Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Disney rides would be better with Berserking Skeletons

Hillary and I met up with the Birmingham group of boardgamers again this week. One of the attendees had brought his copy of Small World, which was just released this month. I'd read favorable reviews of the game, so we quickly jumped into the group and gave it a try.

Small World is a light civilization-style territory control game with a few minor wargame elements. I've been told that the game is basically an updated, fantasy-themed cousin of Vinci (which I've never played, so that description didn't mean much to me).

Each player takes on the role of a civilization, one of several fantasy races (orcs, giants, humans, tritons, etc.), each having its own unique ability. Each race is also randomly paired with a special attribute that grants another ability (such as Merchant, Flying, or Diplomatic). The attributes are fairly powerful, and can create very effective combinations with a race's built-in ability.

The gameboard is a colorful map consisting of a few dozen regions, several containing symbols that denote natural resources. Although not laid out in a hex pattern, the board reminded me a bit of Catan; each region is distinctly a field, or a mountain, or a swamp, etc. Scattered around the map are remnants of a "dying" civilization that once controlled the area, but otherwise the lands are clear and ready to be settled.

Players colonize and conquer by placing the unit tokens for their race on the map. Taking a clear area requires two units (barring any special abilities), while conquering an inhabited area, or one with a mountain, will take more. The simple rule of thumb is "two units plus one per piece of cardboard already on the space" (a piece of cardboard being any token: an enemy unit, a defensive emplacement, or a mountain).

Combat is neither random nor contested -- if enough units are used to attack, a player can force enemy units out of a space and take it. For the final move of a turn (usually when only one or two units are still available), a player may roll a die and add the result (0-3) as "bonus" units, only useful for determining the attack's outcome. When a stack of units is defeated in battle, one is removed from the game, and the rest are returned to the owner to redeploy among other territories. This causes attrition among each civilization as battles are fought, since most races can't replace a unit token once it is lost.

At the end of each player's turn, that player receives victory points based on the number of spaces currently controlled, plus any bonus points granted by special abilities (for example, Humans get an extra victory point for each field they control, while Orcs get a bonus point every time they conquer an occupied region).

A key game element is the ability to "decline" a civilization and choose a new one. When declining a civilization, each unit stack is reduced to one unit, and the civ can no longer move, use special abilities, or conquer territory. However, the race still scores points for the controlling player as long as it continues to exist. A common strategy is to make a quick land-grab with a populous or unusually mobile race, put it into decline, and then choose a more combat-oriented race to either defend the now-declining civilization or simply start conquering more territory while the declining race continues to score points.

Gameplay seems to run about 60-90 minutes. With five players, our first game lasted around two hours, but the second was over within about 75 minutes. Each game only runs eight rounds (at least for the five-player version), so at any point you've got a good idea of how far into the session you are, and how much time you have left to set up a win.

After two games of Small World, I have to say I'm very impressed. The random combinations of races and attributes keep the game fresh, and the combat dynamic is so light and simple that conquering territory never becomes cumbersome. At first I was worried that the imbalance between the different race and attribute abilities would be a problem, but this wasn't the case in the sessions I played. Civilizations move up a "stack", and players can pay victory points to take a more desirable combination that's a bit further down. Even if a player lucks out and gets a very powerful combination, chances are good that there's something else on the stack that can counter or defend against it.

Player interaction is moderately high. While there's no way to immediately respond to another player's action, you can directly affect their units and territory on your own turn. For example, during one game Hillary controlled nearly half the board and had a great race/attribute combination. It was obvious that she would win handily if left alone, so I started a new civ as a heavily militant race and blitzed through her borders, conquering nearly her entire territory within a couple of turns. (I'm lucky I didn't have to sleep on the couch that night.)

