Saturday, April 24, 2010

Play to yer strengths (Macao, Cutthroat Caverns, Roll Through the Ages)

We were three this week. I was looking forward to introducing Macao to Kozure, and decided I'd like to take Cutthroat Caverns for a spin.


This was our second play at WAGS, though I've also played a third game solo. I am very much enjoying this game, though as Shemp pointed out it really doesn't play to my strengths.

I've compared Macao to Taj Mahal, and I still believe that it's an accurate comparison in many ways, but it's in the differences that I get caught. In Taj Mahal, you are trying to manage the chaos introduced by the cards while balancing the short and long term goals of the game. Macao does much the same thing, but it is both denser (due to more simultaneous options) and more tactical (due to the impossibility of carrying cubes from one round to the next). I don't tend to do well in tactical games. I also tend to fare poorly in games where things need to be converted into other things (which is why a game like Le Havre is tough for me). Macao is very much about quickly ascertaining which of the cards that come up will create the best synergy with your plans. Since you get many cards, and there are various board elements as well, the player who can string together combos will be most successful. I'm not good at this. Not here, not in Dominion, not in Race for the Galaxy. Oh well, I still enjoy the challenge of this type of game and I am very much loving this one right now.

For a while this session I thought I had figured the game out. I was staying on top of my cards, making sure that I was activating cards fast enough to avoid getting penalties at the end. I had a card that allowed me to trade two cubes of one colour for any one other cube... which made activating 4 colour cube cards much easier. I managed to ship all three silk goods with a card that doubled the points. I was making some big purchases for VPs. I was way in the lead.

... but then Shemp started catching up. Then he was on my heels. Then he had baronesses so he leapt out in front. He won in distant first. Kozure did very well for his first game. He came in last, but not far behind me (and he would have done better if he hadn't been stuck with a number of cards on his tableau).

Cutthroat caverns

I picked up this game recently in a math trade, somewhat by accident. I thought this was along the lines of Heroquest... a kind of childish dungeon romp. Turns out, it's not that.

Cutthroat Caverns is more of a take that game than anything. There are nine monsters to defeat, and players must play cards to destroy them in order. The trick is that only the player that actually lands the killing blow gets the VPs. In other words, players are all "working together" to defeat the creature, but simultaneously trying to work it out so that they kill the baddie and get the points. Towards this end, the players get a hand of cards. Many are simple numerical values used to do damage to the creature. Others are effects that do tricky things like make other players miss, lose turns or other effects. To add further variety, there is a large deck of creatures, each with their own special powers, and only nine show up in a given game.

I don't know. As a take that game, I liked it well enough. It goes too long for what it is, but I could definitely see enjoying it if it was cut in half, which would be easy enough. It was funny trying to mess up the others, and we did laugh a fair bit. Shemp didn't seem too enthused, but I think Kozure liked it OK. I might try it again, or I might just save it for another group. We'll see.

For the record, I was winning this one too. Then Kozure stole one of my big kills and won the game. See a trend?

Roll Through the Ages

We had a few minutes left, so we played a game of Roll Through the Ages to finish. I rushed to a quick 5 techs and the others didn't see the end coming. This victory was not stolen from me.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Well, I won the dice game... (Mexica, Dominion: Intrigue x2)

Shemp took a page from Luch's playbook and has decided to select the same thing for a few picks in a row. Whereas Luch was picking Die Macher, Shemp chose Mexica and Tikal for the second time.

However, just like last time, we only actually played one of the two (Mexica, in this case).


At the end of our last session of this, Shemp remarked that there would be nothing preventing a player from placing buildings all around the board right from the starting space (before any canals were up). He decided to try this out, despite the obvious danger of getting the buildings he put out there surrounded and rendered useless. It worked fairly well. By placing buildings in every corner he ensured that he had a presence in all the regions we were creating around the board. We nicknamed the technique "carpet bombing the board". I suppose we could have spent points to put canals around them and cut him off, but there is so much you want to do in the game that it seemed too inefficient.

The board developed is a fairly screwy way. It was a mess of canals, and the land was nearly choked out well before the end of the game. I kept playing defensively, placing buildings in front of the bridges I built, etc. It meant that I ended up having to spend most turns teleporting... a rather inefficient way of playing.

