Thursday, August 26, 2004

Review: Vinci

Vinci is one of those classic games that I've been meaning to get around to reviewing for a very long time. It's become a favorite with my Tuesday night gaming group, so much so that we've resorted to banning it temporarily until we've had the chance to play some different games.

Vinci is a conquest and area control game. The game is played on an attractive (although somewhat out of scale and oversimplified) map of Europe. Players adopt an emerging civilization and then battle for control of as many provinces as possible. The more provinces you control, the more victory points you will receive. Eventually a player's civilization will reach a point where it can no longer expand. At that point, the player puts the civilization in decline and adopts a new civilization and the process repeats itself.

The components in the game are top notch. The map is beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully laid out. There are over 150 wooden pawns and around 100 sturdy cardboard markers. The rules are full color and easy to read with plenty of illustrations and examples. Everything feels solid and lovingly crafted.

Game play is simple. At the beginning of the game, twelve civilization tiles are drawn at random to form six initial civilizations. The tiles indicate what characteristics a civilization may have and how many units it can start with. For instance, a civilization with the two tiles: Astronomy and Weapons would have a base value of eight units (plus a certain number of units that depends on how many players are in the game). The Astronomy tile gives the civilization the ability to attack across water and the Weapons tile gives it a +1 bonus while attacking. Since each civilization is made up of two random tiles, there are a huge number of potential civilizations and therefore the game has quite a lot of replay value. No two games are ever quite the same.

For his first turn, each player chooses one of the six civilizations. Choosing the first available civilization is free but if a player decides to pass up that one and get the next then he must pay a victory point penalty and place a marker on every civilization that he passed up. If the next player chooses the passed over civilization, she will receive a victory point bonus. This is one of the ways in which the game is somewhat self-balancing. If the person in front of you wants to take that good civilization that you would have been next in line for then he may but he's going to have to pay for the privilege.

On subsequent turns, players take their units in hand and begin taking as many provinces as they can. Combat is not random. Every province has a cost that must be paid in units. Your civilization is not getting any more units, ever, so you had better not spread yourself too thin or your opponents may walk right over your hard earned territory when their turns come. On each turn, you take back into your hand whatever extra units you have, then you use them to expand your territory, and finally you redistribute your units however you like. Then you score one victory point for every province you control and any other victory points that your specific civilization's attributes might entitle you to.

Since you're never getting any more units, eventually your civilization is going to reach a point where it can no longer grow. At that point you may declare that your civilization is in decline. Any extra units are removed (leaving one unit on each province you control) and markers are placed on the provinces so that everyone can tell that this is a civilization in decline. Then you choose a new civilization from the ones that are available and on your next turn you will begin expanding again using the new civilization. Civilizations in decline still yield one victory point per province, just as growing ones do, but declining civilizations can't attack so eventually they become easy prey to the growing civilizations around them.

The most important decision in the game is deciding when to put a civilization in decline and when to just stick it out. The entire game hinges upon it and if you choose wrong then you may find yourself quickly falling behind. The constant ebb and flow of civilizations leads to an immensely interesting and aesthetically pleasing game.

There are other nuances, such as the fact that advancing civilizations must always be connected (called the "rule of cohesion"), but that basically summarizes the game play.

Vinci is an incredibly fun and satisfying game. The game takes around two hours to play and it never seems dull or repetitive. It is extremely well balanced so that no matter which civilization you choose, you have about an even chance at getting a respectable amount of victory points from it, provided you play to that civilization's strengths. I can't recommend this one enough. It definitely rates a strong nine out of ten in my book.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Review: Anno 1503

Anno 1503 is the new release from Klaus Teuber, the genius who begat Settlers of Catan. It's based upon a German computer game that is supposedly very popular in Germany. I have never played the computer game and in fact, I had never heard of it before Anno 1503 was announced so I can't say anything about how well the computer game was translated into a board game. But what I can do is tell you what I think of Anno 1503, the board game.

Anno 1503 is an exploration and expansion game. Players build ships and send them off in search of treasure and trade routes. They also collect resources and use them to build new settlements and upgrade existing ones.

