Monday, February 20, 2012

Simple, but unintuitive (In the Year of the Dragon, Paris Connection, Kingdom Builder x4, Die Bergun von Burgund, Innovation)

Over the past two weeks, we've had a chance to play quite a few games... sme old, and some new.

Two weeks ago, Bearbomb, Kozure, Shemp, Dale and I had a chance to play In the Year of the Dragon. I was kicking myself for forgetting to bring along the expansion(s) from the Alea Treasure Chest! Regardless, this is always a fun and challenging game. I spent the first half concentrating on maintaining the lead in the turn order track and getting my "end of round" points up (courtisan, double dragon tablet). Although I am convinced there are multiple valid strategies in the game, this is the one that appeals to me and so I tend to fall back on it. You need very little money since you don't have to worry about paying for actions, and so it saves you actions accumulating wealth. This also means that I typically struggle with the offering to the emperor, but as long as I can take a turn to get to three huan it's not too painful. Although in the last third I lost the battle for turn order I did manage to conserve the lead in points for the win. One thing that seems to be essential, though, is to pick a couple of events to essentially disregard. If you are stuck with the pack always trying to build up against the event that is coming up next you will find yourself blocked out or paying.

We also played Paris Connection. There seems to be an endless variation of train themed stock manipulation games, which range the gamut from light to very heavy. It constantly surprises me that a new one can come along and still explore a new way to approach the topic. PAris Connection is a very light and fast game, which manages top play up to 6 in 30-45 minutes. There are similarities to Wabash Cannonball/ Chicago Express, but this is the more streamlined design. On a turn, you play up to 5 trains to the board or draw 1-2 trains from the supply. As the train routes develop, they touch areas that increase the worth of that colour. The trains a player has is therefore both the number of stocks a player has in a given company and the vehicle through which they can increase the value of a line. In other words, every time you play a train you are shrinking your shares in that same line. It's tricky. It leads to players dumping trains of a colour they don't want to perform well by extending the line to places that are worthless. It means that the best way to make money is for someone else to expand a line you are keeping shares in. As with many games like this, it means that you are best off trying to figure out what other players want, and investing in that, rather than trying to boost the value yourself. Anyway, as light as it is, the unusual thought process required to play the game means that I can't really see non-gamers enjoying it much. For me, I liked it.

We ended the night with two games of Kingdom Builder. This game came with a lot of hype, since it's from the designer of Dominion, but also a lot of backlash since it's pretty different. In fact, I'd say it gets most of it's flack because it's both quite simple and quite unintuitive, an unusual mix (I know I just said that about Paris Connection, I guess I mean it's unusual outside of the stock game genre).

There are a number of boards, from which 4 are selected at random, and a number of victory condition cards from which 3 are selected at random. Players take turns drawing 1 card and placing three pieces on that type of terrain. The victory condition cards say things like "units next to a mountain gain 1 VP", or "gain 1 VP for each connection between a city or special site". This means that you are trying to accomplish different things with your pieces each game, which is a simple change but it's interesting how different it makes each game feel. The biggest trick is the placement rule... the one card you play determines the terrain type you can play on, but you have to play on terrain adjacent to pieces you've already played if possible. That means that if you played earlier pieces next to many types of terrain the card you draw will largely determine what you can do. On the other hand, if you play your pieces in such a way that you are next to very few types of terrain there is a good chance that you will draw a card showing terrain you aren't adjacent to, allowing you to play ANYWHERE on the board on the correct type of terrain. In addition to that, each board comes shows a different special location (or two) that gives a player a special power if they place a token adjacent to it. The special powers allow a player to move pieces in special ways, build on water hexes, skip spaces during placement, etc. It all adds together to a very engaging, yet simple game. And boy is it fast! 30-40 minutes for 3-4 players. We've since played 2 more times and I enjoyed it just as much.

Let's start with the biggest similarity with Dominion... there is a lot of variability built into the game, but it's all defined at the time of setup. After that, there is neither randomness nor cardplay from decks of cards. I find this refreshing because these days it seems like many games are going that route (Summoner Wars, A Few Acres of Snow, Mage Knight, Kings of Tokyo, Yomi, etc). I guess a second similarity would be a complete and utter absence of theme. Even the title is beyond generic!

Anyway, that nitpick aside, I really enjoyed the game. It won't be as influential as Dominion, but I think I actually prefer it. It feels a little like advanced Through the Desert, with variable victory conditions and board. Good stuff.