada one, we expected it to be more wide open, and for the most part it was. That said, when the game was completed every single town and city had been built to. I wouldn't have predicted that (in fact, I predicted quite the opposite because I pointed to a particular town, Seiglen, in the bottom right corner and asked why anyone would ever build there!).

The four of us kind of picked an area to start with. Kozure was North-East, Luch North-West and Shemp and I started in the middle at Düsseldorf(though with the intention of developing in different directions). Right off the bat I got into trouble because Shemp was able to steal the cubes out from under me, and I got no deliveries on the first round. Luckily, with my newly upgraded train and a good corridor of deliveries setup in the south-west I was able to make up ground over the next few rounds. While Luch was building in the south-east and Shemp was developping the middle of the board, I noticed that Kozure had set up a very lucrative east-west delivery network (Arnhem/ Dortmund)and was making lots of points shipping lots of goods. Since the blue city had already been urbanized, it was difficult to stop him (and being way down in the south I couldn't do much to steal cubes). I concentrated on making sure I`d have as many six link deliveries as possible and did pretty well at that, but it wasn't *quite* enough. On our last turn, Kozure built track to one of my northermost cities and scooped up my last 6 point delivery, making the situation even more difficult. Although I came in a close second in the VP race, Kozure had better income AND more links, so with those VPs he won decisively.

Now that we`ve played a second time, I think I've come to understand what makes Railroad Tycoon an easier game for casual gamers (I was definitely wondering though. It's much longer to play and somewhat longer to explain due to the cards and barons... not qualities I would expect in a "casual gamer" targetted game). The first reason is obvious: The income mechanic is less forgiving. In RRT, every step forward increases your income by a few thousand, but every share only reduces that by $1000. In Steam, it's 1:1 so getting out of debt and staying there takes a bit of effort (though already in our second game it seemed much easier to do it). The second, less obvious reason is that the the mechanics and financials in RRT encourage players to stay at low engine levels much longer than Steam. Visualizing deliveries in RRT is a simple affair of looking for cubes and nearby cities of the same colour, with only maybe half or a third of the game spent delivering 3/4 links and up. Also, since the vast majority of cubes used in the game are present from the start, the number of them to consider becomes smaller by this stage and therefore easier to visualize anyway. In Steam, the need to start planning for long deliveries happens early. I was making three link deliveries on my 2nd round this game! Further, more goods will wind up on the board from the goods track than from the initial seeding, so this planning process needs to consider what's available on the goods track as well (and grabbing those goods needs to be done early if a particular set is important to you, or else someone else might take them). The amount of forward planning is certainly less than Age of Steam, but more than RRT, and definitely leads to a more "thinky" game.

Not sure how the others feel on this one. What do you say, guys?

I think that ultimately Steam is better suited to my tastes, and I certainly appreciate the smaller footprint and shorter playtime. However, there are things I liked about RRT that are missing: I like the effects of some of the cards, particularly hotels. This type of card succeeds in altering the texture of a map from game to game in a way that isn't replicated in Steam. Similarly, the major lines add a second set of goals to the game that I enjoyed, as long as they were laid out at the start of the game (this is why I wasn't crazy about the service bounty cards, as they often seemed to just give bonus points to however happened to be closest). In theory, I also like the hidden roles aspect of RRT, but in practice the ones supplied in the game were oddly imbalanced and unsatisfying. Finally, I liked the fact that income started decreasing over time, somewhat keeping the leader in check (Steam has a rule that could have a similar impact in the advanced game, where the level of your engine is deducted from your income every round, but we haven't played with that yet).

Since Kozure also has RRT, I'll be able to play it once in a while even if I trade away my copy. If that does come to pass, I think I'll be keeping the Europe map so we can play that on occasion, because it really was a lot of fun.

Pandemic: On the Brink

For our second crack at the Pandemic expansion, Shemp decided he wanted to try the "Mutation Challenge". This one introduces a 5th disease, purple, but otherwise plays very much like the original. Purple is easier to cure, and doesn't seem to spread very rapidly, but the number of cubes is very low so if it starts to spread players can easily lose because the supply runs out.

In this game, Luch was the Operations Expert, Kozure was the Medic, Shemp was the Archivist and I was the Field Operative. The purple disease didn't show up until late into the game, and then mostly just sat there so it didn't appear to be very threatening. Then, suddenly a chain of events caused it to explode all over china and we were suddenly very close to losing. We got it under control, cured it and three of the other diseases, and then struggled to find a way to cure the last one before the deck ran out. We were *1* action short of winning, but ended up losing (I had the 3 samples and the 3 cards I needed, and I was at the research lab, but didn't have an action left to perform the cure.

Doesn't get any closer than that.

All in all, I think I preferred the virulent strain expansion, but this was certainly fun as well.


We played a couple of games of Excape. We laughed a lot. A lot. More than in Steam, even(?). At one point, Luch kicked Kozure off the 2 step of the track and I saw his eyes roll back further than I`d ever seen them go before. It was classic. This is a great game to end a night of thinky games with. Although it looked like I might win the first game, Luch came back from behind for the win. In the second game, it was Luch all the way on a series of lucky double threes.

Kozure and Shemp mentioned that they felt the "doubles" rules dissatisfying (pawns move forward the number shown on the dice if they are doubles). I like it, because it both moves the game along and allows a player to come back from behind. Their complaint had more to do with the fact that it can also puch the leader to a distant win, which is true. I suggested that a simple fix would be to dissallow the first place player to benefit from the rule, for the second place player to only be able to move on double 1s, the second place player to move on double 1s or 2s, and the third place player to get 1s,2s and 3s.

Even simpler, the rule could simply not apply to the leader.

I`ve only played this with 4, but as much as I like it I don't think it would work well with 6. With four players, the balance between taking a risk on a number and having it sometimes make it's way back to you seems pretty much spot on. With more, I would imagine the odds of having your dice get back to you are pretty remote, and the game might therefore take quite long.

Also, Kozure mentioned that he preferred Can't Stop. I like Can't Stop, but it's a longer game, with more downtime between turns. There is certainly more depth there, but I didn't have as much fun so I think I have to give the nod to Excape.

Edit: I forgot to add a (semi) interesting tidbit: Not only were the games the same as last week, but the results are also quite similar. Kozure won Steam (last week was a draw between him and Shemp), we lost Pandemic and Luch won Excape (well, last week Kozure won once/ Luch won once, and this week Luch won twice). Ok, maybe not so interesting after all.

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