The rules are relatively simple and well written. They consist of four full color pages that are packed with illustrations and examples. The game is easy to learn and there are few (if any) areas that could be considered confusing or difficult.

The components are top notch. The board is beautifully illustrated. The ships are attractive wooden ship-shaped markers. The tiles are on sturdy cardstock. Colors are well chosen, bright and easily distinguished from one another. Cards are sturdy, colorful and coated. There is only one thing that I can criticize about the production: the icons used throughout the game are very small and that sometimes makes it a bit difficult to tell what is what. This is particularly annoying on some of the buildings where the only clear way to tell which building does what is from the tiny icons printed beside them. Each building has a different illustration but in keeping with the theme, all of the buildings are made of bamboo and that means that at a casual glance they all look alike.

So how does it play? Well… it plays like a Klaus Teuber game. The first thing you do on your turn is roll a die for resource production, a-la Settlers of Cantan the Card Game. Everyone has their own unique resource production table which ensures that nobody is getting the same resources. Unlike other Klaus Teuber games, there is no trading between players. This is unfortunate because it eliminates most of the player interaction. In fact, there is almost no player interaction at all in this game. It feels very much like you are all playing solitaire and just racing to see who can complete the victory conditions first. For people that don't like cutthroat, competitive gaming, that could be seen as a plus but for me, it was a minus. I definitely prefer games where one player's actions have a direct effect on the other players. I will say that my kids will probably appreciate this more than I because they have a very difficult time with games that allow one player to sabotage another. There's definitely no way to do that here.

With your resources, you can either build or sell. Early in the game you will be building because the gold reward for selling is so small that it makes it very unattractive. But later in the game, selling becomes more attractive as you can get a better return. Getting a hoard of gold is one of the game's victory conditions. Gold can be used to buy resources and it also serves as an insurance against some of the disasters that randomly arise during the game (specifically fire and pirate attacks). Early in the game, buying resource cards is prohibitively expensive but later on, after you've explored a bit, it can become more effective.

To win the game you have to achieve three of the game's five victory conditions. One requires getting 30 gold, one requires building as many buildings as you can, one requires upgrading your buildings as much as you can, and two require exploring as many islands as you can. Each path has its pros and cons. Some are easier to achieve than others but one good thing about the game is that you should be able to do fine no matter which of the victory paths you choose to pursue. The game feels relatively balanced and there is enough happening to keep things interesting.

In summary, Anno 1503 is a fine game that is well produced and has an interesting theme. In many ways it feels like a simplified combination of elements from other Klaus Teuber games, which isn't a bad thing. It plays in a relatively short amount of time and it's good fun. It does tend to feel a bit too much like solitaire, there is so little player interaction. Some might consider that a good thing (particularly families with kids); personally, I would have preferred there to be more player interaction. I would be happy to play this game again if asked but I wouldn't consider this to be among heir Teuber's best games. I'll rate it a 7 out of 10.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Review: Camelot Legends

One of our newer arrivals is Camelot Legends by Andrew Parks and Z-Man Games. This is a card game built around the legends of King Arthur.

The first thing that struck me about Camelot Legends was the beautiful illustrations. From the detailed portrait of King Arthur on the cover, to the lavish illustrations of Camelot, Cornwall, and the Perilous Forest that appear on the three play mats, to the original artwork on each of the one hundred or so cards in the box, the famous people and places of Arthurian legend really come to life. The artwork is truly stunning. If you are a fan of Arthurian legend (as I am) then the game is worth owning for the pictures alone.

But of course it takes more than pretty pictures to make a fine game. And is Camelot Legends a fine game? I think so. See if you agree. Here's how the game is played.

Each player holds a hand of character cards. Each character card has values in six attributes: combat, diplomacy, adventure, cunning, chivalry and psyche. Think character attributes in a role playing game such as Dungeons and Dragons and you've got the general idea. Each character card also has text that describes some special ability that is unique to that character. Most of the time that text describes an ability that can be used to boost a company's ability scores in one or more areas. Typically using that ability requires discarding the card in question at the end of a player's turn.

