Friday, December 30, 2005

2005 in Review

2005 in Review

German-style games

(2012 republishing note: lots of broken links here. If you're reading this in, say, late 2012 and the links are still broken, email me)

2005 was a very good year for German-style games.

In my mind, I know this. 2005 was not just a good year, in fact, but in terms of sheer quantity of top-tier games, it was perhaps the best on record if you like good, engaging, social games. I have long considered 2000 to be the last great year for German-style games, and looking back on my 2000 in Review article, 2005 significantly exceeds it in quantity of first-class releases. Perhaps Knizia's 2005 genre-buster, Beowulf, is not quite the ground breaking game that Knizia's 2000 genre-buster, Lord of the Rings, was; but it's close enough.

Why the doubt in my heart, then? I think because there was not a single real "find" in 2005. The long list of top games was produced almost exclusively by the usual suspects: Knizia, Teuber, Kramer, Tresham, alea, Hans im Glück, and Kosmos. In every past year, significant contributions are made to my list by other designers and publishers. Maybe it's an interesting but niche game like Andrea Meyer's Mall World or Schwartzarbeit, Heinrich Glumpler's Feurio!, or Gunter Cornett's Flaschenteufel; a game published by a major label, but from a designer with a thin track record, like Wilko Manz's Fifth Avenue; or good games from but less-reliable or less-prolific publishers like Days of Wonder, Doris & Frank, or Amigo. Not so for 2005 (Reef Encounter, being a reprint, doesn't really count).

Now, obviously not everything on my list of good games is from the standard big names. I've divided things up between "top" and "good" games this year, the distinction being primarily that I expect to be playing "top" games at least occasionally a year from now, while the "good" games are fun for a bit but ultimately disposable. There are obviously quite a few games in the "good" category from unexpected sources, but nothing in the top list. The part of me that is a game critic lives for the unusual find, and so the absence of anything in this category is a bit of a blow.

But, if you're not a self-appointed game critic, this was a great year. Well, for boardgames, anyway.

Top Games

10 - Candamir: Candamir is the type of game that falls through the cracks when making these lists, if for no other reason than timing. It came out in Germany in ’04 and the US in mid-’05. Interestingly, this is one of the few games that has gotten a facelift before being published here. The original was no great shakes, but Mayfair made some critical improvements … read more about it here.

9 - E&T: The Cardgame: This is probably the most faithful card game version of a board game ever. While it's liable to be almost incoherent to those who have not played the board game, for fans of the original it provides a satisfying condensed package. In my experience, it's better with 4 than with 3. A couple pieces that include the E&T Cardgame are here and here.

8 - Reef Encounter: This was actually one of the better games from last year, but the prohibitive price kept me from making my main list. Now that it's generally available with the reprint from Z-Man games, this is one to check out if you're a fan of placement games or meatier euros like Tigris and Euphrates or Goa. Not on par with those classics, but Reef Encounter easily exceeds Richard Breese's other recent efforts, Keythedral and Keytown.

7 - Revolution: The Dutch Revolt 1568-1648: Classic Francis Tresham, Phalanx finally hits a home run. This is a big game which takes 4-6 hours to play, but it finally gives us a fairly big, free-form, empire-building/conflict game that doesn't degenerate into a whine-fest, but is still dynamic enough to be interesting. More here and here.

6 - Louis XIV: Rudiger Dorn is becoming a reliable name in medium-to-high-end German-style games. I first became aware of him with the terrific Traders of Genoa, and then he went on to do Goa, Jambo, and now this DSP-winning game. A planning game similar to Caylus, Louis XIV is shorter, simpler, more interactive, more fluid, has reasonable theming, and is overall much cleaner, all of which work for me. A piece on the Nürnburg games, which includes Louis XIV, can be found here.

5 - Palazzo - This is another wonderful Knizia bidding game. He sometimes takes flak for doing "yet another auction game," but the fact of the matter is that the auction game is an extremely broad category, and yet one that no other designer has mastered. For me, Knizia never ceases to amaze by being able to put out games of this type that are consistently new and different. One of the neat things about Palazzo is the pacing, with a low-pressure start lulling you into a false sense of security before you are crushed by an increasingly high-pressure endgame. Joe Gola had a nice piece on Palazzo that I wish I had written.

4 - Tower of Babel - Palazzo and Tower of Babel are both auction games, but as a pair they demonstrate just how broad a term "auction game" is. Tower of Babel blends auction, area control, and resource management elements in a brilliant, seamless, low-complexity package. In case you haven't read it already, the piece on Louis XIV had some details on Tower of Babel also.

3 - Elasund: The First City - I definitely liked Candamir, and even kind of liked Anno 1503, but with Elasund Klaus Teuber has produced another top-tier game to stand alongside Settlers and Starfarers. I have a piece on this gamehere.

2 - Hacienda - Hacienda reminds me of so many other good games. It seems to blends flavors from Through the Desert, Get the Goods, and Saint Petersburg, just to pick a few. In the hands of a lesser designer than Kramer it could feel like a collection of spare parts, but in his hands it becomes a new, coherent whole with a flavor and appeal all its own. Although I expected good things from Kramer and Hans im Glück, this was tempered by the fact that I was not a huge fan of the whole Tikal/Torres line of his games, and as such the fact that Hacienda is so good and so elegant was a pleasant surprise. This has already gotten a ton of play and I expect it to continue to do so for quite some time. Here is a piece on this game.

1 - Beowulf - The Legend - I have an in-depth review here (along with a little bit of reader feedback). Knizia just keeps getting better, which – given his long and distinguished history – is amazing. Beowulf is impressive not just for being a great game, but for being a legitimate artistic interpretation of the epic poem.

The Good

Lighter Games: There were a few good games that, while probably of marginal interest to the hobbyist gamer, might nonetheless be of interest as games for playing with the family: Stefan Dorra's beautiful but awkwardly-themedAmazonas (think of it as a railroad game rather than a game of slaughtering rare plant and animal species) and Michael Rieneck's Around the World in 80 DaysArk, from the always-reliable Doris & Frank, is a nice, light card game with a flavorful theme, and Doris' wonderful artwork is always best-served by their own games. Dragonriders is a race game from Jean du Poel and Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, and while there are some issues including a wretched rule book, the simple play, well-designed tracks, and good tension make it a game I quite enjoy. Usually I am not nearly as enamored of Knizia's small-box games as I am of his big games, but the King Arthur Card Game was an exception – not a great game, but fun filler and appropriately short. I liked Kablamo! as a truly odd game, in the vein of Munchkin or Bang! but actually fun, but I can certainly respect that it will not be for everyone.

Medium-weight Games: Sunriver Games came on the scene with Havoc: The Hundred Years War, a card game of drafting good poker hands, which is probably too expensive and definitely too long, but nonetheless represents a good start for them; I'll be keeping an eye on their future releases. Phalanx continues in its attempt to do German-style games with Mesopotamia, a game which is ultimately probably too simple but still is a solid, short civilization-building game without the usual problems. Wings of War: Burning Drachens finally rounds out the Wings of War package with some very nice altitude rules and air-to-ground scenarios. It's no longer quite the simple, elegant game that originally won me over, but the variety of types of engagements is much-needed. Although it's an older game, I discovered WildWords (company site) this year which is a neat redevelopment of Scrabble that may appeal to casual fans of that game.

Higher-end Games: Francis Tresham's 1829 Mainline finally came out, and while I had some reservations, overall I enjoyed playing it. Friedrich is a nice German-style wargame, a bit long and maybe a bit slow, but simple, clever, and tactically interesting, providing a lot of gaming bang for the complexity, by the standards of wargamey stuff anyway.

Abstracts: Deflexion (company site) is a gimmick game, but the gimmick works, and casual gamers have a hard time resisting a game with a laser. The GIPF-series has been steadily losing some steam; this may be a somewhat unfair judgment since the first few games (GIPF, TAMSK, ZERTZ) were so utterly brilliant that anything that came after was bound to slow down a bit, but nonetheless PÜNCT seems the least inspired and most derivative of the lot. It's still a pretty clever game, however, and fans of the series will enjoy the new entry I think.

