Sunday, January 29, 2006

First Impressions of Elasund & Fist Full of Cards

This afternoon, I found a little bit of time to sit down and play a couple of games with the family.

First up, was Klaus Teuber's latest game in the Catan Adventures series: Elasund - The First City. The previous game in the series, Candamir, was a pretty good game but it didn't seem to really stand out. My first impression of Elasund is that this is a better game. The game still retains some of the settlers flavor; dice are rolled, items are produced, ships move, things are built. There's certainly an element of luck here. But there is also a fair amount of strategy and a healthy dose of direct player competition.

Players are trying to build the first city in Catan. This involves placing building permit disks which are then converted into buildings. Buildings occupy one or more plots. The deliciously nasty part is that larger buildings can be built over smaller buildings, in which case the smaller buildings are removed from the board. Since buildings are directly tied to production (as well as victory points), building over another player's buildings is one of the most satisfying ways of improving your position.

Kray, Michael and I played today. I thought I had the game sewn up but near the end of the game I made a fatal misstep and left an opening for Kray to race from behind and surprise us all. It was a very enjoyable game. I look forward to playing it again.

Next up was the new mini-expansion for BANG! This is a 15-card expansion called A Fistful of Cards.

It had been quite some time since we had played Bang as a family. A few years back we played it quite often but with so many other games to choose from, Bang was left languishing on the shelf. I was only too happy to have another excuse to bring it out.

A Fistful of Cards is a mini-expansion similar to Bang's first expansion: High Noon. Fifteen cards are placed in a stack in the center of the table and each time the Sheriff plays, he reveals another card. This card alters the rules of the game in some way. For instance, one of the cards replaces the "draw 2 cards" rule with a rule whereby a player can continue to add cards from the top of the deck to his hand as long as he can correctly guess the color of its suit. Another card resurrects the first player killed from the game.

I rather hope this new expansion will give us a few more excuses to play Bang again. Some dislike Bang for its randomness and for its player elimination but I still have a soft spot for this game. I love the theme and I love the humor in the game. I also love the metagame of trying to guess who has which roll. If A Fist Full of Cards gets Bang to the table a little more often then I'll call it a success.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Review: Pentago

A short time ago I received a game in the mail that I had never heard of before. The game is Pentago invented by Tomas Flodén of Sweden and published in this country by Mindtwister USA.

Pentago is a very simple two-player abstract strategy game that can be played in around five minutes. Players alternate turns placing marbles on a 6x6 grid in an attempt to be the first to get five of their marbles in a row. The twist (pun intended) to this game is that each time a player plays a marble, he also twists a single quadrant 90 degrees in either direction. (The box cover pictured above should make clear what I'm talking about.)

According to the box, this game is all the rage in Sweden, even winning their Game of the Year award for 2005. I haven't bothered to verify if that is true or not but I suppose it's possible. I'm afraid that I'm not really up to speed on what's big and what's not in Sweden.

This is a very simple game but the idea of rotating a quadrant of the board raises the game above your standard Tic-Tac-Toe variant by significantly increasing the number of potential threats. Anyone who is familiar with Pente will immediately grasp the basic strategy but the ever-changing board definitely adds an interesting element. Being able to visualize how the board will look when any piece is rotated is an essential skill in this game.

The packaging and components are quite good. The board is made of attractive wood pieces on an attractive contrasting wood base. Metal slats divide the quadrants. Black and white marbles come in their own little wooden compartments. It's an attractive game that would look good on any end table. At approximately 5"x5", it's also small enough to travel well.

This will never be one of my favorite games (it's too simple for that) but it is a very nice game that is a good choice for people who are fond of pure abstract strategy games. I have a weakness for games that look good on a nick-nack shelf and this definitely fits that description. I'll be keeping my copy and if my distributor ever gets any in, I'll consider stocking it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What You Missed Last Night

Last night was Tuesday night and that means it was game night! Here's what you missed.

Well first off, I'd like to welcome yet another Michael to our group. Michael K. joined us for the first time. (I'll call him Michael to avoid confusion with long timer Mike K.) He brought a couple of games and I managed to get in one game with him. It was a pleasure. I'm looking forward to many more.

These days it wouldn't be game night if someone didn't break out Descent. It may not be my favorite game (too long for my tastes), but clearly it's a hit with a large portion of our group. This time we had Darryl acting as overlord against Christopher, Jose, Birch, and Adam. (Did I miss anyone?) Apparently the heroes lost this time. They were too wimpy to pierce the final monster's defenses and he mopped the floor with them (or so I hear).