On your turn you start by drawing an event card. Each event card represents some challenge or event in Arthurian legend and most are assigned to one of the game's three main locations: Cornwall, the Perilous Forest, and of course Camelot. Events are generally worth victory points when completed. In order to complete an event, you must assemble a company (set of character cards) at the appropriate location that meets the event's specified requirements. In addition to earning victory points, the player that completes an event typically gains some special ability or power specified in the text on the event card.

After the event card has been placed, you may choose to invoke special abilities from your characters in play. Typically this is done to push your company's ability scores high enough to complete an event but often it can be used to target an opponent's card in some way.

Next you may complete up to one event from each main location. This requires that you have a company at the event's location with ability scores that total a set amount; typically in two of the six ability categories.

Finally, you can execute two "card actions". A card action consists of either: drawing a character card, playing a character card, or moving up to two character cards from one location to another (provided they aren't separated).

Notice that because you play your cards AFTER you attempt to complete an event, you can never claim an event immediately. You must always wait at least one turn after you've assembled a company strong enough to claim an event before you can actually claim it. This gives your opponents a chance to try and out maneuver you or disrupt your strategy in some way.

Camelot Legends is a beautiful and intricate card game. It plays reasonably well and it is absolutely drenched in the flavor of the Arthurian legends. But it does have a few flaws. Because each and every card has some unique special ability it can take quite some time to become familiar with the game. In every game I've played, we've had to spend an inordinate amount of time carefully reading the text on each and every card. This can be tedious at best. I imagine that over time players will become more familiar with the cards and the game would speed up considerably. Thankfully, for the most part, the text is clear and easy to interpret. I can't think of any cases in our games where we were left wanting a rules clarification.

One minor beef with the card text is that while they defined color coded shield symbols for each of the six attributes, they don't actually make use of the symbols in the card text. So you will find yourself constantly referring to the summary card to remember which of the six attribute shields is which. Eventually you'll get them memorized but until you do, you may find it a bit of a nuisance.

Also, while the cards are lavishly illustrated and printed on very sturdy cardstock, the cards are not coated with a high quality plastic coating. If played enough, I could see these cards showing wear over time. This is very typical of games from a minor publisher and frankly I'm pleasantly surprised that the card quality is as high as it is so I really can't fault them too much for that. This is just a minor issue.

Most cards in the game are color coded with a small gem in the corner. White cards are used in the beginner game, blue cards are added for the standard game, and red cards are reserved for the advanced game and intended to be added sparingly. For our first play, being the advanced-ubergamers that we are, we haughtily ignored the warning in the rule book and decided to play with all of the cards. After all, we are experienced gamers and we can handle a little difficulty! That was a mistake. We soon discovered why the red cards are intended to be used sparingly. They are so powerful that they can unbalance the game! I put a couple of those in play and I soon had a company that was totally unstoppable. While I still claimed the win (can't turn that down you know) I have to reluctantly admit that it was a bit unsatisfying. For my next game I played without the red cards and the game was far more enjoyable. So the moral of the story here is pay attention to the rule book.

Speaking of the rule book, this is a pretty good one. The 20 half-size full-color pages of rules are clear and well written with plenty of examples. And the last few pages are devoted to a character glossary that summarizes all of the major players in the legends of Camelot. Learning the basic game took very little time and the game play is simple enough that we didn't have to refer back to the rulebook during the game.

In summary, if you are at all a fan of Arthurian legend then I would recommend you give this game a try. It's very pretty, simple to learn, and fun to play. It's not perfect but it's a fine game nonetheless. Give it a look.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Review: Hansa

I'd been hearing a lot of good things about Uberplay's Hansa by Michael Schacht and so I was eager to give this one a try.

On its surface, Hansa is a pretty simple trading game. The rules are very simple and well written. They take only four pages and half of the space on each page is helpfully taken up with examples. On the back page, the essential rules are summarized in a small three inch square box. Once you've read through the rules, you'll probably only need to refer to the summary from then on. It took us all of fifteen minutes to learn the rules and then we were ready to dive right in.