The Caylus Phenomenon: Unless you’ve been living in a cave, or perhaps just don’t follow online discussion groups, you probably are aware that a little game called Caylus was published this year. It was greeted with extreme enthusiasm by the online crowd, with BoardgameGeek ratings catapulting it into the all-time 2nd highest-rated game slot, surging past such hall-of-fame games as Settlers of CatanEl GrandeTigris and EuphratesCarcassonne, and so on. I’ve played it a half-dozen times now, and it neither makes my list as a good game nor as a bad game. This little bit of insanity will pass.

The Not-So-Good. OK, the Lousy.

In addition to the many excellent games, 2005 seemed to have more than its share of real clunkers. In some cases, the whole enterprise just seemed ill-advised. But more usually, the culprit was predictable: inadequate or non-existent development work. It seems to me that many amateur game designers have a vision of what they want a game to look like, and are unwilling to surrender any creative control to a developer. These designers usually get another label: "unpublished" or "self-published". If I could identify a trend in bad games in 2005, it would be that of some publishers joining the bandwagon by putting their faith in a designer and ignoring the need for a sound development process (I'm looking at you, Fantasy Flight), to the detriment of their customers.

Some of the bad games we got this year included Antike, a game that probably shouldn't even have been green-lighted without at least one working interesting idea. Australia and Il Principe weren't terrible games, but they weren't that good either, and these are case studies in why German games get a bad reputation for themeing; the themes here are such awful paste-up jobs that it's actually kind of embarrassing. Caravans of Ahldarahd was the first game from BlindLuck studios, and while the ideas were very good and had promise, the development was non-existent and the game flat-out didn't work. Indonesia was Splotter taking another run at the whole Roads & Boats thing, but this is another game that someone should probably have done a sanity check on somewhere in the middle of the process, realizing that this wasn't going to work out as well as hoped. I'm not sure Siena is actually awful, but the evidence is fairly compelling that it is, and it certainly has both the worst rule book and worst graphic design of the year. SuDoku - Das Brettspiel was Knizia when he's not really trying, mechanical, unimaginative, and uninteresting, although – amusingly – the theme works rather well. And Doom: The Boardgame was an excellent core design utterly savaged by totally inadequate development, with scenarios that are ludicrously unbalanced, a game that is thoroughly unplayable with 4 players, and a playing time that exceeds the interesting content by at least a factor of two. This is particularly unfortunate because I am certain that there is a good game in there. But the game Fantasy Flight shipped is certainly not it.

This brings us in the last to Shadows over Camelot (and here's an update where I wonder if that review was too generous) which is certainly not the worst game of the year but for me was absolutely the most disappointing. I'm a huge Lord of the Rings Boardgame fan, and was hoping for something that was at least within shouting distance of that classic. It might have been unreasonable to expect something as good, but still, Lord of the Rings blazed a trail that nobody has yet followed. Shadows over Camelot is ultimately too uninteresting, too long, too tedious, too complex, far too dependant on luck for its tension, and much too detached from its putative theme. A shame, because if the designers had learned the lessons of Lord of the Rings, the potential was there; the developer certainly should have realized that this was going in the wrong direction well before it reached its final state.

Major Chokes

This category is reserved for the games that should be good, but aren't. They are so close you can taste them. They have good ideas and very interesting elements, but ultimately are killed by problems that really should have been pretty obvious to the publisher, and should have been either fixed or resulted in the game remaining unpublished. I offer them up only for illustrative purposes.

Fantasy Flight is a permanent resident of these parts, and their Arkham Horror is a more painful case study than usual, just because it is so close. So much is done well in this game, but too many balances are clearly out of whack. The game is much too easy on the players, largely because no effort was made to scale properly with the number of players – a huge and consistent problem with their games. And the gameplay is just not dense enough, with too much tedious mucking around with lost or wasted turns and running around Arkham.
Parthenon: Rise of the Agean is another painful miss, with lots of good stuff but ultimately too many balances are too severely out of whack.

Viktory was a clever attempt to circumvent some of the problems with Risk and bring in some modern design elements, but ultimately it couldn't solve the one problem that Risk did manage to tackle and is a classic because of it: the need for the game to end at some point.


Fiese Freunde Fette Feten had a very clever theme with wonderful art, but just didn't provide enough actual gameplay. Likewise Nexus Ops got a lot of things right on the analytical side of the game design but fails to provide a soul, that one interesting twist that gets you to power through the downtime to play a second time. Ticket to Ride: Europe should have fixed some of my problems with the original, but it lost the original's elegance and the increased luck element is not going to appeal to the more serious gamers whom the greater complexity would seem to indicate the game is aimed at.

Some Expansions

Memoir '44 got three nice expansions, adding the Soviets, more terrain, and a bunch of special rules for use in scenarios. This is mostly good stuff, although some is questionable (like the Big Guns). Blue Moon continued adding more variety to this fascinating game, and this being Knizia and all, the quality seems to be staying high, although none of the new decks are as interestingly different as the Khind or Flit were. The bewildering array of Age of Steammaps continues to proliferate, and while I like the design philosophy of making each new map a different game with the addition of a small number of dramatic special rules, I wish someone would publish a spreadsheet telling me which maps work with which numbers of players and what playing styles. Playing the new France map with 3 players was the first fundamentally unsatisfying game of Age of Steam I've played in a while. Power Grid added maps for Italy and France, which was nice because it got the base game on the table again and I enjoyed it. The game is ultimately too unstable to be a classic, but good enough to deserve occasional play, and as such the new maps are well-timed.

Major Games I Missed

Some of the major releases I didn't play included Eagle's Conquest of the Empire and Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame; I am reliably informed that these might not suck, but since Eagle's record is pretty bad at this point I haven't yet been tempted. I might yet get sucked into Railroad Tycoon, but my reading of the tea leaves of online commentary doesn't inspire great hope, and besides, I'm pretty happy with Age of Steam. After reading the rules, Twilight Imperium: 3rd Edition was a no-brainer to skip (and by the way, if anyone from Fantasy Flight is reading, that was a class act, the thoroghly backhanded compliment to George Lucas in the dedication. Here’s a tip: it's best to err in favor of respect when you're a niche game designer and he's created one of the great epic stories of all time). I'm pretty Carcassonne’d out at this point (and was never a huge fan), so I passed on Carcassonne: The Discovery, especially given the whole FunAgain exclusive thing. Freya's Folly is a small-press game I passed on while I was at Essen, but regretted afterwards, especially given the abysmal quality of the other small-press games I played; Don Bone's previous Sunda to Sahul was solid, so I'll give it a try when it becomes available in the US.

Roleplaying Games

The amount of time I spend playing RPGs isn't that great, but this is the year I finally moved from D&D to Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved, a choice I am very pleased with ... then what happens, but Malhavoc hits me with Monte Cook Presents Iron Heroes, another great-looking d20-based system. I want to experience more of Arcana Evolved, so I'm not going to be switching anytime soon, but I've already sucked a large chunk of stuff from Iron Heroes into my Arcana Evolved game, including Skill Groups, the more-generous and less-variable hit die, and zones. Also, my AE game has benefited from importing a bit of the Iron Heroes style. If I make it to the summer game cons next year, I'll have my eyes open for Iron Heroes games.

Although it’s actually from 2004, I bought Wizards of the Coast’s Eberron sourcebook this year in the hopes of finding a setting for D&D which might be more robust than the implied one. What I found was something that appeared even more unbalanced (i.e., prone to munchkinism) than core D&D, which is saying something. It’s easy to say “well, just play with non-munchkins”, but even reasonable players can make reasonable choices that end up creating, through no fault of their own, characters that are grossly under- or over-powered, which is just not good. I know it’s an RPG, but these things still are important. This is why I am now a loyal Malhavoc customer. They may not be quite there yet, but at least they’re trying.
Another game technically from 2004, Hollywood Lives finally became generally available in the US this year, and it was a lot of fun.