Shemp built a commanding lead, and won the game in a distant first place. Kozure was in second place while me and Bharmer brought up the rear (of course, he had never played before... I had no such excuse).

Dominion/ Dominion: Intrigue

The Mexica game lasted a couple of hours, so we didn't really have time for Tikal. Shemp requested our latest go-to game for this situation... Dominion.

In our first session, we had the Saboteur, the Torturer, the Swindler and other similar types. There were no extra buys, and few extra actions. It was looking like it would be a long, drawn out affair. I latched onto buying lots of swindlers, and managed to play one just about every round in the game. This put a lot of curses into people's hands, it was burning through the stacks of cards on the table, but wasn't really getting me anywhere. I ended the game by exhausting 3 piles of cards, something that rarely happens in our group. Unfortunately, I was hoping to do it before people started buying provinces but it didn't work. When the game ended, we all scored pretty low but I was dead last with only 10 points. Bharmer won.

As an aside, we were arbitrarily rolling an 8 sided die and two 6 sided dice to determine turn order (geek enough for ya?). Going into this session, I rolled 20. This would be the pinnacle of my achievements this evening.

In the second session, things were more upbeat. There was festival, laboratory and others that provided plenty of additional actions and buys. I had an idea to combine the bridge and the workshop, allowing me to take duchies each time I made the combo. It worked pretty well, but it wasn't enough. I came in second with 32 points, while Bharmer (again) won... this time only ahead of me by 3.

So, I ended the evening winless. My biggest success was the dice game for turn order. Sigh.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Remember Alea? (Macao, 1960: The Making of the President)

Circumstances conspired to give me and Shemp another 2 player game night. I thought it would be a good opportunity to play Macao and 1960: The Making of the President.


Many eurogamers say they really like Alea games. I am one of them. Scan my top games list, and you will see quite a few of them (Ra, Taj Mahal, Princes of Florence, In the Year of the Dragon, Puerto Rico, Traders of Genoa, etc). Still, with the exception of Ra they rarely get played anymore. I can't be sure why, but I feel like the plethora of game releases has led me to search out games whose theme excite me as much as the underlying game mechanics. Alea games, though they typically provide excellent gameplay, often have very thin themes and for a couple of years this type of game wasn't really appealing to me (of course, Alea went on a pretty weak streak for a while there, which didn't help their cause). Last year they released Stephen Feld's In the Year of the Dragon, which I really liked and we've played a fair bit. Now Alea has collaborated with Stephen Feld again for Macao and I wanted to give it a try despite the particularly humdrum theme of the game.

Macao is yet another euro game about gathering resources, delivering goods and building buildings in a random distant location (in this case, a portuguese colony in China). It also jumps on a number of recent eurogame bandwagons by including dice and many, many cards with text that give various special abilities. Excited yet?

However, as I've often said it's how things come together than matters. Macao is a fantastic example of this. In playing Macao, I felt like this was a very unique and engaging game, despite how bland most of the component parts are. Oh, and challenging. Definitely challenging. Feld appears to like to add a dose of punishment to his games, if In the Year of the Dragon and Macao are any indication, and this appears to raise the stakes a little bit when playing his games.

At it's heart, Macao is a game where players must struggle to plan amidst randomness. It's hard to describe, but you have to think strategically as you act tactically.

Each round, a player rolls 6 differently coloured dice. Each player chooses two of the results and receives cubes in number and colour according to the chosen dice. The big trick is that the larger the number on the die, the longer it will take before you can actually USE the cubes. For example: if you choose the red dice showing a 4, you will get 4 red cubes in 4 turns. These cubes will be used to purchase cards and buildings later on, but cubes don't carry over from turn to turn so in order to buy something that requires a particular combination of cubes you need to plan ahead and make sure you coordinate the dice you choose so that you will receive the combination you want together on a given turn. This isn't as hard as it sounds but it does require forward planning... over several turns you know that at least one cube of every colour will be produced and it's up to you to select them if you need them. Most times, the choice is between few resources now or many resources later. Where things get, err, dicey, is when you decide you need to build or purchase something fast and really need certain combinations to come up.