I do have a few minor complaints about the game design. The first problem concerns turn order. There's a distinct advantage to going first, especially later in the game when removing enemy units (and their potential to score points) is as important as capturing your own territory. Since players score at the end of their own turn, moving earlier in a round is beneficial -- especially during the last round. I've already seen a suggested rules variant for fixing this (keeping victory points visible and ordering turns from lowest to highest current point total), and I'd be interested in trying this out to see if it balances the game a bit better.

My other complaint is that the gameboard gets very busy, and it can be hard to keep track of everything that's going on. The unit counters don't have very distinct color schemes, especially when a race is in decline (tokens are flipped over to a "grayed out" side). This can make it difficult to spot units of different races and count up victory points at the end of a turn. It would have been nice if the designers had given each unit counter a unique race-specific colored or patterned border.

Aside from this, the game components are well-made and the artwork is appropriate to the theme. The cardboard counters are thick and seem like they'll hold up well during multiple plays. The game's plastic box insert keeps all of the dozens of tokens separated perfectly, and hopefully other game publishers will use it as an example of how to design built-in component storage.

Most importantly, the game is fun. After finishing our initial two-hour session, the owner of our copy asked "Do we want to play again?", and the answer was a quick and unanimous "Yes!". I can't think of too many hour-plus games that get this kind of reaction.

Overall, Small World is an excellent game, and I would have already bought my own copy if my wife hadn't already threatened to kill me for buying Dominion this week.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A plethora of games

Welcome to my boardgame blog! Well, not really; it's just the only interesting thing that has been happening lately.

Over the weekend, Hillary and I visited a couple of friends that we don't get to see very often, so the four of us spent an afternoon hanging out and playing games.

First up was Betrayal at the House on the Hill, which our hosts had played but my wife and I were new to. I liked the house-building dynamic, and it seems like every game will go differently, which keeps things fresh. I did notice that until the haunting occurs, the players are pretty much on their own, and anything I did had no real effect on anyone else. The particular haunting we got seemed to be heavily skewed against the traitor (my lovely wife), but I'd have to play more to decide whether the game has real balance issues.

Our friends hadn't played Pandemic yet, and we'd been wanting to try a four-player game. Since we had two newbies, we decided to play the "easy" mode with only four Epidemics in the deck. The game plays a bit differently with more people, and we found that the individual Roles are much more important. As the Dispatcher, I spent most of my actions each turn shuttling people around the map. Likewise with the Researcher; most of his turns consisted of slinging cards out to the other players. We won pretty handily, and I kind of wish we'd started on the "normal" difficulty. The game seemed to be a hit, and we're looking forward to trying it with more Epidemics in the deck next time.

At this point we wanted to play a quick filler game or two, so next up was On the Dot, which I had picked up before the weekend. We were all new to this odd little puzzle-solving game, so it took a few rounds before we got the hang of it. Hillary wasn't a big fan of this one (she later complained that she had to play a logic game against three engineers), but at least the games are short. The rest of us enjoyed it for what it was -- a quick little time-waster with no real player interaction.

Since the group was divided over the previous game, we broke out one of my wife's favorites, Apples to Apples, for a bit. I am terrible at this game, but it's always fun either way. Something "Adorable"? How about "Chainsaws"! Our friends own several custom cards with lots of inside jokes (which we're mostly in on, fortunately) so the game generated a lot more laughs than usual.

We decided to continue our string of lighter games with a couple of rounds of Bausack Noir. Not much to say about it -- each player builds a tower out of a collection of differently-shaped blocks. We'd all played before, so we stacked up our towers and spent most of each game trying to screw over our fellow players with oddly shaped blocks. Always fun.

The girls both had things to do, so my friend Bill and I opted for a two-player game to finish off the night. He suggested BattleLore, which I'd never played before but was interested in trying. It was about what I expected: a very light wargame with simple combat. We played a starter campaign (Battle of Agincourt) and didn't add in any of the expansion elements. I took on the role of the English, and managed to eke out a very close win by being incredibly lucky with my archers' attack rolls in the first couple of rounds, taking out most of my opponent's cavalry before they could get in range. I enjoyed our battle, but it didn't seem deep enough with just the basic rules -- at least with something like Heroscape, each unit has unique stats and special abilities. It sounds like the game will be more interesting if we try it with the more advanced rules and start adding in magic and expansions.