As regular readers of my blog will know, for some reason my wargaming time has been thin this year, especially for new titles. I don't know how much this had to do with getting slammed by Empire of the Sun early, or maybe just an unappealing crop of games; but for whatever reason, I haven't been keeping up as much with the new releases, although quite a few older games (EastFront, Rommel in the Desert, Stonewall in the Valley, Kasserine, Europe Engulfed) got good play.

The Good

The ASL Starter Kit #2 finally got us some heavy equipment, and along with that a game with a little more variety than the Starter Kit #1. I'm still not entirely sold on this whole Starter Kit concept – it's more ASL Lite than a completely compelling game on its own merits, and it could really use more maps – but the WWII tactical game niche is surprisingly thin on good games, and the starter kits are cheap. Bonaparte at Marengo (more) made a good splash as a nice, low-complexity wargame; it has lots of neat elements and a unique feel. It ultimately was just a bit too ungainly and play was a bit too stereotyped for it to stay on the table that long, but I look forward to the next game in the series.

The Very Good

Lock 'n Load: Band of Heroes: despite a graphic design that ranges from the satisfactory (the counters) down to the unacceptable (the maps and cards), and the more than occasionally tiresome "attitude", this is a system that is tried and true by now, a good game with interaction and tension and a fair amount of replay value, and it finally gives us a good alternative to the immense ASL or the long-gone Squad Leader.

Battle of Five Armies did for Warmaster what Lord of the Rings did for Warhammer. The rule book has issues in the second half (some of them pretty serious), but the game plays quickly and gives the players frequent, real, meaningful choices and the battles can take decisive turns based on those choices. For me this sort of linear warfare is never going to be quite as compelling as the skirmish-level Lord of the Rings game, but on the other hand I enjoyed this much more than any other ancients or Napoleonics system I’ve played. And, as usual, Games Workshop's figures are very nice. The non-trivial drawback is the lack of different scenarios.

Roads to Leningrad is Vance von Borries’ new game, picking up where Kasserine left off. After playing a frustrating run of ultimately disappointing new wargames throughout the year, coming back to this right at the end was a refreshing experience. Von Borries’ games are always well-designed and thoroughly-developed, and he has an eye for situations that make good, playable, interesting games. The two battles here are slightly obscure but very well-chosen: 1941 Soviet attacks and counterattacks against an overextended German spearhead, and the great Kasserine system is nicely tweaked to include chit pulls, making the game more interactive, more dynamic, and reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides at this time. He also understands the need for playable and interesting smaller scenarios to go with the big campaign games.

The Not-So-Good

Worthington Games' Clash for a Continent failed to follow up on their success with Victoria Cross, giving us a game almost completely devoid of interest.

Remember when I talked in the German-style games section above about games that someone should have asked "you know, do you really think this is a good idea?" well before publication? Lightning: War on Terror is one of those games.

The poster child for all the games that misfired this year though is Empire of the Sun; you can read my review-like piece. The rules are already up to something like revision 1.4 (I played version 1.1, I think – which came out like days after the game was published), and at this point they contain a lot of red ink, which is never a good sign. Now, Empire of the Sun is not train-wreck bad like Go Tell the Spartans was; it’s more immensely frustrating bad like Shadows over Camelot, although there is certainly an element of train wreckage too. The players aids are riddled with errors, the rules are confusing, the War in Europe track doesn’t work, the victory conditions are dumb, air rules are sometimes bizarre, the interceptions strangely all-or-nothing … it’s easy to point the finger at the designer for this turgid effort, but that GMT would actually agree to publish Empire of the Sun in this state is bewildering, and they have once again discouraged me from ever using their P500 system again. To his credit, Mark Herman has continued to work with the game’s fans to make something reasonable out of it. But the omens are ill. There is only a certain degree to which games can be fixed after their release.

The Awful

Most excruciating gaming experience of the year: 7 Ages. That is all.


Triumph of Chaos is a really fun game that is burdened with rules that are at least 15 pages too long. This could have been a long-term keeper if there had been a developer that had been able to take a machete to the thicket of chrome. Grand Illusion was a B-level game that could have been an A-level game if only it had been a bit shorter, or played a bit more quickly, or had a bit more tension. Instead, a slight excess of rules combined with a horrible rule book and a lack of player aids took it down to a C. A Call to Arms is Mongoose's Babylon 5 space combat game, which scored by being simple and playable, but then had a problem with a very unwieldy shot resolution system for some weapons systems, and several scenarios that were almost laughably broken. Mongoose has kept chipping away at the problems, though, and recent revisions of the rules have improved things significantly ... but it's still not where it needs to be.

Games I Missed

Given my less-than-positive experience with The Napoleonic Wars, I passed on Wellington. Some friends have liked it though, so I may yet give it a chance. GMT's release schedule this year was surprisingly short on games I was interested in actually playing, and beyond The Burning Blue, I'm not sure 2006 will be much of an improvement. Perhaps Twilight Struggle or Unhappy King Charles will work out. In fact, the release schedules for all of my favorite wargame companies (Columbia, GMT, MMP, OSG, maybe Clash of Arms) were a bit thin this year.


Three games that are actually quite promising remain unplayed in my collection: GMT's Carthage, Columbia's Crusader Rex, and MMP's Fire in the Sky. All three could be long-term keepers. I hope to play Crusader Rex and Fire in the Sky sometime in the near future.

2004 in Retrospect

Just for interest’s sake, and to add some accountability to this process, I thought I might take a brief look back at my picks for the last couple years and see how well they've held up.

My top 5 picks from 2004 included San JuanGoaEinfach Genial, and Blue Moon; all have held up well and gotten a fair amount of play this year. Einfach Genial (now Ingenious) in particular has done well as it can be played and enjoyed by gamers of many types. San Juan has tapered off in terms of play time in the second half of 2005, but probably remains my most-played game published in 2004. The only one of my top 5 that hasn't done well in terms of actual play time was Fifth Avenue, but part of the problem there has been the bad reputation that has been so hard to shake. I would still play it most days; more on this later.

Games I whacked included Saint PetersburgOltremare, and War of the Ring. Saint Petersburg has vanished entirely from my play groups. War of the Ring was played a bit through the first months of 2005 but not since. I still plan to pick up the expansion when it becomes available, but it remains a game that, like Memoir '44, is both interesting and frustrating; but at least Memoir '44 is short.

Some picks that seem a bit questionable in retrospect include Ticket to RideMaharajaRazzia!, Sword of Rome, and Victoria Cross. None of these games have had much (or any) play in 2005. I probably over-rated Ticket to Ride in sympathy with the wide acclaim it got; I think it's a decent game, but for me personally, perhaps not overly noteworthy. The comparative weakness of Ticket to Ride: Europe may have dragged down the original too, though. Maharaja is a bit chaotic, and I always liked it better than any of my friends; I think maybe my friends were right. Razzia! just doesn't hold up that well when compared to Ra, and Ra is now back in print. Folks who have followed my blog are probably also aware of my eventual disillusionment with Sword of Rome. Victoria Cross is an interesting game, but probably didn't deserve to be rated as highly as it was, certainly not in front of Gettysburg, which has gotten a bit of play this year.

Top wargame picks were Europe Engulfed and Rommel in the Desert. EE hung on to get a lot of play this year, but the length and commitment required has been slowly running it down. Still, a two-year run with a lot of play is very good; every wargame convention I went to saw me playing EE in that time frame. I remain very fond of the game, but see its play time continuing to diminish. Rommel in the Desert is an all-time classic that continues to get play, and given that it was a reprint it was a no-brainer pick (an argument for not generally including reprints, I guess; but things are often blurry). Ardennes '44 also got a few plays this year, and remains a game I like a lot, although not one I'm ever going to play frequently.

Two games that I liked and still like, but never seemed to get momentum, were Fifth Avenue and Shadow of the Emperor. Despite the fact that they haven't gotten much long-term play, I'm still comfortable with how I rated them.

I flagged Candamir and Downtown as promising games I didn't get a chance to play. Candamir's potential did eventually pan out, although the route was meandering, and it makes this year’s list. I've recently gotten a chance to experiment with Downtown, and was quite taken with it; this is another game I hope to play more soon.