I got in a few rounds of Bluff (AKA Liar's Dice) while people gathered then I moved on to something more substantial:

Oren, Mike M., Tejas and I played a nice game of Ys. I tried something new this time: I decided to completely ignore black cubes and try to get all my points elsewhere. By the end of the third turn that looked rather promising. I had a pretty commanding lead and I looked poised to corner the better colored gems. But when the dust cleared, my commanding lead just couldn't withstand the twenty-something points Mike and Oren got from their black gems. I ended up finishing a close third. Well, sometimes a strategy works; sometimes it doesn't. This one didn't. Fun game though.

I wrapped up my evening of gaming with a game of Il Principe. Michael, Oren, and Wade joined me. I was the only one at the table who had played before and while I scored close to all but the winner, I came in last. Clearly this game takes more than one playing to grok its strategy. I'm really not quite sure what it takes to win this one. I'll have to think about it some more. Wade won the game with a decent lead over the rest of us but I don't think that he could tell you why. We all had a good time though.

And from there it was back to the salt mines. I'll be glad when things slow down a bit and I can actually go home after game night.

Other games that were played tonight include Diamant, Euphrates & Tigris: contest of kings (the E&T card game), and Oltre Mare - the new Rio Grande version which still hasn't arrived at the store yet. Grr! Should be in very soon. Really! I swear! If not I'm going to have to lynch my distributor. (Probably my fault for choosing last week to be on vacation.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Carcassonne: Der Turm

Does the world really need yet another Carcassonne expansion? Well, I don't know about that but I've just been looking over some pictures of the bits and I will say that tile dispenser looks pretty nifty.

I like Carcassonne quite a bit (the City is my favorite version) but I have to admit that I didn't even bother to play the Princess and the Dragon expansion because I just really haven't been all that interested in spending any more of my own personal money on the series. (Using the store's money to buy inventory is a different matter of course.) Will "The Tower" be cool enough to entice me? Perhaps.

Source: Boardgame News

Yehuda scores the BIG interview.

Yehuda's latest blog post is an interview with the biggest designer of them all. If you don't mind a little playful sacrilege, I recommend you give it a read. Funny stuff!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Worst Part of a Good Vacation

The worst part of a good vacation is that it eventually comes to an end.

This last week we took the family skiing at our favorite ski resort: Big White, near Kelowna, British Colombia. This place has got to be the undiscovered gem of North American ski resorts. I've skied all up and down the west coast. I've skied Utah, Tahoe, and of course Washington. Far and away the best snow I've ever skied, I skied this week at Big White. We had inches of fresh powder every single day. When I'd head into the glades I'd be up to my thighs in light fluffy dry powder that was simply a dream come true. Most of their accommodations (including the apartment we stayed at) are ski-in, ski-out. Their kids program is fantastic. Their prices are very affordable. And the mountain (while not quite as big as giants like Whistler) is huge and offers something for everyone.

But that's not why you read this blog. You come here for the games. And oh yes, there were games. We planned this vacation so we'd be up there at the same time as our good friends the Carpenters. Curt is also a game nut. In fact, he's even more of a game geek than I am. So between the two of us we (and our kids) had plenty of games to choose from when the slopes closed.

Here are just some of the games we managed to get to the table.

One of my favorite games is Reiner Knizia's masterpiece: Tigris & Euphrates. The card game version: Euphrates & Tigris: contest of kings has just made it to the United States and we were able to give it a go. My son Kray and I played a two player game and then Curt and my other son Mike joined Kray and I for a four player game. My reaction? It's good, but it's not quite as good as the original game. Perhaps I'm biased by my fondness for the original but I felt that the card game version didn't have quite as much going for it. That's not too surprising given that it's intended to be a scaled down, more portable version of the original game. On the whole, the game plays nearly the same but the two-dimensional grid is abandoned in favor of a linear representation of regions and kingdoms using cards laid out on the table and that really changed the game for me. Still, it's quite good and I'll be playing it again.

For the younger kids, we brought up Geisterwäldchen (Ghost Grove in English). This is the sequel to Geistertreppe (Spooky Stairs) and it's a fantastic game for younger kids although it's certainly too simple to keep most adults interested for very long. Jessica, our five year old, just loves it.

Curt brought up a few imports that aren't yet readily available in the US. One of those, Diamant, was a big hit, particularly with our young kids in the 8 to 12 range. Diamant is a push-your-luck game where players explore a mine looking for gems. The deeper in the mine you go, the more gems you acquire, but the more risk you incur. Delve too long and one of the disasters is sure to strike the mine, taking you and your gems with it. The key is to choose the right time to take the money and run.