Everyone had a great time overall (excepting Hillary's distinct dislike for On the Dot), and it reminded me why I got into this hobby into the first place. Hopefully we'll get another chance to do this again soon!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You know how hard it is for me to shake the disease

I'm a bit late on the post, but we got to play three games of Pandemic over the weekend, and it has already jumped onto our "favorites" list.

This was our first taste of a 100% cooperative boardgame (aside from a really screwy Lord of the Rings game I was in several years ago that I later discovered we hadn't been playing even remotely correctly). We weren't quite sure what to expect, since it's pretty rare that a game that isn't specifically designed for two players scales down correctly.

The players take on the role of scientists from the Center for Disease Control, responding to simultaneous outbreaks of four deadly diseases around the world. Players have to balance treatment and containment of each disease with searching for cures; you can't win without discovering all four cures, but you lose if any of the diseases get out of hand or if there are too many regional outbreaks. Each character has a different role with its own special ability (for example, the Medic can treat an entire city in one turn, while the Dispacher can instantly move players around the world), so players have to use teamwork and communication to contain and ultimately cure each disease.

The game design feels like it's heavily stacked against the players, with several Epidemic cards seeded into the player deck that both cause new infections and intensify the existing ones. There's only one criteria for winning the game (finding all four cures), but a multitude of ways everyone can lose (eight outbreaks throughout the course of the game, running out of disease tokens of a specific color, or exhausting the player card deck). Even though it can be frustrating, the level of difficulty is a good thing for the longevity of the game. After all, if we knew we were going to win every time we pulled Pandemic off the shelf, it wouldn't come out very often.

Our first three games were on the "beginner" difficulty (four Epidemic cards in the deck). We quickly lost the first game to mass outbreaks as we figured out the rules. Our strategy formed pretty quickly, as we managed to win the next two games (barely -- at the end of one game there were only three cards left in the player deck, one of which was an Epidemic that would have put us over the outbreak limit). We're going to start stacking the deck with more Epidemics next time and see how the difficulty scales; I've read that five is hard, and six is absolutely brutal.

Pandemic is definitely going into our regular rotation of two-player games, and it looks to scale very well up to four players as well. It's definitely worth checking out if you want to take a truly cooperative game for a spin.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Game Night... with Strangers?

Last night Hillary and I met up with a group of local gamers we'd found through BoardGameGeek.

The group has been playing together weekly for quite a while, but it was our first time attending. I'm always a little hesitant to meet new people who are into gaming and other geeky stuff, because... well... if you've ever met random people at a sci-fi or gaming convention, you know what I mean. Everyone was very friendly though, and it was a fairly diverse group of people from an age/profession standpoint. There was a good turnout, so we ended up splitting into three groups, each playing a different game.

My group's first game was Winds of Plunder, which is a pirate-themed resource collection/control game. You play a pirate captain, sailing between Caribbean ports and collecting crew, weapons, and provisions. Each commodity gives you a different advantage during the game (and a bonus ability if you have the most of a given item), as well as being worth victory points at the end. Players bid on the wind direction each turn, which determines where you can sail -- the only way you can go against the wind is by burning ALL of your actions for that turn. Players can explore new ports to gain bonus points for visiting all ports in a region, and the occasional treasure map gives the opportunity to score a progressive (and potentially huge) amount of victory points for digging up booty.

I like the game for the most part, although there are a few game elements that didn't seem quite balanced. A few of the player cards (which can be played as one of three actions on your own turn) seem overpowered, while a few are only useful in very rare and specific situations (for example, a card that gives you a free movement against the wind if you're in last place -- given a four-player game, this is only going to be useful 25% of the time at most). Also, while you can attack and plunder an opponent's ship, combat is too simplistic and consists of "whoever has the most guns wins". Cards can only affect the outcome of a battle if played before combat; this greatly benefits the attacker, as you can only play cards on your own turn.