Somewhat embarrassingly, there were a couple very good games that I missed entirely: JamboWings of War and Colossal Arena. Wings of War got dragged down a bit because of the huge delay between the release of the basic set and its critical companion Watch Your Back!; and then while Watch Your Back! promised to open up a lot more interesting mission-type situations, the game suffered from recurring problem of (do I even need to mention it at this point?) rather obviously unbalanced scenarios that clearly nobody spent any time thinking about. So Wings of War hasn't gotten a lot of play, but I remain a fan, and I like the new Burning Drachens set.

2003 in Retrospect

The only German-style games to have staying power from 2003's list year were, thankfully, my top picks – Domain and Amun-Re. Both have had some play time this year. The others have more or less disappeared, with the exception possibly of Feurio and Flaschenteufel. Some I would actively resist ever playing again (like Attika), while some (SchwartzarbeitEiszeit/Mammoth Hunters) I remain fond of and still have a spot in my collection, but just don't see the light of day.

Basically nothing from the wargame list is still being played. Liberty hit the table once this year, but the play-balance questions hang over it like a cloud. The overpowering Diplomacy cards killed Age of NapoleonMonty's Gamble was fun, and I still own my copy, but the replayability wasn't as strong as hoped and it was probably a touch too complicated given the short game length and constrained nature of the battle. But, it did get a fair amount of play and I remain a fan. Korea: The Forgotten War has been a casualty of my lack of time and the inherent difficulties involved in huge games; although I also remain an OCS fan, for practical reasons Ardennes '44 is more the sort of game I play now.

The two survivors are Lock 'n Load and, of course, Shadow and Flame. Gotta love those Goblin Shamans. Both of these should obviously have been rated higher.

Of the RPGs, Arcana Unearthed finally hit the table this year in its new, Arcana Evolved edition. With RPGs, I'm never exactly sure how much to credit to the system and how much to the group playing it, but AE has been a success and after years of off-again, on-again frustration with D&D, I'm extremely happy with it. AE and AU both have tie-in books of short stories (Children of the Rune and The Dragon's Return) which I read this year and which were both overall really surprisingly good.

I was hard on D&D 3.5, but in retrospect perhaps I was not hard enough. D&D 3.5 was an improvement over 3.0, but was it worth the $75 to upgrade all you books? D&D still needs some significant bodywork, and it needs it soon; the effort Wizards spent on 3.5 could have been much more usefully directed either towards D&D 4.0 or a new product line.

So, that’s it. 2005 is done, and at least for the German-style games, 2006 will have a hard time matching it; I expect to be playing many of these games for a long time. The wargame side of the slate was weak, but I still managed to play one outstanding game (Roads to Leningrad), and with several promising games unplayed and with Shifting Sands and The Burning Blue coming up early in 2006, I’ll have things to keep me busy for a while yet.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Havoc, Ark, Tigris & Euphrates Kartenspiel, Essen Wrapup

At this point in playing through the Essen games I had actually become rather demoralized. Not for lack of good games; in fact, I think 2005 has been an excellent year, and we've had quite a few really outstanding medium-weight games (Beowulf especially, but also Tower of Babel, Elasund, Hacienda, Palazzo, and Louis XIV). For the first time in a while, I am enthused about enough new games that I am no longer feeling obliged to say "since 2000".

No, what had demoralized me was the predictability. This blog has always been written with the knowledgeable gamer in mind. And what knowledgeable gamer worth his or her BoardGameGeek avatar really needs me to tell them that games from Kramer, Knizia, and Teuber, published by Hans im Gluck, Kosmos, and alea, are probably worth checking out? This combined with the grinding mediocrity (at best) of all the efforts from smaller-label companies that I played was disheartening.

OK, so Caylus is an exception; in the old days of print media, maybe I could have proudly come out with my scoop, pointing you to this small-press title that, along with a few warts, had at its core an interesting game; something that the hard-core gamer might be interested in checking out. But these days the poor thing was so relentlessly over-hyped before I even got my hands on a copy (and I played for the first time the same day it was released), I found myself in the position of having to actually say that it really wasn't as good as all that, even though by the relaxed standards of micro-press labels it was, on balance, a fairly nice game (if too long). Maybe Hans im Glück can pick it up and work the same magic they did on Keydom, a game to which Caylus seems quite similar in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it really could have used a good developer.

Still, setting aside Caylus, nothing – nothing – I had played from a non-major label or designer to this point called out for a second play, and all were utterly predictable in their often major and obvious deficiencies. Because I'm a generous guy I'll try Third World Debt and Siena again perhaps – if I can talk anyone into it, and I don't think I'll find any takers from amongst the people who played the first time – but more as the triumph of hope over experience. Some of the new games didn't even merit a single play after reading through the rules.

All of which is a long way of saying that I'm glad that I saved Havoc for last.

Havoc is a small-box card game from Sunriver Games, a new startup involving a few folks from the Gathering of Engineers. It is a game of drafting and poker hands.

The basic idea is that you get points from various battles from the Hundred Years War, which are played out in order. The battles usually have points for placing first, second, and third place, although there tend to be high-stakes battles with steep fall-offs and lower-stakes battles with a more even distribution. Between battles, everyone drafts cards for their hands in tried and true Alan R. Moon style, either from a few available openly on offer or blind from the deck. When a player has had enough, he calls "Havoc!" on his turn instead of drafting, and a battle is fought.

This is done by playing cards one at a time from your hand into a bid, much as you would in Taj Mahal or Beowulf (or exactly like Mermaid Rain, for those who have played that slightly obscure game). The bid is then evaluated as a poker hand, going up to 6 cards. The card deck is 6 suits, so you can have some additional combinations (5 of a kind, big houses, etc.). You then distribute the points to the people with the strongest hands.

There is a little bit more chrome; there are some Dogs (of War) cards, which are very limited wilds, and a timing mechanism to prevent things from getting out of hand with too much drafting. The chrome is actually slightly awkward without adding a huge amount gameplay-wise, but it's not too bad, and it adds a bit of flavor.

If I had to pick out some minor issues here, I'd pick on a couple things. First is the rules, which are not always very clear, and we had a lot of trouble picking up the game cold, when nobody had played before or read the rules (in retrospect, the example of play is helpful). Second is the play length, which is similar to Beowulf but with a fraction of the depth of that game. Sure, we can't all be Knizia, but I think Havoc probably goes on a bit past its expiration date – but again, it's really not too bad. Lastly is the confusing proliferation of poker hands. With 6 cards, there are tons of different hands, and the ranking is not always intuitive. Not everyone has a working familiarity with poker rankings, and given that you are drafting rather than drawing blind, some hands (particularly straights) are losers. Some pruning here might have been helpful, or keeping the number of cards played to the traditional 5.

Still, these issues are comparatively minor. The bottom line was that I liked Havoc. Once you nail down the rules, it plays quickly and pretty cleanly. I like the bidding; there is a certain amount of bluffing you can do, although it's in the margins generally; Havoc is not really a bluffing or probabilities game the way poker is. It's what I think of as an "efficiency" game, a game where you are trying to get the most mileage out of your cards; you ideally want to spend them all by the end of the game, winning a lot of auctions by a little and losing a few auctions by a lot, and as such is a stripped-down cousin to Beowulf or Taj Mahal (or Blue Moon). I like this class of games quite a bit because you're always thinking, making a lot of judgement calls and evaluations, but not a lot of direct calculation. This I think leads to a fairly engaging game.

Unfortunately, I can't talk about Havoc without mentioning its cost. Havoc is only available as an "exclusive" through FunAgain games. Since FunAgain has long since stopped being competitive with other online vendors on price, this means if you want to get Havoc, you're going to pay about $26 (shipping on a game this small is a killer; but shifting an order from FairplayBoards & Bits, or Boulder to FunAgain in order to buy Havoc will be even more painful). I was pleased enough to think about buying a copy for myself after I had played, but I balked at the price. If Havoc were $15 I think it would be an easy sell; at that price this is the sort of game I'd be happy to pick up at my local retailer or throw in to another order online. Maybe I'd give them another $5 to support a startup. But at $25-ish, it's really tough (for reference Beowulf is $26 from Boards & Bits). It was a close call in the end, but given the competition this year, I didn't end up buying Havoc. But I did enjoy playing it.