The basic mechanic of the game involves moving a ship along trade routes from one Hansiatic port to another, buying and selling goods along the way. Moving the ship costs one Taler (rhymes with dollar). At each port you may either buy goods (which also costs a Taler), build a market (which costs goods), or sell your goods (which consumes one of your markets). The catch is that you can only perform one action at each stop, and the ship can only travel in a certain direction. So if you want both to buy goods and build a market in the same city, you'll have to chose one action and save the other until you can get the ship back to that port. You're allowed to perform as many actions as you can afford but since you have to move the ship between each one, the more actions you take, the more it's going to cost.

In spite of its simplicity, the game is actually quite deep. There are a lot of decisions to be made and what you chose to do on your turn directly influences what your opponents are going to be able to do during theirs. The only random element in the game is the goods distribution. Beyond that, everything is pure calculation and strategy. Make no mistake, this is definitely a gamer's game.

Our initial game took around 90 minutes. I would imagine that repeated playings would be closer to the 60 minutes advertised.

Playing today were Dan, Arnulfo, Bob and myself.

Early in the game, Dan managed to talk Bob into making a move that left the ship in a very favorable position for Dan. Bob hadn't noticed until it was too late that Dan was going to be able to gobble up and immediately sell a large number of goods on his turn. It didn't help that Bob is color blind. That early blunder cost Bob dearly and rocketed Dan to an early lead.

By the way, this game is definitely not a good choice for the color blind because buying goods that are the same color is quite important and often the only thing that distinguishes one piece from another is its color. Furthermore the colors chosen are similar enough to one another that they can be especially hard for the chromatically challenged to distinguish.

On the last round, Arnulfo, who was very likely bringing up the rear in points, was in a position to trigger the end of the game. The rules state that all players get an equal number of turns in the game. Because he was last in the turn order, if he triggered the end of the game then the game would end without anyone else receiving another turn. He used that to his advantage, triggering the end and skillfully gobbling up several victory points that were within his reach. That brilliant move was almost enough to rocket him into second place but as it turned out, I held on to second by a single point.

The final scores:

Dan: 49
Steve: 43
Arnulfo: 42
Bob: 28

We'll definitely be playing this one again. Bob deserves another chance to redeem himself.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Review: Take It Easy!

In this country, Ravensburger has a reputation for publishing high quality puzzles and games for children, typically with an educational slant. Take It Easy is a game that certainly does nothing to alter that perception. It's all of those things rolled into one. It's part mathematical puzzle and part game. It's accessible to children and yet quite enjoyable for adults.

Take it Easy is playable by one to four players in under an hour. While it can be rewarding as a solo effort; it's definitely more fun with a little competition. In fact, the game scales quite well to any number of players. If you want to play with more than four, just add more copies of the game. Since all players play simultaneously on their own board, adding players doesn't add any time to the game.

Each box contains four game boards, each with a hexagonal grid that makes up the playing surface, and four sets of 27 hexagonal tiles. Each hexagonal tile is bisected by three numbered and color-coded lines: one vertical and two diagonal. The object of the game is to place your tiles on your board in such a way that you have unbroken lines along as many rows as possible in all three directions. For each line that crosses the board from one side to the other without interruption, you score that number times the number of tiles. For example, if you manage to get a line of five nines running from top to bottom, that line would be worth forty five points. But if instead you had four nines and a five, that line would be broken and therefore worth nothing.

To play the game, one player draws a tile from his set at random. He then announces which tile he's drawn to the other players and all players must place that tile somewhere on their own board. This is repeated until there are no more spaces on the board. Not all of the tiles will be used so each round will end up using a different set of tiles. Once the boards are full, each player totals up her score and the scores are recorded. Play continues for a predetermined number of rounds and whoever has the highest score at the end wins. Since all players are placing the exact same tiles in the exact same order, no player has an advantage.

Placing your tiles seems to be quite easy at first. For the first five or six tiles it's going to be easy to place them so that none of your lines are broken. But pretty soon you're bound to get a tile that just doesn't fit. That's where it gets tricky. If you're clever and lucky you might be able to complete three or four lines in each direction (five in each direction would be perfect). You inevitably have to decide which lines you're going to sacrifice and which one's you're going to try and complete.