Regardless of any minor criticisms of the rules, the game was very enjoyable. I should mention that the game feels sufficiently "piratey" -- a theming element that a lot of pirate boardgames seem to lack for some reason. I somehow eked out a victory during the final point count-up by controlling the largest arsenal and most provisions. The victory point total was hotly contested throughout the game, so there's decent balance regarding the outcome, even if individual elements might seem a bit skewed.

It was getting late by the time we were done pillaging, so we opted for a quick "filler" game, Marrakech. It's an extremely simple game -- players move Assan (a big fat token wearing a fashionable fez) around the board (an outdoor marketplace), laying down carpets of their own color. If Assan lands on another player's carpet, the controlling player has to pay the owner a certain amount of money -- think paying rent in Monopoly. The strategy is a overly simplistic; the "best" move is usually obvious, and options are pretty limited on a given turn. Still, the rules are short (one page), the turns are fast, and the game ends when the last carpet is played. All of this makes Marrakesh is a good option when time is very limited.

Oddly, I won this game too, which makes me feel a little guilty. I generally try to play my best (and would hope that my opponents will do the same), but I'm always worried that I'll come off as an overcompetitive asshole when I get a winning streak going. I'm more concerned with having fun, and I enjoy a hilariously disasterous loss almost as much as pulling off a clever victory.

Still, everyone seemed to have a good time, and I look forward to meeting up with these folks again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Settlers of Catan, but not the good one

(Adapted from a review I posted over on the SA Traditional Games forum.)

Hillary and I received a copy of the Settlers of Catan Card Game for Christmas, and we finally got around to breaking the shrink wrap a few nights ago.

Being a long-time fan of Catan, I had high hopes after reading the rules. The concepts behind the card game are very similar to the board game, right down to the costs of settlements and cities. You build roads and settlements, which can later be upgraded to cities (allowing different and more powerful buildings to be created). If you're familiar with the board game, you'll recognize familiar elements like the bandit, the "largest army" token, and the victory point system.

Once we started playing, though, we found the game to be painfully slow. Most expansion cards (which consist of buildings you can create in your settlements/cities or actions you can play during your turn) tended to be completely useless in most situations. For example, I started the game with two city-only building cards (which is a problem since you don't start with a city) and an action card that only applied to a very specific situation that wasn't likely to appear until much later in the game. It seemed like we never had the resources needed to do anything, and because it's a two-player game, trading didn't seem like a good idea in most situations (unlike the rampant, marketplace like atmosphere in the 3+ player board game).

The resource system is both better and worse than the board game. You start with six regions, each corresponding to one of the faces of the single die that you roll during the production phase. This means that you'll get one resource every turn, which lessens the "random string of bad luck" problems that can absolutely cripple an otherwise good Catan board game player. The problem is that you can't set yourself up to cash in, either, so both players tend have a similar number of resources at any given time.

We also found that a few of the cards are really, really imbalanced. The Mint, especially, which is a city building that allows you to trade one gold for any other resource. The problem is that the rules explicitly let you do this an unlimited number of times per turn. If you luck out and get a second gold mine, the Mint pretty much can't be stopped. There are several other expansions that range from overpowered to virtually useless, and there's very little middle ground.

As the game drug on, we found that victory points are surprisingly hard to come by; even after cherry-picking the point-awarding buildings out of the expansion decks, we were both short of the 12-point victory total after what seemed like an eternity of play. We finally agreed on a house rule that only ten points were required to end the game. I won a few turns later, but it was a hollow victory.

I doubt we'll be playing this one again. The flow is just too cumbersome for what, at the surface, seems to be a fairly lightweight two-player game. I love my multi-hour Talisman and Puerto Rico sessions, but two-player games really need to be quick, engaging, and fun. Sadly, the Catan Card Game is none of these.