Moving along ... Ark is the new Doris & Frank small-box game. It's basically a tile-laying game disguised as a card game. You're trying to get animals onto Noah's Ark, but you need to arrange them so they all are going to be in the proper climate-controlled rooms, won't eat each other, won't unbalance the Ark (as the Brontosaurus is wont to do), etc. The nice thing is that the animals you acquire are a mixed bag of blind draws and drafting, so you can exercise some control there. You get the usual charming artwork from Doris, always a plus. And the playing time is quite reasonable.

The downside is the minor horde of fiddly rules that you have to track: placement rules like the fact that carnivores can't share space with herbivores unless the herbivores are larger, or that shy animals can't be next to carnivores; and the half-dozen special power associated with a few cards. These are not terribly burdensome, and they all do make sense, and they are much more of a pain to explain than to play.

I didn't love Ark, but I definitely did like it, and would play again. It's short, and although the list price of $20 might be steep, if you get it online it's under $15, which seems about right.

When I first wrote about the Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, I said I liked it but had some nagging doubts. At that time I had played it mostly with 3. Having now played half-a-dozen more times, mostly with 4, my doubts have been largely settled. For me, anyway, the 4-player game feels right. It's got more competition, the game seems to move along better, and the pacing feels more natural to me. All a little wishy-washy, perhaps, but there you go. 10 games in, I like it, and my opinion has stabilized at the "definite keeper" level. Not quite on the same level as the boardgame, but that's a high bar, and this version is shorter.

So, there you go. This will, I think, wrap up the intensive coverage of the Essen games. There are still a few more to play (Celtic Quest and Wings of War: Burning Drachens, just to pick two), and there will be updates on some of the meatier games as I come to terms with them. There was significant frustration, and of course there are many games I didn't, and most likely won't, play (Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame), but on the whole I have to say it was a good year.

Monday, December 5, 2005

1829 Mainline

1829 (South) was the first 18xx game, published back – it's hard to believe it was so long ago now – in 1974. 1829 is a very fine game, with the caveat that it takes, oh, about 12 hours to play. Especially problematic in light of the fact that it's only fun for maybe 6. But you know, there just weren't as many good games back then.

1825 tackled this problem by keeping the core game more or less intact, but chopping the huge 1829 up into much more manageable chunks. Two games (1829 and 1829 North) become 3 base games plus 3 regional expansions plus an expansion to lengthen the game plus at least half a dozen more mini-expansions adding various features from the original. Some additional rules streamlining and game balancing was done, and players were given significantly more flexibility, but 1829 at its core is clearly recognizable.

Playing the small 1825 games, though, you miss out on the scope of the bigger 1829, the long runs and open play. 1829 Mainline is an attempt to do an 18xx game that is both simple and short(er), and operates on a large geographical playing field, as well as bring us a game that is different enough from 1825 and 1829 to be worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed was the streamlining that eliminates the last few major 18xx features that non-regular players find troublesome. The main one is the phases of play (certain trains trigger rusting of other trains, changes in tiles available, changes in train holding limits, and colors of track available). Now you can just buy whatever is available, and upgrade track whenever you want. All good. There are also no longer restrictions on buying and selling stock; you can buy whatever is available and sell whatever you want. All of which is a relief.

The operations phase is mainly familiar to players of 1825 or 1830, with the only major rules change being that yellow tiles (basic track) can be put down in large batches, jumping ahead to the next city in one fell swoop as long as no drastic maneuvers are required. This is simple, but combined with the larger board it opens up a much richer tactical game than is typical in these games. No longer are entire geographical regions non-viable because of the plodding pace of tile laying. No longer is building bypasses necessarily an excruciating process of laying one time at a time over many turns. You now have a lot more flexibility in developing your runs, and with lots of cities and lots of companies, there is interesting competition for the best routes.

The major changes, though, are in the stock round.

For those unfamiliar with 18xx, stocks are bought and sold in rounds, where each round you can buy a single share. This tends to give everyone a crack at owning desirable companies, and also allows some to-and-fro as some players may sell to take advantage of an opportunity or defend their holdings from takeover, and others then scoop things up, with opportunities opening and closing as the round goes on.

It also means things can take a while, and can be uneven when some players are buying and selling heavily while others are watching (due to cash constraints, lack of interest, or greater or lesser foresight). 1829 Mainline tries to both simplify and speed this up. Instead of selling at any time, you can only sell the first time around the table. Instead of buying one stock at a time, each turn you just buy as many as you can afford.

Obviously, this shortcut wouldn't work with the basic 18xx system of having a large pool of stocks available to everyone at the same time. So instead there is a mixed system. Each player is dealt a hand of some number of stock cards (around 10) at the beginning of the game, which you can buy from freely. This is your private pool. Then there is a draw deck of stock cards; if you want, you can take a random draw from it and either buy it, or not (ending your turn if you don't, thus adding an interesting element of risk). And there is the discard pile of rejected stocks, which you can keep buying off the top of. To keep some motion going, your turn must end by flipping a card of the draw deck and not buying it.

I like all this in principle. It dramatically speeds up the stock rounds. It eliminates a couple fiddly rules about when you can't buy stocks you've already sold, rules which sometimes seem artificial and can hammer new players. And it adds a nice element of variance (because the stocks available for immediate purchase will vary each game), planning (working with the cards you've been dealt as well as judging when to keep reserves of cash to take advantage of opportunities since you can't freely sell) and uncertainty (the draw pile) which 18xx generally lacks. I'd be happy with it if it were not for two issues.

The first is how companies float. Like in 1856, your company can begin running as soon as two shares are sold. Also like 1856, your company gets money to its treasury only when people buy stock.

Here is the problem: your companies need a lot of cash to succeed in the long-term. Therefore, they need to sell shares. What if those shares aren't available, because they are buried in the draw/discard pile or because someone is sitting on them in his or her hand because he or she has other priorities? It's really tough to be sitting there in the middle game on a company starved for cash, but with 50% of the stock unavailable to purchase at any price. Also, companies that other players buy into early will tend to do much better than those with a single sponsor, as they have so much more money. This problem can crop up a bit in 1856, where good companies like the CPR, LPS, or Welland will get other players' cash, while second-tier companies won't, to their own detriment. At least in 1856, though, you have the ability to take out loans and "flip" your own stock to generate the cash you need. 1829 has no loans, your ability to flip stock is limited, and with the random availability of stock, who knows if it's even available to buy? It's possible to get behind the 8-ball here and not have a lot you can do about it.

The second problem combined with the above is simply one of length. We played with 3 very experienced 18xx players who didn't play slowly, and the game took 4.5 hours. On the scale of 18xx games, and with players new to the specific game, that doesn't sound too bad. But with the random allocation of shares, and the reduction in flexibility in the stock round, I think 1829 Mainline really wants to be 2.5 to 3 hours. Which, interestingly, is what it says on the box – and Mr. Tresham is usually pretty good about getting these estimates right, even when they are unpalatable; the numbers for 1829, 1853, 1825, and Revolution have been quite accurate, even erring in favor of being too generous, for me. But I have a hard time seeing my way clear to a 2.5 hour playing time on this one.

Which leads me to my last point. Somewhat unusual for a Francis Tresham game, the 1829 Mainline rules have a few problems. As a fan of 1825 I was able to work them through, but the cost to build on various terrain types (rivers and mountains) are nowhere to be found - we just used 1825 values. Also, it is possible, if unlikely, for a company to become completely unowned, and what happens in that case is not covered (as it is with the receivership rules in 1825). So it's possible that there is a rule missing here. If, for example, whatever cash is not paid out in dividends were to go to the company treasury, this might make a significant and possibly positive difference in the game.

