Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Game Night That Wasn't

This week I was so busy that I didn't even have time to attend game night. Instead I barely managed to make a brief appearance to drop off a game for a friend, say hello, and return to my desk.

Summer vacation season is clearly upon us now as attendance this week was notably thin. There were only about six people there when I showed up at about eight. I understand they played most of a game of Junta before calling it a night. I have to admit that the prospect of slogging through a very long old-school game didn't sound attractive enough to make me feel like I was missing anything.

Next Tuesday is the Fourth of July so it looks like there will be no game night for me next week either. Although I do hear rumors that some folks may be getting together on Monday evening instead.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Review: Buccaneer

Looking for a nice way for three to five people to spend 30 minutes together? Why not try Buccaneer, the latest game from Stefan Dorra and Queen games? Because nothing quite says family fun like a handful of blood-thirsty pirates!

In Buccaneer, players work together to form pirate crews which they then use to board and loot merchant ships. Whoever finishes the game with the most booty wins.


Inside the box you'll find an oversized deck of fifteen cards. Each card represents a merchant ship and is appropriately decorated with a lovely picture of a sailing ship along with some other game-related information. The artwork is well done and suits the swashbuckling theme very well. You'll also find twenty-five large colored wooden disks (five each in five player colors) and two sheets of stickers that need to be applied to the disks. The stickers are illustrated with some of the most cheerful, family-friendly pirates you've ever seen. Rounding out the components are several sheets worth of sturdy cardboard coins and sturdy cardboard loot counters. The components are all first rate. My one gripe is that although the coins come in three different denominations, they are all the same size. It's a minor gripe and one I'm happy to overlook because it doesn't seriously affect the game play.

Game Play

Each player starts the game with 10 coins and five pirates. Each of a player's five pirates has a different rank. Four of them are ranked two through five and one is marked with a question mark (?).

The cards are shuffled and three merchant ships are turned face up in the middle of the table. Each merchant ship has an associated value and it also lists how many pirates must be in the crew that attempts to board her. The smallest ships can be boarded by as few as two pirates while the largest must be boarded by at least six. Each ship also carries with it at least one category of loot (barrels, chests, cutlasses, etc.). The richer ships carry two categories of loot.

On your turn you have two possible actions: either you recruit pirates to serve in a crew or you use one of your crews to board a ship.

If you choose to recruit pirates, you take one of your pirates (or stacks of pirates), place it on top of an opponent's pirate (or stack of pirates) and place the combined stack in front of you. You should try and remember what pirates you've covered because once you've covered them you are not allowed to look through the stack. Part of the game is trying to remember which pirates are in which stack. Since each pirate is a colored disk, it's easy to tell at a glance which player's pirates are in each stack, but it's up to you to remember what rank they are.

If you have a large enough stack of pirates then you could choose to board a ship. If your stack is at least as large as the stack indicated on the card then you take the ship and claim the loot. You collect the number of coins indicated on the card and you divide the one or two loot chips associated with the card. As the captain (owner of the top disk), you'll get your first choice of loot chips. Your first mate (the owner of the next disk in the stack) will get the other chip if there is one. Now you must pay your crew. Each pirate in the stack that doesn't belong to you gets paid a number of coins equal to his rank. The pirate marked with a question mark (?) is paid a number of coins indicated on the card (the amount ranges from one to six and is different for each ship).

Players take turns either recruiting pirates or boarding ships until all three ships have been plundered. Then three more ship cards are turned over and a new round begins. After all fifteen ships have been plundered, the game ends. Players who control a majority of each loot type are awarded bonus coins and then whoever ends up with the most coins wins the game.


Buccaneer is a simple family game that can be learned in about five minutes and played in less than thirty. The swashbuckling pirate theme is well supported by the artwork and works well with the simple game mechanics. The mechanics are fairly well balanced. There are enough different ways to score points (being part of a lot of crews, making sure you loot the best ships with the cheapest crews, and positioning your pirates so that you can collect a majority of loot chips) that scores tend to be close. There are also plenty of opportunities to play spoiler by taking someone's crew just before they intend to use it or forcing a player to take a ship with an overly expensive crew.

This is a light game and the strategies are not too terribly difficult to grasp. While there's very little true randomness in the game, a lot depends on what the other players choose to do. It's very easy for another player to throw the game or play "kingmaker". An inexperienced (or malicious) player can very easily ruin your strategy so don't go into this game expecting to be able to execute a brilliant plan. Still, the thirty minute playing time means that if your strategy doesn't work for you this time, it's very likely that you'll have time to try it again soon. This is a very fun game and it's not uncommon for people to finish a game and then ask to play it again right away.

Give Buccaneer a try. You'll be glad you did matey!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Are You Sleeping?

This Tuesday night, our vacationing friends from Seattle were back so we had a good sized crowd again. A lot of games were played. Here are a few of the ones that I remember.