If there is one flaw in this game it's that scoring your board after each round is quite a mathematical chore. It's just simple addition and multiplication but there's quite a lot of it and it would be very easy to make a mistake. With nineteen spaces on the board, it's not uncommon to be summing around thirty different numbers while scoring a round. This would be a fantastic game for grade school math students. You're going to get in a lot of practice. Just try adding all of those numbers up in your head. Even adults who consider themselves strong in math will find that a bit difficult. But don't let that scare you off. The reward is worth the effort.

In summary, Take It Easy is a very entertaining and well balanced mathematical logic game for virtually any number of players. It plays quickly. It's challenging. And it's quite a lot of fun. I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Review: Pirate's Cove

Pirate's Cove is Days of Wonder's revamped version of Paul Randles' and Daniel Stahl's Piratenbucht. The original 2002 edition of Piratenbucht was published in German by Amigo. When Days of Wonder licensed the game for last year's (2003) U.S. release they gave it the traditional Days of Wonder once over, cleaning it up, adding lavish artwork and first class production values, and putting in several minor rules variations suggested by the board gaming community. It sold out and the eagerly anticipated 2004 re-printing has just reached stores.

In Pirate's Cove, players become bloodthirsty buccaneers and compete to be the most fearsome pirate ever to sail the seven seas! To achieve this … um … lofty? goal, players must rig their ships, hire a crew, man the cannons, search for buried treasure, and generally rule the seas. All of this must be accomplished in twelve short months (turns).

At the beginning of each turn, a treasure card is revealed on each of five islands around Pirate's Cove. Each card describes the booty and fame that will be the reward of the lucky buccaneer who succeeds in plundering the island. The reward for plundering an island is divided into four categories: fame (victory points), doubloons (used to improve your ship), treasure chests, and cards (various benefits). In addition, each of the five outer islands offers a different bonus action such as improving one aspect of your ship or letting you buy cards at the tavern. The inner island: Treasure Island is where pirates may bury their treasure chests and spare doubloons to achieve still more fame. There is also a small island called Pirate's Cove where vanquished and damaged pirate ships go to lick their wounds and repair their ships.

Once the treasure has been revealed, all players secretly chose an island to sail to. All the destinations are revealed simultaneously and the ships set sail. If any island has more than one pirate ship at it, then the pirates must fight it out to determine which one will claim the right to plunder. You may opt to flee from the battle or you may be forced to flee when your ship is crippled, but either way, the remaining pirates are going to score fame points when they see you turn tail, so it's best to be victorious.

In addition to the other players, you must be wary of famous pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Hook who also sail the seas. End up at the same island with one of them and you may find yourself out gunned. But if you succeed in vanquishing a famous pirate then you will score several fame points.

On the surface, Pirate's Cove appears to be a relatively luck heavy game. Combat is decided with dice and the die rolls are few enough that an outgunned ship has a reasonable chance at catching a lucky break. But although the combat is very luck heavy, the game itself is really more of a battle of psychology and wits. Players who can correctly deduce where their opponents' ships are going to sail and then act accordingly are going to almost always come out ahead. There are several tradeoffs to be made here. Do you go after doubloons so you can improve your ship or do you instead concentrate on avoiding the other players and collecting treasure chests and fame? Do you spend your doubloons on your sails, allowing you to strike first in combat? Do you invest in cannons and crew so you can strike harder, although you may be striking late? Or perhaps you invest in a larger hold so you can carry around more treasure and not have to burry it quite so often?

Pirate's Cove is listed for 3-5 players but to really enjoy the game at its fullest you're going to want a full compliment of five. That's because the game is most fun when there is a high likelihood of two or more players choosing the same island. More combat generally translates to more fun. The game is still fun with three players but it's definitely more enjoyable with five.

Pirate's Cove is a very good game. It's perhaps a little heavy on the luck but there is still enough strategy to keep serious gamers interested. The theme is just plain fun. Honestly, what kid hasn't dreamed of sailing the seven seas with Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney in search of buried treasure? The production quality is first rate, with gorgeous artwork and fun sturdy pieces. On a scale of one to ten, I'd rate it a solid eight.