Another of Curt's imports was the much hyped Antike. This game is being billed as a civilization game that's playable in under two hours. It's not quite that. The civilizations in the game are all totally identical and there is really little interaction between the civs (other than direct conflict which is so expensive as to be rather limited). Instead, it's a race to earn victory points with a civilization theme. The clever mechanism in this game is the rondel, which is a round action wheel upon which players place their pawns. On each turn, you move your pawn a number of spaces around the rondel. The number of spaces is your choice but any number above three comes at a cost. The space you choose determines what action you can perform. It's an interesting mechanism that gives players the freedom to determine their strategy while at the same time, dictating the pace at which they can proceed. The game plays quickly but it took us a while to get it started and we had to cut it short to go to dinner. We'll have to come back to it and play it all the way through soon. From my brief taste, I can say that this has the potential to be a favorite.

Another game we played for the first time is the new Z-Man Games release: Il Principe. This is a card driven auction game with a minor area control element. Players auction off sets of "building cards" which they then use to build cities. Cities earn victory points and they also earn players the right to place counters in areas of the map. Building cards also are used to control various roles in the game which bestow abilities and also earn victory points for the players who control them. It's an interesting game that I'm looking forward to playing again.

Also new to me was Ys, from Ystari Games and Rio Grande Games. This is a blind auction game where players send their brokers into the various districts of Ys in order to acquire gems and influence the market. Brokers are represented by numbered cylinders. On each round, players place two brokers, one face up and one face down. After eight cylinders are placed this way, the various areas are scored and the turn is over. After four turns, the game ends and victory points are awarded based on the distribution of gems and their relative value (which changes throughout the game). There is a lot more going on in this game than I can describe in one simple paragraph. This is definitely one of the better games I played over the week. I'm looking forward to not getting my butt kicked the next time I play it.

Also hitting the table were Hacienda, and Beowulf, both games I've written about recently. Hacienda is an excellent new Wolfgang Kramer game. Beowulf is Reiner Knizia's push-your luck game based on the Old English epic poem which has some similarities to one of his other games: Lord of the Rings. Both are fine games but I've written about them recently and I'm due to write a review of Hacienda soon so I'll not say much about them here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Another Tuesday, Another Game Night

We had a pretty good attendance last night with as many as 14 people showing themselves at one time or another throughout the evening. While we waited for people to gather we played a six-player game of Steffan Dorra's excellent game, For Sale. This is a simple bidding game played in two rounds. During the first round, thirty property cards numbered 1-30 are auctioned off. During the second round, the property cards from the first round are traded in for check cards. Checks are worth from 15 down to 0 points and they're doled out over a series of turns where each player chooses one property card from their hand, all reveal what they've chosen and then whoever played the highest property takes the highest check, and so on. It's fast and light and lots of fun.

Then it was on to the main event:

On one table we had Oren running a five-player game of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. That kept them busy for the entire evening (or at least until I left at around ten-o-clock). By the way, I finally got to play this with my son the other day. It's a very good dungeon crawler game. If you're at all a fan of D&D then you'll probably love this game. I was a D&D player once upon a time and I did enjoy the game very much but I think that for me it runs a little bit on the long side so I'm not sure how much I'll actually want to play it. It's an excellent game and I can totally see the appeal but at this point in my life I'm a little wary about starting any game, no matter how good, that's likely to go well beyond three hours.

At the other table, four of us (Mike K., Darryl, Adam and I) played Martin Wallace's new game: Byzantium for the first time. Byzantium is a very unique kind of war game/euro game hybrid. Unlike most war games, where players play one side or another, in Byzantium each player controls both an Arab army and a Byzantine army. There are two victory tracks, one for each side of the war (Arab and Byzantine) and players attempt to score points in each of them. Points are scored in a number of ways but chiefly by taking control of and holding a city. Typical of a Martin Wallace game, clever mechanics abound and the game features not one but two brutal economies that must be managed. It's a rather long game (figure over three hours for your first four-player game) but the rules aren't terribly hard to learn, there's very little down time, and the tension is high throughout. We each went for very different strategies and in spite of that, the game ended very close, with only a few points difference between first, second and third. The player who came in last would have come in first if he'd only had a few more points on his Arab scoring track (if one of your two scores is less than half of the other then only the largest counts; otherwise you add them together to get your final score). Like most Martin Wallace games, it can take a while to figure out a winning strategy. I have a feeling that I'm going to have to play this a few more times before I even begin to get a feel for how to play it well. In other words: I liked it very much.

After we finished Byzantium, we played Geschenkt, a very light game where players turn over a numbered card (worth negative points) and take turns adding chips (worth positive points) into the pot until finally someone breaks down and takes the chips and the card. At the end of the game, any cards in sequence only hurt your score by the value of the lowest card in the sequence, so getting runs is a good thing. Each chip improves your score by one point so the more chips you end up with the better. It's a fast and light game with a lovely chicken element as players try and decide at what point it's best to stop spending chips and just take the card.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Can I get a little humility here?