At the end of the day I'm a bit on the fence about 1829 Mainline. Although I am unsure if it works quite right, I do like the new stock round rules and will give Mr. Tresham the benefit of the doubt until I've played some more. I like the large-scale tactical feel of the game, and I do think it's successful in giving us the opportunity to do some really interesting, long-distance route development. But I am concerned by the time it took us to play it. I don't mind losing a bit of control in the stock round in general, especially if it compresses the game a bit and because the game has opened up more flexible and interesting route-building options. But given that the semi-random allocation of stock does have a driving effect on the game, I worry that it's a bit too easy to suffer misfortune in the middle game and then have to play a game you are out of for too long.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Triumph of Chaos, Part II

If you recall my report from the first half of our game, I was reasonably impressed. My main nervousness about Triumph of Chaos was always the complexity, with the long rulebook plus a supplement with lots of faction special rules, but my fears had been abated somewhat in actual play.

By the time we finished our second session with the game, though, the chrome and faction special rules combined with a lack of any acceptable player aids had started to weigh on us. None of the rules are tricky in and of themselves, but a combination of quantity and often-unclear presentation was a problem. Figuring out some of the setup charts for the Ukraine and Poland seemed to degenerate to guesswork at times. While playing the early game, with smaller and peripheral factions, was fine, entering the later game with larger and more complex factions (Ukraine, Poland, Mahkno), and where the victory conditions had become somewhat opaque, was definitely less satisfying. A game with this quantity of special-case rules really, really needs a decent reference sheet. How many games with potential have been sunk by the lack of a single well-thought-out, 1-page (front and back) reference sheet? Too many.

Another element of the game that seemed decent at first but wore thin with more play was the political phase. While I think the rules for politics are quite clever, I also think that from a game perspective, they just don't work very well. Each turn, players select action cards to commit to three political arenas, generically labeled "red", "white", and "other". Based on the amount of strength committed to each arena, a certain number of political cards will be selected, with the player who committed the most strength choosing a few from the pile, and the rest being selected randomly. Each card then has an effect on the allegiance of each political entity in the game.

This in theory sounds good. But each card, despite a thematic title, is essentially just an abstract collection of modifiers ("+1 White", "+2 Red"), often for 10 or more individual factions. Figuring out which cards to pick, especially if you get to pick a couple, is a mind-bending exercise in matrix manipulation. Even figuring out which arena to allocate to was opaque. And all of it was an exercise that doesn't offer much entertainment or interesting challenge.

I still think Triumph of Chaos does a lot of clever stuff, and while the second session with the game was tough, I like the design of the card decks a lot. I like the leader rules. I like the situation, with a combination of linear fronts and far-flung operations. I like the graphical presentation of the game, even if it's noisy in spots. But Matt showed little enthusiasm to play again, and in practice I have to admit that I do think it's over the complexity line of what most gamers are going to want to deal with, and, more to the point, the level of fiddly complexity presents a big barrier to feeling competent with the game in a reasonable amount of time. Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin are classics because they can be learned fairly thoroughly in an hour or so of play. Triumph of Chaos, it seems, cannot. There are just too many special cases. Wargaming is a very crowded field these days, and games have to be played with other people, who have to be convinced to sit down and learn the rules; and then the rules have to be grasped and the merits of the game have to be strongly apparent in the first couple hours of play. The complexity of Triumph of Chaos seems, unfortunately, to be just on the wrong side of manageable. It seems the effort to keep all the rules in your head requires playing more and more often than what the game grabs you for.

I think it's a shame, because Triumph of Chaos – even though I think it came out OK – did not need to be this way. I think there is clearly chaff here that could have been cut out, and if a harder line could had been taken on complexity, and if what remained could have been encapsulated in some good reference sheets, Triumph of Chaos could have been much more than the niche game it turned out to be.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Small Press Roundup

Jenseits von Theben: This is a small-press game with a pretty good reputation, and a high ranking on BoardGameGeek. So what could go wrong?

Jenseits von Theben is a game of digging up stuff. Artifacts, mainly. You have to trade off how much time you want to spend researching the dig (thus increasing your odds of success) vs. actually doing digging, all while hoping to be back in time to present your Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, or whatever at an exhibition which the museum curators have rather thoughtlessly scheduled without asking you if you might actually have the artifacts available at that time. Successful exhibitions mean points; you can also get points from knowing lots of stuff, and, most importantly, from blind luck (otherwise known as drawing a lot of Congress cards).

I've played Jenseits twice. The first time out, everyone found the game wholly unsatisfying. This is because there are only about 8 exhibition cards in the deck, and we saw four or five within the first half-year (a game goes two years with 4 players, or three with 2 or 3 players). This gave us no way to acquire artifacts in time for the shows other than to run off to Egypt immediately and hope to get lucky. Having then worked through the early exhibitions, virtually nothing happened for the remainder of the game, because so many exhibitions were gone. And even though one player swept all the early exhibits, the key to winning was just to draw a bunch of Congress cards. And then there was a sclerotic endgame, as all the knowledge cards up for drafting became useless, but there is no mechanism in the game to clear them out.

The game received a resounding thumbs down from all concerned.

Second time out, this time with three players, was much more satisfactory. Yes, there was still the sclerotic endgame which rendered the last 20% of the game pointless. Yes, the freebie victory points from the Congress cards still dominated over doing stuff that was actually interesting. But with more evenly spaced exhibits, the middle-game activities were at least reasonably entertaining.

I've played this with 5 different friends at this point, all of us experienced gamers, and the verdict has been universal: the game is fun in parts, but fundamentally it simply doesn't work. I wish it did, but it doesn't.

(Update: It turns out we were playing slightly incorrectly: artifacts are supposed to give VPs directly as well as through winning exhibitions. It turns out to be better when played correctly, although it's still not quite right. See my 4/7/2006 post for more details).

Siena: This I have only played once, and even though it took about 2.5 hours, I don't have a good read on it. I can say a few things: a) the rules are horrendous. I'm seriously considering adding a "best rules" and "worst rules" category to my end-of-year lists, and Siena is going to be a tough competitor for worst rulebook of the year. It'll also compete strongly in the "worst graphic design" category. b) While I think the game has potential, if it really is a 2.5 hour game, forget it. c) get the player aids from the 'Geek. d) Three players may not be the ideal number.

Underlying these issues, though, is a game that is tempting. You are living in the Italian city-state of Siena, trying to work your way up from Peasant to Merchant to Banker. The whole game is driven by cards. You are producing and selling commodities, from cheap grain through expensive spice. As you rack up more money, and decide to make the transition from one class to another, the game changes fundamentally for you. You have more options, your revenue opportunities become greater, and so do your risks. The game has a lot of chaos, especially in the later phases, but it didn't unduly bug me - the big swings in wealth as risks paid off (or not) felt appropriate to the fortunes of your historical counterparts. The three phases of the game are interesting in that they are very different, but unified enough I felt to be coherent.

Alas, I can't lose sight of the fact that with 3 players, at 2.5 hours, and with the horrible rules, the game flat-out didn't work. There were several non-trivial bits of the game that demonstrated classic small-press dysfunction, like the stacking up of Courtesans to ambush the first player to become a Banker. My fellow-players were not as convinced of the upside potential of the game as I was. But I am still reasonably optimistic that if I can play again with 5 players and a more thorough understanding of the rules, a solid B game might emerge.

But then again, it might well not.

Third World Debt: This is a fairly simple of game of production and commodities trading from JKLM games.

This is a hard game to rate because I am certain there is a rule missing in the printed rule book (either that or the game rather obviously doesn't work). Players are third world nations trying to build up their infrastructure - factories that produce gems, timber, oil, ivory, etc. - and then try to make a killing on the commodity-trading market. You do this, of course, by piling up lots of debt. Oh, and you can invade your neighboring (neutral) countries too, if you want. Trust me, you want to do that.

The problem is that while commodities are coming into the game in ever-increasing amounts, there is no way for them to leave the game in other than trivial amounts. So commodities stack up in the markets, and things get weird. Don't people actually use this oil for something?

