Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wallenstein vs. Shogun Map Comparison

In my last post I mentioned how the topography in Shogun felt different from Wallenstein. Well, I managed to find a couple of pictures on Board Game Geek for comparison.

Wallenstein Map

Shogun Maps (Sun & Moon)

Looking at these maps you can see that there are a lot of similarities. All three maps are made up of five regions with nine provinces in each region. All of them have one central region surrounded by four other regions. The Shogun maps are elongated but (for the most part) so are the provinces themselves. There are roughly 10-12 provinces spanning east to west and 5-6 north to south on the Shogun maps where there are perhaps 7-8 spanning either axis on the Wallenstein map. Almost all of the provinces border at least three other provinces on both maps and the water routes on the Shogun maps do quite a bit to make the edges more accessible to some provinces in the center.

While it does look like it's slightly easier to grab and hold a corner of the map in Shogun, it's perhaps not as much of a sure thing as it initially appears, particularly when you take into account that the more valuable provinces tend to be closer to the middle.

Furthermore, the Sun and Moon maps in Shogun offer different area distributions which add quite a bit of interest. On the Moon map in particular (the bottom one), the areas are intertwined such that it's very possible to have a presence in several political areas while remaining entrenched in only one geographical area.

So I guess the conclusion I draw from this is that if you were holding off on getting Shogun because of concerns with the maps, don't. The maps may be different from Wallenstein and they may offer different challenges but I don't believe them to be unbalanced.

Mission: Game Night

Once again I arrived a little late. It seems like every time I'm just about to leave for game night someone pops into my office or something comes up and causes me to fall behind schedule. Argh! But I finally arrived and the turnout was pretty good last night.

My first game of the night was Mission: Red Planet, a game from Asmodée games by the two Brunos: Bruno Cathala and Bruno Fiadutti. This is a majority control game where players try to have a majority of astronauts (which, in this game at least, look like little colored vitamin pills) in different areas on Mars. There are two twists to the game that make it interesting. First, astronauts aren't placed directly on the planet, instead they're loaded into space ships which must fill up before embarking to their destinations. This creates a bit of a time delay that allows other players to react to some of your declared intentions before they actually take effect. The second twist is that astronauts are placed using a role selection mechanic similar to Citadels. Some roles let you place a lot of astronauts, others let you place only one but give you other special abilities such as changing a ship's destination, moving astronauts that have already landed on the planet, or destroying a ship entirely. There are also a number of elements that introduce a fair amount of randomness. I enjoyed the game quite a bit but it's not likely to become one of my very favorites. I'll definitely play it again.

Next I finally got in my game of Shogun. You may remember that last week I was annoyed that Shogun was started without me. Well this week I made it very clear that I wanted to play and I got my wish. There were four of us and (except for one player who was very new to the game) the final scores were all very tight. Shogun is a remake of Wallenstein. This time the theme is warlords fighting for dominance in 16th century Japan. There are a couple of minor rules changes which I think improve the game (particularly the auction at the beginning of each season for special abilities and turn order) and of course the map is quite different. In fact, it's the different map which really makes Shogun a different game from Wallenstein. The topography of the map (no matter which of the two sides you choose) is significantly different from the German map in Wallenstein. Wallenstein's map is relatively square but Shogun's map is long and thin. This stretched topography means that it is easier for two players to grab the provinces at either end of the map and seal them off behind a wall of defenses. That can give a pretty strong advantage and indeed that's what happened in our game. I had one side of the map and Jason had the other, with Mike and Kai left to duke it out in the middle. In spite of the fact that Mike and Kai agreed to a truce early in the game so they could concentrate on battling Jason and me, our strongly fortified positions did seem to lead to a slight advantage and he and I ended up in first and second place respectively. But it was close enough that it could easily have gone the other way so I'm not sure that the topography significantly unbalances the game. There may very well be good ways to mitigate the slight advantage.

Wrapping up the night for me was yet another game of Tichu. Mike and I squared off against Kai and Curt. In spite of getting some truly awful hands and losing a couple of tichu calls, Mike and I managed to eek out a win.

Other games played tonight included On the Underground and a new game prototype that Christopher is working on.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tuesday's Games

We had a good turnout Tuesday night and had several good games going.

When I arrived (over 30 minutes late), there were several people playing Reiner Kinizia's card game Money. Money's not anywhere close to my favorite game but a lot of folks in our group like it. It's a solid set building game from the master mathematician of Eurogames.

That soon broke up and four of us played the Downfall of Pompeii. I just finished reviewing this game so I'm sure you all are aware that I like it. If you want to know more just scroll down to the next entry and read away.

