Friday, October 09, 2009

Hmm. Steamy. (Steam, Pandemic: On the Brink, Excape! x2)

More new games!


I've always really like Railway Tycoon. Despite this, and despite the fact that I like many heavy strategy games, I've had very little interest in Age of Steam. It's reputation as being a particularly unforgiving game and some of the discussion I've read about wonkiness in some of the rules kept me from giving it a try. That being said, Railroad Tycoon has it's own set of issues (well known by now... huge board with sections that will never get used even with 6 players, a card system that can unfairly advantage a player if the right cards come up, component colour issues, long play time, etc). When the Railways of Europe expansion came out, I was thrilled because it really fixed a lot of the things that bugged me about base RRT. I liked it a lot, but it remained a long game and the cards never really felt right.

Anyway, when I heard about Steam I was definitely interested... smaller box, shorter playtime, streamlined design... it sounded like it was the refinement in the system that I was waiting for. I've had it for a while now, but this week we finally were able to try it out.

I'm not going to list all the differences between the two games, but I will talk about a few of the more interesting ones. I will say that for a game that is ultimately very similar to RRT, Steam felt very different.

Steam's biggest difference, in my opinion, is the fact that the victory point chart is separate from the income chart. When delivering a good, the player has to decide if the want to put the points into the company (income chart) or into his pocket (VP). Whereas RRT sees players start on a slow progression to sustainability as the income levels grow, in Steam you start at "0" and can go up or down based on the shares you take out and the various items you can build/ buy. Achieving profitability is it's own goal for the first part of the game, and the decision to go to VPs is not an easy one. This is a change that I quite liked, but it gives the game a much less forgiving feeling than RRT.

The second biggest difference is that turn order is determined by selecting roles. Each role gives the selecting player a special power for the turn, such as delivering cubes first, building extra track, urbanizing a town, etc. The clever aspect is that the role you pick this turn also determines the order you will select roles in the next turn (and picking early can be very important if you need a specific action). Although I like that the system manages to accomplish more than the RRT auctions could do in a fraction of the time, in practice I was surprised at how long it took us to feel comfortable with it. The was something about remembering the turn order, and the exceptions to the turn order due to powers, that had us stumbling a lot. Also, the freedom available in RRT to do anything you want on your turn instead of hoping you are able to grab the right role tile proved frustrating at times. Time will tell whether the initial awkwardness will fade, and whether the constrained action selection will reveal itself to be an interesting strategic layer or a simply an artificial stumbling block.

The third biggest difference is the impact of a series of minor rules changes on gameplay. In RRT, City Growth and Urbanization were rarely used in our groups due to the prohibitive costs and uncertain result. Similarly, high cost kept many players from increasing their engine level to beyond 4 in a typical game. In Steam, these actions become part of the role selection mechanic and are therefore theoretically used one a turn. With the goods cubes visible from the start, and the actions much less expensive, new cities and City Growth and high level engines were the norm. The board just felt like it was transforming more than the RRT maps do.

All in all, I liked the game quite a bit. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say that I like it better than RRT, but I do like it as much as that one (and with the shorter playtime it's likely to see more play as well). I found it odd that on many turns none of the special actions appealed to me, and found myself picking solely for turn order.

In our game, I started on the east coast, while Luch was in the north-west, Shemp in the south and Kozure a bit more in the middle. I became profitable earlier than the others, but a couple of bad decisions meant that I was missing opportunities. Luch unfortunately figured out too late that his starting setup was less than ideal. Far from other cities, he started taking a hit on the income track and flirted with the "stock death spiral" but managed to get a few deliveries in and dig himself out of the hole. In the end, the game was a tie between Kozure and Shemp (Luch needed to make a delivery on his last round that would see either Kozure or Shemp get the point, and whichever got it would win). We called it a draw instead.

Pandemic: On the Brink

Finally! The expansion I'd been waiting for for so long has finally arrived! The game ships with nice petri-dishes, many new roles and special action cards and 3 new ways to play the game.

We tried the "virulent Strain" expansion game.In this one, a single colour of cube becomes "Virulent" and gains a new characteristic every time an epidemic card is drawn. It's interesting that, unlike Lord of the Rings co-op, the added challenge isn't balanced by added powers. This game is just harder than the base game. I can imagine that combining these expansions and playing on the newly introduced "legendary level" would be pretty challenging for just about anybody.

It turns out that Red was the problematic disease in our session. The added challenge made it harder to concentrate on all the other diseases and in the end, a series of yellow and black outbreaks ended the game. We worked together as well as we could, but in the end we succumbed. I liked the new roles we played with (I was a field operative that could collect "samples" of diseases and use them to make cures more easily).

I really liked this expansion. It felt like we were playing a somewhat more interesting version of the same game, with the added bonus of a lot more roles to choose them. I suspect that the mutation expansion and certainly the Bio-terrorist will make it seem more like a substantially different experience.


What do we do? Excape? Why? Who cares?!!!

I bought this filler just because of the name. There is a single funny line in an old Jack Black movie called "Orange County"... a stoned Jack Black says "we have to Excape!" (in the movie, it's funny). It's stupid reason for wanting a game, but it was cheap and it's Knizia so I took a chance.

I really like it. It's a simple push your luck game that allows players to bump each other out of contention but the balance achieved between the main scoring mechanic and the various other results keep it interesting an unpredictable throughout (pairs advance tokens immediately, Xs end your turn and make you go back, etc). We played twice and each game lasted only 10 minutes. We laughed and groaned a lot, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

It's worth mentioning that both the winners (Luch and Kozure) ended the game in the same highly unlikely scenario: The rolled a 76 (the highest roll possible) on their last turn. The only way to beat this is to also roll a 76 and then bump them. Even more unlikely: I DID roll a 76 to bump him! E V E N more unlikely, the newly bumped Kozure immediately rolls double 3s to advance for the win.

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