If, as I suspect, there is a rule missing from the rulebook, I personally think this game might be pretty decent. Others at the table were not at all impressed, though. The game is pretty fiddly, with a lot of calculation and multiplication of odd sums and calculating interest through a non-trivial formula; and once you've done this math (a calculator helps a lot), you have to do a lot of passing around of the very low-quality money (use poker chips if you've got them). And, once again, the game is long; probably too long, as I can see it getting repetitive and ultimately lacking dynamism. But there are some interesting bits to gaming the commodities market. You want to time when to get in and out, and trade off specializing in one commodity vs. diversification, and there enough gradations of choice here to be interesting. So there might be something there.

Might be, I emphasize. Not until that missing rule is uncovered, though.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

So you want to play Civilization ...

The recent "One Hundred Best Games Ever ..." rankings, another survey of a bunch of guys (in fairness, this time there are at least 3 women amongst the 60+ voters) to find their top games, reminded me of one of the current great theory/practice disconnects, that of Francis Tresham's classic Civilization. While often rated as a great game in these surveys, and while it is in most everyone's Hall of Fame, I never see it actually on the table anymore. And when I say "never", I don't mean "rarely", I mean that apart from the one game every four or so years I manage to get in, I never see people playing it. While it's certainly true that Civilization has been squeezed in recent years by games like Tigris & Euphrates and Puerto Rico, and its legacy has been confused by Advanced Civilization – a game to which it is at best only marginally similar – Civilization is still a classic game that deserves to get some play. And folks who have joined our hobby in the last ten or fifteen years may have missed out on classic Civilization entirely, and might enjoy giving it a try; despite the game's length, it's certainly possible to actually appreciate it more now in the post-euro age than it was back in 1981.

So ...

First, let's dispel a couple of myths:

- Myth #1: You need 7 people. Mr. Tresham has made significant effort to make sure the game scales fairly well. Anywhere from 4 to 7 is good. Heck, I've played with 3, and that worked out OK, although it wouldn't be my first choice. I think the sweet spot is probably at 6 players personally, but 5 is very good too. 7 is probably a little too tight, actually, and with 4 you lose some competition for Civilization cards, which is unfortunate; but none of this is a major problem.

- Myth #2: Civilization takes forever. Yeah, Civilization is a long game, but many peoples' memories are influenced by the fact that the playing time issue was greatly exacerbated by Advanced Civilization, which could take a grueling 8-12 hours, or even more, to play. Civilization can be comfortably played by 5 reasonable people in 5 hours, similar to what it takes to play Die Macher or Revolution. You might even be able to do a 4-player game in a weeknight if you move along. It's long, but it's not nuts.

- Myth #3: Advanced Civilization is better for newbies. Setting aside for a moment the divisive question as to whether Advanced Civilization is better than the classic in any respect, there is no particular reason that Advanced Civilization would be preferable for new players. Civilization is a clean game, so a player familiar with euros can be up and running within 15 minutes, given a passable teacher (if that teacher is going to be you, be sure to solo a game through the Bronze age to get a feel for it. That shouldn't take too long). Both games can be unforgiving, but Civilization is mechanically much easier to grasp, and is certainly much friendlier to fans of euros than the rather chrome-laden Advanced version. Advanced Civilization is also substantially heavier on overt whack-the-leader type conflict, again something euro fans tend to shy away from.

So, let's say you've found a copy of Civilization (perhaps the Descartes or Gibsons Games edition), and you want to play. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

- The #1 thing to remember is to avoid the Free Parking syndrome. Play the game straight out of the box; this is a great game from a master designer, and while some of the variants may help in some circumstances (and I'm going to recommend a couple very minor ones in a moment), the expansions and major house rules are iffy at best, and the best bet is to play the game as it was designed. Specifically, the expansion trade cards (timber, wine, oil, silver, etc.) are unhelpful unless you have 7 players, and can be detrimental at smaller numbers because they tend to have an arbitrary random effect on the game. Absolutely, positively do not use the Advanced Civ trade cards with Civilization (the high-valued cards, Spice through Gold, are hugely more valuable in that game). The Western Extension Map is nice for variety but adds little. Its main advantage is that with certain numbers of players you can exclude Egypt and Babylon from the game, which leads us to ...

- Egypt and Babylon are for the experienced players. These nations are tough despite their geographical advantages, due to their need to build 2 cities when they have only 16 tokens. If you have experienced players mixed in a game with new players, the experienced players should be given these two nations. If you are the new player, absolutely don't take any guff from the veterans on this point. If everyone at the table is new, try this minor house rule for your first game or two: when building cities on flood plains, Egypt and Babylon require only 5 instead of 6 tokens. Africa isn't exactly a walk in the park either, and as a new player it should be treated with skepticism when picking nations. The Western nations, with their easier AST progressions, are definitely easier to play. Are the nations unbalanced? In the end, I think that while they are to some degree, with players who've played even just once or twice and know what to watch for the imbalances are generally outweighed by the inherent randomness and competitiveness of the game, and the token limits prevent nations from taking and holding more territory than they can use. Plus, with this sort of game, it's very likely that someone at the table will simply enjoy the challenge of playing a somewhat tougher (and very different) nation like Egypt, Africa, or Crete. But for first-time players, you can get into a hole early in Egypt, which is not much fun.

- Civil War. What to say about this calamity, that is probably Civilization's only real design glitch in my opinion? Civil War is tough, one of the harshest calamities in the game, and yet one that starts showing up early and is hard to mitigate until late. If you aren't careful and end up getting hit hard by the first Civil War – especially if you are Egypt or Babylon – it's going to be very tough to come back and be competitive, let alone win. Later Civil Wars are nasty but part of the game, as you get a rotating effect as the last person to get hammered tends to benefit from the next one (and some tradable calamities, like Epidemic, can be worse). Certainly, everyone should be clear on the risks of ramping up to four cities. You might want to consider another minor house rule for your first game or two that the very first time a Civil War comes up, it is discarded without effect.

Remember that this, along with Francis Tresham's 1829, was essentially the first "big" eurogame. It's a direct ancestor in style to currently popular high-end euros like Power Grid, Age of Steam, Goa, Die Macher, and Puerto Rico. Unlike the Avalon Hill-style games that were then in the vogue – games that tended to make some attempt at simulating something – Civilization is a themed game. That is to say, some stuff in the game may not necessarily make immediate intuitive sense in terms of simulation, but it's in there because the game requires it. Strictly from a systems perspective, this is where Advanced Civilization went awry – it added a bunch of stuff for various reasons of "simulation", but wrecked the finely-tuned underlying mechanisms. This is not to denigrate the theme of Civilization, which is excellent and better than most current euros – but I think it's important to the enjoyment of the game to realize that in many ways this game was way ahead of its time, and is not cut from the same cloth as other Avalon Hill games of that era.

Most of the big, long, multi-player games Avalon Hill put out in the 80s and 90s are really hard to enjoy today with so many good shorter games available, but Civilization, along with Dune, 1830, and Titan (bearing in mind Titan's issue with player elimination) are definitely exceptions. None of them are going to be staples of the gaming diet anymore, but they're all fun to drag out on occasion, and they give you a more substantial game experience that euros can't provide. Of these games, Civilization is probably the most robust: it's of not-unreasonable, predictable length, and has complexity comparable to higher-end euros. It's a lot less punishing of differences in player skill than Titan or 1830. It's got a nice empire-building theme. Its lack of the overt combat of Dune and Titan, and the fact that single mistakes won't wipe you out like they can in 1830, makes it a lot more generally accessible. It's not a top-10 game anymore, but it's definitely a classic.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Vegas Showdown

When I wrote about Nexus Ops a little while ago, I mentioned the mystery that is the New Avalon Hill. With the release of Vegas Showdown, let's just say that the situation hasn't exactly clarified.