Buccaneer is the new Stefan Dorra game. I've played this quite a few times this week and I have to say that I rather like it. Oh, it's got some issues: it's prone to kingmaking and it can be a little hard to do any sort of real strategizing; but it's got a great little theme, lovely bits, and it's a short enough game that you can bang one out in about a half-hour so those minor flaws don't spoil it for me. By the way, this is an updated version of an older game of his called Safecracker. From what I've heard of the original (I've never played it) this is the better version. I'll try to post a review soon.

Chris, Michael M, Adam and I played a game that I haven't played in a very long time: Mystery of the Abbey. This is one of the early Days of Wonder games and it doesn't get a lot of table time with our group because several among us don't care for it. I can sort of see why, it is rather random at times, some of the event cards which are meant to add flavor can be a little ... embarrassing to some. (Act out an entire turn in "plainsong"? or Everyone sing "Are You Sleeping?" in a round?) Of course if you don't like that sort of thing you can always ignore those cards. This is a deduction game similar to Clue, where players attempt to identify the foul murdering monk in a medieval abbey. It's loosely based on The Name of the Rose (an Umberto Eco novel and later a movie by the same name) and it's loaded with theme. The gameplay has some issues however. Players are encouraged to ask questions of one another in an attempt to identify the killer. Unfortunately, coming up with useful questions can be difficult, especially since cards are constantly changing hands, often invalidating any information you've already gathered. Usually you end up solving the crime just because so many cards have changed hands that you've seen them all. Still, I enjoy the game quite a bit and if you can ignore the few flaws and get into the spirit of the game, the luscious bits and deep theme can really draw you in.

I finished my night with a few rounds of No Thanks (or Geschenkt). This is a great little filler game and if you're one of the two or three gamers who still hasn't played this then you need to fix that problem right away.

Other games to hit the table included Caylus, Tichu and Can't Stop.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

X Rated

This week several of our regulars are out of town so we had a much smaller crowd at Game Night but it was still enough for a few good games.

While we waited for others to arrive we played a quick round of Liar's Dice and from there we moved on to Mall of Horror, a game about zombies invading a shopping mall (of all things). Mall is definitely not my favorite game but it was fun enough. Players have three character tokens, worth varying points and each with slightly different game advantages. On each turn, players simultaneously choose which of six rooms they want to move a character to. Then a number of zombies randomly appear. If the characters are strong enough to hold the zombies at bay at each room then they're fine but eventually the zombies will overrun a room and some body's going to be eaten. The players in that room all vote on which character will be shoved out the door to become zombie-chow. That's basically the game. It's all about deal making really. Darryl and I had a good pact going for the first half of the game where we alternately voted for each other each turn to decide which character got the life-saving items found in the parking lot. About half way through the game I made a poor decision about which character to move and found myself down a man. Shortly thereafter my pact with Darryl fell apart but by then it was enough to ensure Darryl clinched the victory. It's a decent game and I'd be willing to play it again but I don't think I'd go out of my way to do so.

After last week's Fury of Dracula game, Adam was itching to play Scotland Yard so I brought that in and we played it. Reversing last week's description: Scotland Yard is a lot like Fury of Dracula but without the random events and fighting. It distills the hunters and hunted theme into its bare essence. The game is played on a map of London that is overlaid with a huge network of bus lines, underground lines, and taxi lines. On each turn "Mr. X" secretly moves from one stop to another. The detectives (everybody else) are told which form of transportation he used but not where he is. Every few turns Mr. X must reveal his location. The detectives then scramble to get to the area and form a dragnet. If a detective can ever manage to get to the same location as Mr. X, they win the game. If Mr. X can manage to evade the detectives for a certain number of turns, then he wins. We played twice. Mike K. was Mr. X both times and both times we caught him although the second game he did much better and nearly slipped away.

While we were playing our first game of Scotland Yard, Chris and Darryl played Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation. This is a great little two player game that plays a lot like Stratego on steroids. If you're looking for a good two-player strategy game that plays quickly and has a lot of Tolkien flavor this would be a good choice.

After the second game of Scotland Yard I went home to watch the Brazil and Croatia match that I'd recorded earlier in the day. It was a good match. Croatia put up a great fight and could have won but Brazil scored the only goal despite looking a little bit off their form. Hopefully they'll shake off whatever malaise is gripping them before their next match. I expect better ball from the Seleção.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Beautiful Game

Twenty years ago today I was living in Meier, a barrio of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 1986 was notable for many things but for the rest of the world it was quite notable as a World Cup year. As a young American living abroad for the first time in my life I was quite simply unprepared for the level of intensity and devotion that the World Cup inspires in its faithful. Oh, I'd heard that it was a big deal. I'd heard that futebol (soccer) was Brazil's national sport. I'd heard that Brazilian soccer prowess was a source of national pride. But I really had no idea what I was in for. Until you've been in Rio during the World Cup, you really can't imagine what that means but let me try and give you some idea.