Friday night our church had a game night. Naturally I brought a big pile of games. I figured that most of the people there would not be regular game players so I made sure to bring simple games such as Apples to Apples, Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, and so on. Bearing in mind that this was a church congregation, I also made sure to bring very non-threatening games: no games with heavy fantasy themes, racy artwork, or dark themes for instance. Still, I was aware of a couple of seasoned gamers in the congregation so I did bring one "gamer's game": Tigris & Euphrates.

Sure enough, while most people spent the night playing familiar older games like Uno or Rummikube, as well as the group Jeopardy game my wife had organized, there were a couple of people who expressed interest in some of the better games I brought. One gal, upon learning that Tigris & Euphrates was my favorite board game on the table, asked if I would teach her the game so we headed for a table and started up a two-player game.

Now I'm not an expert on Tigris & Euphrates but I have played it a fair amount and I consider myself a pretty decent player. But tonight, for whatever reason I was seriously off my game. I'd like to think that I was going easy on her, this being her first time playing, but while I did point out a few potential moves and help her with some strategy, the truth is that I just plain got a butt-whoopin'. It didn't help that early on I tried to disrupt her strategy by taking over some kingdoms with internal conflicts. Mine wasn't a bad strategy but I swear, whenever she needed red tiles she had a hand full of them! I would go into an internal conflict with a three or four tile advantage and she would still manage to match me … repeatedly! I'd think to myself "well she can't have four red tiles THIS time" and sure enough she would. After about the fourth or fifth unnaturally lucky internal defeat I'd lost so many turns to lady luck that I was hopelessly behind. At that point it was just a matter of scrambling to salvage what little of my dignity remained. The final score wasn't pretty.

At least I can be proud of my sportsmanship. I've still got that. But my ego was lost somewhere in Mesopotamia. If you should see it, please sweep the pieces into a small box and send it back to me. I miss it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Insomniac's Game Night Report

I worked late tonight after game night and now I'm so wound up that I can't sleep. Guess I'll write my game night wrap-up now instead of waiting like I had originally planned.

I think we'll stick with the building 50 cafe from here on in. It's easily the best lit cafe we've tried. The tables are all just right. It's not too big or too busy. And it's central to most of us and near the freeway so that makes it just about perfect.

Mike K. and I were the first ones there. While we waited for the others to arrive we played a two player game of Fairy Tale. This game works well with every number of players I've tried. It's fast enough to play just about any time and adding players doesn't significantly affect the game length. I won this time but I've played it far more than Mike so I had a distinct advantage, since I know what cards are in the deck and have had time to develop a strategy or two.

While we were playing Mike M. arrived, followed closely by the Seattle gang (Christopher, Birch, Wade, and Jose). With seven of us it was time to break out the big games and Christopher, Jose, Mike K. and I decided to try and tackle Siena.

I've been meaning to get Siena to the table for weeks now. I'll talk more about Siena in a future post but here are some brief comments. First of all, Siena is seriously marred by its poorly written English rules and lack of iconography. The learning curve is way too high for what in the end is really only a medium complexity game. We had some alternate rules translations that helped somewhat but the best way to play this game for the first time would definitely be to play it with someone who already knows how to play. It took us forever just to feel we understood the rules well enough to begin playing. Later this evening I read through the revised English rules posted by Zman on the Geek (which are a HUGE improvement) and discovered that we had only got a couple of minor things wrong. Frankly, I was hoping we'd gotten much more wrong because our experience was not the best. I want to play it again because I think I understand better how to play it now and I might enjoy it more but I'm not sure if anyone from this group will want to play it again. That seems a shame because I think there's a decent game in here if it were played correctly by people that understood how to play it well. I'll post more on this later.

While we played Siena, the others played a game of Hacienda. And Darryl showed up just in time to join them. Unlike Siena, Hacienda is relatively easy to learn and it's proven quite enjoyable from the very first playing. It also plays in a relatively short amount of time.

Darryl also brought SET which that group played while we finished up our game of Siena. SET is a great logic game where players try to identify sets of cards. It's one of those mental gymnastic games that takes a little while to get the hang of.

After Siena broke up, the Seattle group headed home and Mike M., Mike K. Darryl, and I played Tigris & Euphrates. I never get tired of this game. It doesn't hurt that I won again. This game has a wonderful balance of strategy and tactics and luck. And it's relatively easy to teach too. It's just about perfect.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Tomorrow is Game Night

Building 50 worked so well last week that we're going to meet there again. We meet at 5. Come join us!

If you need access to the cafe, there are doors that lead to the outside seating area. See the marked area on the map. Knock on those and we'll let you in.