What are the cubes used for? You can build buildings in the city to gain goods, you can sail your ship to deliver said goods, you can pay for cards which will give you special powers and you can jockey for turn order. Deciding which resources to go for, which cards and buildings to purchase in the coming turns, etc, is already enough to require some serious think. Planning for these costs while faced with the pressures of other players competing for the same resources and in the face of the randomness of the dice makes it feel even more challenging. Don't play this game while drinking... it can melt your brain a little bit.

While the randomness makes the forward planning difficult, it also makes it a little less of a brain burner than it might have been if everything was open and perfect forward planning was possible. You don't know how many cubes of various colours are coming, and you don't know what card powers will be available. You have to go with the flow to a certain extent. That being said, you also need to plan ahead quite a lot. If you don't put effort to filling your future turns with cube combinations that work to purchase the cards and buildings you need, it will NOT happen on it's own and you will spend the whole game accomplishing nothing.

The card powers available in the game are very interesting, and really impact the flavour of the game. Spying the cards that come up that will enhance your engine is key to winning the game (and manipulating turn order so that you are free to pick those cards before other players is therefore also very important). On the other hand, you will be frustrated if you attempt to do the reverse and play the game hoping to make specific card combinations from the start... there are too many factors that prevent this from working (only about half the cards come up in any given game, and many of those will get discarded and therefore be inaccessible to players).

On the surface, the only two ways of ultimately getting VPs are delivering goods and purchasing VPs (some VPs can be gained through purchasing cards and making lines of buildings, but these seem to be small amounts). That said, developing your engine through the various cards that come up will require players to play differently each time. I've only played once, but it seems like there would be huge variety in the way the game would play out between games.

I can't help but compare the game to Agricola in that aspect, but I would say that I found that the card effects in this game were more interesting and had a more pronounced impact on the game. Also, since the cards come out over the course of the game, they aren't as initially overwhelming either. On the whole, however, the feel of the game reminds me mostly of Taj Mahal. That too is a game that has been accused by some as being too random or tactical because of the card draws, but in actuality the player who can plan ahead and use the tools available to mitigate the randomness will win almost every time.

The game is probably best played with 2 or 3, because AP could certainly cause it to go too long with 4 players. With 2 players, I certainly liked it a lot.

We stumbled through the first half not really succeeding to do very much. I selected cards which allowed me to build twice in the city every turn and then earn gold based on the number of cities I had there. It seemed like a good combo I could profit from, but then I got distracted by other things and didn't make it happen early enough. Meanwhile, I managed to acquire all the rice and tea so in a final turn mad dash I spent nearly 10 cubes just crossing the board to make 20 points in deliveries. Shemp, for his part, was purchasing cards which allowed him free cubes and cube conversions. He managed to purchase many more cards than I could because of this advantage, and ended up winning by about 5 points.

1960: The Making of the President

This is a great example of those thematic games that have caught my attention over the years, but since it's only two players I've never had the opportunity to play until now. It's a game about the Kennedy vs Nixon election which uses a "card driven wargame" system similar to many popular wargames (We the People, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Twilight Struggle, etc).

Because it's a game about elections, it's unsurprising that they chose an area control system to represent the success of the two candidates. Cubes in each player's colour are placed in a state to represent who is leading or carrying that state. In addition to this, cubes can be placed to show who has the "media support" in each region, and cubes can be placed on the three issues to indicate who leads in each of them.

Each player has a hand of cards which are used either as action points (to move the candidate around the country placing cubes to show support, to add influence on issues, etc) or as events (historical events which have a game effect, such as displacing cubes or adding new ones). There is a special turn where normal play is suspended and a new subsystem is introduced to represent the "debates" and at the end the votes are tallied and the winner is elected.

Although I liked it well enough, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in the game. There are a few reasons for this:

1) The "area majority" mechanic felt somewhat arbitrary because the board changed so drastically between turns that it sometimes felt futile, or simply an exercise in outlasting the opponent.

2) The events on the cards were almost always more powerful than the number of action points on the card, so there was actually not much of a choice to be made when selecting them. If the event was for your side, you picked it. If it's for the other side, you used the action points. In Hannibal and Wilderness War, other card driven wargames I've played, the choices seemed more difficult... in a good way.

