Friday, January 27, 2012

Two weeks, three games (In the Shadow of the Emperor, Die Burgen Von Burgund, Power Grid: First Sparks)

Two weeks ago, we pulled out a game that has languished on the shelves for far too long: In the shadow of the Emperor. Before this, it had been 3.5 years since we last played it!

Obviously, a substantial refresher was in order (and Bearbomb had never played). Luckily, once it gets going it's not too difficult. This is a great example of how well themed an otherwise abstract and dry game can be.

Shemp started as emperor, but after a failed coup by Kozure, I succeeded in taking over the throne. A mid-game alliance with Bearbomb allowed me to survive the next coup and after that I managed to fortify my position considerably and hold on through an all out assault by all players to take me down. Being emperor for several turns does not guarantee victory, but it sure makes it easier. There is so much to manage in this game... How to get majorities in order to be elected, but not necessarily keeping them since points are gained by being newly elected somewhere, not staying elected? How to manage and position your nobles as they age, marry and have children? It's quite a good game, and a very interesting and tight design.

It's a shame it only plays well with 4, or it might come out more often.

This week, we played 2 new (to us) games: Die Burgen Von Burgund (The Castles of Burgundy)and Power Grid: First Sparks.

I have been eyeing DBvB for quite some time now. Stephan Feld, the designer of the game, is one of my favorites right now. He consistently puts out games that are mechanically solid and fun (though they typically suffer from being thematically weak).

Well, first off, I think Feld heard to complaints about the weak theming of his previous games and set out to disprove them. Unfortunately, he did so by designing a game SO WEAK thematically, that the previous ones would shine in comparison. Luckily, the game itself is quite good.

Ostensibly, the theme is establishing the estate around your castle. In practice, it's about rolling dice and using the values rolled to either select from an available pool of tiles, place tiles on your player mat, or ship goods. There is a huge variety of tiles, each color coded according to function, and each imparting a specific benefit to the player once placed in the estate. At first, I was very worried that with so much to take in the game would be a chore to play, but as it turns out it makes logical sense and we were able to internalize most of it pretty quickly.

In addition to the selecting and placing of tiles, players are trying to generate victory points by filling colored regions on the board, and trying to do so before other players. The game then becomes a puzzle, trying to maximize combos of tile powers in order to generate the most VPs.

Players are engaged throughout as turns go very quickly. The game itself is longish, though. Our first game took 1.5 - 2hrs for three players, including rules explanation.

I was ahead for much of the early game, then Shemp jumped to the lead, and then we traded first place for most of the second half of the game. Kozure was not far behind, but trailed. Unfortunately for me, once the end game bonus points were tallied, I placed last and Shemp and Kozure tied for first, 2 points ahead of me! (Kozure won the tie breaker, fewest empty spaces).

When I think about it, the bonuses for completing regions make up a large chunk of the points but in some ways they are misleading. If every player completes the same number of regions in the same rounds, and by the end of the game roughly fill in the same number of regions, the points total will Bethesda same (regardless of who scores which regions, when). That may sound self evident, but more than most games i suspect that this is LIKELY to happen. The difference is going to be a few points here and there, generated by shipping and building combos allowing that extra region to be completed. Of course, the yellow "end game bonus" tiles might also swing things, and generate some long term strategy opportunities we haven't taken advantage of yet, so there's that.

Anyway, I very much liked it and Shemp and Kozure seemed positive as well. Feld strikes again.

Last, we played Power Grid: First Sparks. This is a game that, according to the designer, is being released to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Funkenshlag (the original version of what is now known as Power Grid). Power Grid is a game I enjoy, but it's kind of overlong and extremely mathy. The stated goal of this redesign was to make it shorter and less mathy... How could I not give it a try?!!

In many ways, this is still very much Power Grid despite the re-theming to the stone age. There is still a power plant market, with an available market and a futures market, but now they are called tools and feature such seminal inventions as the basket and the spear. Their purpose is not to generate money but rather food, but in gameplay terms they are analogous. Over time, the baskets get bigger, and the spears pointier, and they allow players to gather food more effectively. To spice things up, "knowledge" cards are intermixed with the tools, giving the player that selects it an advantage in the game (such as fire, speech, etc). Many of the tools are tied to a specific food source, such as bear, fish or mammoth, so it is necessary to make sure that at least one of the player's clansmen are adjacent to the related source of food. The tools are auctioned in a weird, but much faster than regular Power Grid, reverse auction.

And that takes us to the board. This is the biggest change, in my opinion. Instead of having a preset map with various cities and costs to build between them, the board is made up of modular tiles. Spaces that are adjacent to each other can be built to, and the cost only calculated based on the total number of clansmen the player wants to play that turn + the number of clansmen already on the spaces to be occupied. This simplifies the math dramatically. There are no phases to the game limiting how many clansmen can be in which space at which time, it's strictly a function of expansion becoming more expensive as the board gets more crowded. Still, the blocking tactics found in Power Grid are still available here... It can definitely be a good move to build up against someone in an effort to make expansion for them more expensive.

I liked it. The wonderful animeeples, the humorous art on the tools and the addition of "knowledge cards" make the thematic shift work. It's much more accessible and plays in approximately an hour, which is huge. I found the gameplay quite good and still satisfying despite many othe simplifications. My only misgiving is that the modular board seemed less interesting that the various Power Grid maps... I'm hoping it won't get stale because of this. Also, I don't feel like the board positions mattered as much as they should (they did, as far as blocking, but long term positioning seemed somewhat irrelevant).

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