To the fan of German games in general, and Knizia auction games in specific, Vegas Showdown will feel vaguely familiar. Each turn, tiles are up for bid, Amun-Re style (minor exception: in Vegas Showdown, you can re-bid, i.e., if someone overbids you on the lounge, you can up the bid, instead of being forced to go elsewhere. Also, the bid increments are smaller). These tiles represent stuff you can install in your casino – lounges, which make your operation impressive-looking (i.e., provide victory points); slot machines and other gaming attractions, which provide revenue; or restaurants, that draw in people. These pieces all have to be placed on your casino mat, in much the same way as Alhambra.

Then, this being an American game, there is the chrome. Each area of development has a "tech tree"; so, for example, you can't have a fancy lounge until you've installed a lounge. And with each new item up for bid, there comes a vaguely thematic random event such as casino workers strikes (no bidding on slots of any kind this turn) or some sort of convention that gives you revenue based on people you've drawn in this round instead of the normal formula, which is the minimum of your revenue points and people points.

Reading over the comments on BoardGameGeek, a common complaint/observation on Vegas Showdown is that it is very derivative. I feel this is true, but only up to a point. The chassis of Vegas Showdown is identifiably German, to the point of feeling a bit like somebody trying to design a Knizia game, albeit without much success. But despite this, Vegas Showdown does have a unique feel, one that you would not mistake for a game from Europe, provided by the major random element of the event cards and the timing and selection of items up for bid. It's as if it were a cross between Alhambra and, say, Munchkin. To me, it seems like these bits are in opposition: a core that rewards thoughtful play with a superstructure designed to somewhat arbitrarily reward or hose you. But I can definitely see the game finding a niche. It's a rather simple game. The theme is good, albeit not great. American casual boardgamers (the RPG or Pictionary crowd) will like the non-threatening aspect of the large chunk of randomness, while the German gamers can play with them and be thankful they at least got a game with interesting bidding. Moreso than most German games, this is something I can see maybe introducing to your non-gaming-savvy family, as long as they get the whole Vegas thing.

For me, though? On balance, not my kind of game. Take out the randomness, which is largely arbitrary, and Vegas Showdown is just a German game without the attention to detail or quality development work. Amun-Re without the depth, High Society with a lot of excess baggage, or Beowulf without the bidding tension. I can play and enjoy Vegas Showdown, more or less, but I would only play with a group that seemed to demand it. For the serious gamer it has the misfortune to be OK in a category filled with exceptional Knizia games.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005


So ... Beowulf.

This is a big-box, 12 and up game from Reiner Knizia. It's published by Kosmos and Sophisticated Games, the folks who brought us Knizia's classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. It's illustrated by legendary Tolkien artist John Howe. All fairly promising indicators.

The players take on the roles of companions to Beowulf. The goal is to support him as he whacks Grendel, hunts for and takes down the Sea Hag, performs various and sundry activities of ruling Geatland, and faces off with a Dragon. At the end of the day, the companion who gained the most fame at Beowulf's side will prevail and succeed him.

Beowulf is both superficially and fundamental similar to and different from Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings, it's episodic; the players encounter episodes from the story in order, and have to deal with them by playing cards that represent travelling, fighting, guile, and so on. But the game is not cooperative; players commit to, profit from, and/or get hammered by events individually. Beowulf, like Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally about card and risk management – like Lord of the Rings, you want the right resources available at the right time to succeed, sometimes taking a risk now to conserve resources for later, or spending heavily now to avoid an immediate risk. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the risks and benefits are to you personally, not the group, and Beowulf is never in danger of not making it past Grendel, and can never survive the encounter Dragon – you are just in danger of personal failure. Have a nice day.

So how does this card and risk management play out? Your hand of cards is in 5 suits, each representing the aforementioned personal abilities. The episode track is, in the main, a series of auctions, each in one or two of these suits – so defeating Grendel requires Fighting and Valor, for example. Players bid cards from their hand for the rewards available; it can be either open bidding or hidden, simultaneous bids. Then, in decending order of bids, players choose their rewards – the high bidders get fame, treasure, more cards, or special powers, among other things. Low bidders may get either less of these things, or they may get the always popular flesh wound, or even better a severe blow to the head. These auctions are then interspersed with more fixed opportunities, where everyone can heal, draw more cards, acquire various resources, and so on.

The neat thing that throws a monkey wrench into the auctions are risks. Don't have what you need to get the job done? Facing down the Sea Hag without an axe? You can always throw your body into it. Pick two cards from the deck; if they are valid bid cards, you play them, and may get to stay in the auction. Fail, and you are out of the auction (and so may be lined up for more penalties), and take a scratch in the bargain. The scratch is not in and of itself painful. Three scratches, though, and they convert to a wound, and you're out 5 points. Three wounds, and you're looking down an immense end-of-game penalty that will effectively take you out of the game. There are many opportunities to heal scratches, but wounds are much harder to get rid of.

This whole push-your-luck mechanism is what makes the game, and keeps it from being "just another" Knizia auction game. Firstly, flipping cards knowing the risks and with the auction on the line is fun. Secondly, it adds a lot of interesting tactical risk management decisions to the auctions. This is classic Knizia – it seems so simple when you first look at it, and seems like just a random element, and yet without fanfare it adds a lot of depth and interest to the game. Do you risk early in the bidding, knowing you'll need to pick up a few symbols to get the result you want, and so conserve your cards if you fail, but risk getting kicked out of the auction early and scoring 5th place? Or do you try hanging in there by playing cards for as long as possible, thereby limiting the risk you'll come in last, but perhaps spending a lot of cards inefficiently for a middling place? Is it worth it at all to risk now for this auction, or should you just bail? How important is it to get 2 Fame instead of 2 Gold?

To win, you're going to have to do a fair amount of risking. The key is to risk when the downsides are low, and avoid finding yourself in the position of being forced to risk when you can't afford to. Risk early, at non-critical auctions, and you quickly pick up a couple scratches. With two scratches, your options become badly constrained until you can heal, because a wound will likely costs you points and be hard to get rid of. On the other hand, at the end of the game, when you're facing down the Dragon, you don't want to be forced to risk to pick up the fight cards you need to avoid the brutal double-wound for last place – you want to have the cards in hand, to have done your risking earlier, when the downsides were smaller and could have been mitigated.

If I were to evaluate this solely as an auction game, Beowulf would get very high marks. Like in Ra, you're doing all this bidding with stuff that has no inherent value – 5 different types of cards plus the occasional cash auction. Each auction is very different, with both different things up for auctions and different spreads, with some offering modest upsides for everyone but no downsides, and some having major upsides and major penalties. Additionally you have risks, which are probabilistic. You're bidding for Fame sometimes, but most of the time you're bidding some resources to pick up other resources, and to avoid penalties. Almost nothing in the game can be easily or concretely evaluated, so you're making constant judgement calls about what is worth how much, how much extra it's worth spending to get 5VP instead of the "negate one failed risk" card, and how far to push your luck. Even in Ra, which I consider a masterpiece, you can sometimes run the numbers to see exactly how many points a set of tiles is worth to various players; in Beowulf, everything is a judgment call.

But Beowulf goes beyond Ra by adding strategic planning. You know what's coming up, generally. You know you're going to have to fight the Dragon at some point; this both adds even more difficulty to figuring out how much a fight card is worth, and also gives you a chance to make trade-offs (should I bid it now or chance a risk and save it for later?) and plan ahead. In this sense it's very similar in feel to Taj Mahal; but while Taj Mahal is a personal favorite, it can be a bit opaque and unforgiving, while Beowulf is much more intuitive.

Beowulf also goes beyond Ra in giving us a good theme. Sure, maybe auctions don't really reflect how Beowulf's companions were thinking, but as you go down the track, and have to spend appropriate resources for appropriate rewards, the theme works. It's not Republic of Rome or Dune, but by the standards of euro games, it's rather good.

Beowulf is Knizia doing what he does best – an auction game, but one with depth, and variety, and fun, and like Lord of the Rings, wedded to a good theme (ably assisted by some wonderful John Howe artwork). You're faced with constant, real decisions. There is no downtime to speak of. Player skill is very important, but it has just the right amount of randomness to be fun, to mix things up a bit, and to give the game a sense of risk. Hacienda and Elasund were both quite good, but Beowulf is comfortably my pick for the best of Essen.