Take our devotion to American football, baseball, basketball, and every other sport you can imagine. Put them all together and you still fall well short. In Brazil, there is nothing, I repeat NOTHING so important as the World Cup. For months leading up to the event, the comings and goings of the Seleção (Brazil's national team) are front page news. Pelé is not just a national hero; he is a god. This goes way beyond fanaticism; way beyond devotion. To a Brazilian, soccer is life itself.

One of my strangest memories is walking through downtown Rio, one of the busiest, most crowded cities in the world, during a Brazilian World Cup match. It was the middle of the work day and the streets were quite literally deserted. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Other than the muffled cheers of soccer fans wafting from apartments, bars and rooftops, the streets were completely quiet. Except for bars and restaurants, every business was closed. It was the only time, day or night, that I have ever seen the city so empty. I have truly never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to watch most of those World Cup matches in Brazilian homes. It was an experience I'll never forget. The enthusiasm was infectious. The experience was exhilarating. The excitement was unforgettable. Since then, I have made a point of following the World Cup. I know I can never recapture that excitement but every four years I can remember it.

Why is soccer such a big deal in Brazil (or the world for that matter)? And why doesn't the United States share that passion? I can think of a lot of reasons. Many Brazilians live at or below the poverty level. For them, soccer represents a way out, an escape. There are many things in which Brazil could be perceived as something less than successful. Soccer is not one of them. It is the one thing which Brazilians clearly do better than anyone else in the world (witness their record five World Cup wins) and they are justifiably proud of it. Soccer is a sport that anyone can play. You don't need money. You don't need height or bulk. You don't need special equipment. All you need is a ball and a place to play (and any street will serve for that).

Why has it never really caught on in the states? In my opinion there is one major reason: advertising. People tend to follow the sports that they are able to watch on television. If you don't know the players and you're unfamiliar with the rules of the game then you're not as likely to be interested in it. That prime-time television exposure is extremely important. American television stations tend to want to air commercial friendly sporting events. Take baseball for instance. After every at bat is a convenient break into which you can insert a brief commercial. Between every inning you can run a slew of them. American football is the same way. We even have special extra time-outs inserted in the game just so the television networks can air even more commercials. Basketball is a little more fast paced but there are still several breaks in the action which Anheuser-Busch and Friends can use to try and build a whole new generation of alcoholics. Soccer is different. There are NO breaks in soccer, other than a brief half time. The action is constant. Back before cable television, what network exec in his right mind would choose to promote a sport that doesn't give him easy access to a slew of rabid, mindless consumers?

Some Americans will tell you that soccer is too boring. It's too slow paced. That is, of course, nonsense. Only someone who is unfamiliar with the game would make that argument. After all, some of these same Americans will happily watch televised golf. The real problem is that these people don't understand what the game is about, they don't know any of the players or any of the teams, and so to them it is boring. But to anyone who follows the game it's clearly anything but boring.

The recent explosion of pay television providers, coupled with the influx of immigrants has started to change things a little. It's now much easier to find a soccer match on television in the States than it used to be. But for the most part the damage has been done. The precedent has been set. It will take a few miracles before the United States ever embraces the Beautiful Game the way the rest of the world has. Until then, I'll still be rooting for both USA and Brazil every four years.

Vai Brasil! Mais uma vez! Let's make it SIX!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Fury of Game Night

Last night we had another newcomer join us for Game Night. Gene was introduced to our little group by Christopher. Hopefully he'll become a regular.

My first game of the night was Mykerinos. Gene, Oren and Adam joined me for a nice four player game while we waited for others to arrive. I've played this game a few times now and I must say that I really like it. (I'm sure that the fact that I won again has nothing whatsoever to do with that.) It's a nice quick area control game with a little bit of a production element: the tiles you win in a round give you abilities which you can then use in subsequent rounds. There's a nice balance to be struck between deciding when to go for tiles, when to improve your scoring multipliers in the museum, and when to conserve your cubes for subsequent rounds. Gene mentioned that he's heard it compared to Louis XIV and although I hadn't noticed it at first, there are some superficial similarities. Mykerinos is a much simpler and much shorter game, and that appeals to me quite a bit. This is definitely a winner in my book.

After that game broke up, Adam, Greg, Oren and I joined Chris for a game of Fury of Dracula. This is an updated version of an old (1987) Games Workshop game. The new version is by Fantasy Flight and has been given the standard Fantasy Flight treatment: which means it looks really nice. It's a good game but it can be really long. Our game lasted several hours and consequently was the only other game I played this evening. The game itself plays an awful lot like Scotland Yard with fighting and random events. One player (in this case Chris) controls Dracula and tries to escape from the others who play characters from the book. The game is played on a luxurious map of Europe and the vampire hunters move from city to city in an attempt to track the count and put and end to him. We lost but only just barely. We had several chances to kill him but each time he managed to pull off a lucky escape. And that's one of my complaints with the game is that it does seem to be a little luck heavy. Still, there's enough tough choices in the game to make it interesting and it's definitely loaded with theme.

Other games played this evening include Aladdin's Dragons and Power Grid. And I'm quite sure there were several others.