3) For all the uncertainty involved in gaining media support, it didn't seem to matter much.

4) The "rest" mechanic was odd. There would seem to be a tradeoff between playing high AP cards and getting little rest or vice-versa. The thing is, you have to play every card in your hand except one, so ultimately there is no tradeoff... you just get what you were dealt. Also, I kept forgetting to grab the rest cubes, which was annoying.

5) Having to read each event card to the other player in case they wanted to activate the event was a little annoying.

6) The translation of the historical events to actions in the game didn't work for me very well, which lessened the theme for me.

Anyway, it was okay but not a home run. I certainly wouldn't mind playing again. Of course, my opinion may be influenced by the fact that I won...

(truth be told, Shemp was crushing me leading into the debates. At the debates, we both realized that we had kept poor cards for the job, but he fared worse than I did. In the final two turns I managed to grab quite a few seats and won the game).

Monday, April 05, 2010

Roll 'em, pardner (Dice Town x2, Dominion x2)

It was Kozure's pick, and he was in the mood for fast, low fuss games.

Dice Town

A few weeks ago I participated in a math trade where I was looking to shift Dungeon Lords. It's a hot game right now, so I probably could have been greedy and held out for something valuable but I saw someone offering Dice Town. It sounded like a lot of fun so I went for it (I'm discovering that it's rather hard to find, so even better).

At home it's been an instant hit. My son LOVES this game. My sister, who doesn't particularly like games, likes this one. I like it, too.

Dice Town is a dice rolling game set in the old west. Players roll 5 custom dice with pictures of playing cards (9s to aces), hoping to set up combinations that will net them some goods. Everyone rolls there dice simultaneously and picks on to keep. Then they reveal what they kept, and roll the remaining four dice and keep one. This goes on until all five dice have been selected. Optionally, a player may pay 1$ per die to keep more than one die on a given roll.

Most 9s = gold nuggets
Most 10s = rob the bank
Most jacks = draw cards at the general store
Most queens = Steal cards from another player
Most kings = become the sheriff (sheriff breaks ties)
Best poker hand = Get land claims

If you got nothing on a turn, you visit "doc badluck" and receive a consolation prize (note that some of these are good enough to make intentionally visiting doc badluck a valid strategy on some occasions)

Nuggets, money, land claims and some general store cards are worth VPs. Most VPs win the game.

This game is easy to explain, plays relatively quickly, and is a lot of fun. There is a small amount of strategy, as it's important to pick your battles and spy what opportunities exist for getting lots of stuff with little effort. For example, if everyone is going for best poker hand, then a single 9, 10 and jack can land you gold, the money in the bank and a card from the general store. Similarly, if someone appears to be going for 9s (to get gold nuggets) and has more than you, pursuing 9s will likely yield nothing. Having said that, Doc Badluck can be a viable option in some cases and a player might well decide that it's beneficial to follow someone in a category they cannot win to make sure they get to visit the doctor... one of the doc's "remedies" is a gold nugget from each player, for example, if you can finish the hand with at least one ace and still win nothing.

It might have been fun if more combinations/ goals were at play, such as rewarding players for getting straights or whatever. Not a big deal, though.

We played two sessions, and although I had a strong start in the first one Kozure managed to beat us all on both occasions. Everyone enjoyed it, we'll see if it becomes a staple!


Speaking of staples, Kozure followed up Dice Town with Dominon/ Dominon:Intrigue. This was the first time I had played with both expansions mixed together, and the first time I had played with the expansion since I realized I liked the base game (I played the expansion first, and was lukewarm to it). Having played the basic system a few times now, the expansion did not seem as intimidating as it did previously. I would say that on the balance I still prefer the simplicity of the basic cards, though I could see that with repeated play the different possibilities offered by Intrigue would be appealing.

In the first game I tried to build an engine where I would have several high gold cards in my deck and then use the "adventurers" card to constantly get more of that gold into my hand. I managed to purchase a number of Provinces this way, but couldn't prevent a loss. In the second, I floundered badly as I tried to make coppersmith work for me but it didn't. I lost badly.

Did Kozure win both Dominion games, too? Good night for him...