Before Pompeii wound up a number of the others started a game of Shogun despite the fact that I'd made it quite clear that I wanted in on the game! Gee with friends like that who needs enemies? I guess they were afraid to play against me. Yeah, that must be it.

Shogun is the new re-themed version of the classic euro-wargame hybrid Wallenstein. It has a new Japanese theme (obviously) and a really cool double-sided map. The rules are almost the same but Shogun has some tiny tweaks that I think actually improve the game a little bit. Of course the classic cube tower is still there. I think Shogun is destined to be a classic just like Wallenstein.

Since Shogun had already started (yes, I'm going to keep harping on that) the rest of us were forced to play a lesser game. And unfortunately this time it really was a lesser game. Curt brought out Bison: Thunder on the Prairie and tried to teach it to us. We got about halfway through the second turn before we all decided that there were much better four player games that we could be playing. Bison might be a good game but it sure didn't seem that way. We never did quite grock the strategy and I think we misinterpreted a couple of rules (although not in a way that broke the game). Either way, I can't remember the last time we've actually aborted a game at game night. I think this was a first. Oh and the artwork in this game is just flat out ugly. I was not impressed.

What better four player game could we play? Why Tichu of course! My night ended with a couple of Tichu games. The first game I partnered with an inexperienced player (and we won) and the in the second game I helped coach that same player (and his partnership won). How's that for a stroke to the old ego?

Also played tonight was a game of Pillars of the Earth.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review: the Downfall of Pompeii

The Downfall of Pompeii is a game by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for 2-4 players ages 10 and up. Originally published by Amigo, it is distributed in the United States by Mayfair Games. It plays in around 45 minutes.


In 63 AD a strong earthquake heavily damaged the Roman city of Pompeii and scared away many of the inhabitants who feared that the neighboring volcano Vesuvius might be about to erupt. When no eruption was immediately forthcoming, wealthy citizens began moving back to Pompeii, taking advantage of the recent vacancies. For a time, Pompeii enjoyed a bit of a renaissance but the land boom was about to end abruptly with a boom of another sort. On August 24, 79 AD Vesuvius erupted, burying the city in ash and lava and effectively spoiling a fine summer day for a lot of people.

The Downfall of Pompeii is a game played in two parts: the first part simulates the land rush with players trying to put as many citizens as possible into the city; the second part simulates the mad panic of the eruption with players trying to pull as many citizens out of the city and to safety as possible before the city is completely buried.


Inside the large box, you'll find an 8 page color rule booklet, a very attractive game board, a deck of 62 full sized game cards, 140 wooden player tokens, a cloth bag, 45 sturdy tiles, and (best of all) a very cool plastic volcano that fits in a hole in the game board. All of the components are very attractive and functional. The artwork is clear and the iconography is simple to understand. The rule booklet is quite complete with plenty of detailed examples and full color illustrations. Players should have no difficulty learning this game.


This is a pretty simple game that in many ways really feels like two games played back to back.

The first game feels a bit like a card game. Players have a hand of four cards. Each card bears the number of a residence in the city. Players play a card from their hand and then place a citizen in the corresponding residence. Then the player draws another card into his hand and the next player goes. After the first few rounds, a player can earn the right to place more than one citizen at a time in the city by choosing a residence that already has a few citizens in it. Sometimes a player draws an omen card which grants that player the right to appease the volcano gods by picking up another player's citizen token and tossing it into the volcano. I consider this delightful good fun. There's nothing quite like a little human sacrifice to spice up a game, I always say!

Eventually the volcano erupts at which point the first game is over. Players toss out their remaining cards, put any left over citizens back in the box and get ready for the second game.

The second game plays more like a tile laying abstract strategy game. Players take turns drawing a lava tile from the bag. Each tile has a symbol which matches one of the six symbols on the board: helmet, mask, scroll, column, and coin. The tile must be placed adjacent to a matching tile already on the board (or next to the appropriate start space). If it lands on a square that contains citizens then those citizens are unceremoniously chucked into the volcano. (Whee!) After placing a tile the player then tries to move two of his or her citizens closer to one of the city gates. Any citizens that manage to leave the city through one of the city gates count as victory points. He who rescues the most citizens wins!


I really like the Downfall of Pompeii. I like the fact that the game is so very simple to learn. I've been able to teach this game to gamers and non-gamers alike and not once has anyone had any difficulty understanding the game. I also really like the fun of tossing bits into the volcano. Call it sadistic or twisted if you like; I call it good fun. It's not a perfect game. There is definitely a lot of luck. Drawing the right card and getting lucky tile draws counts for quite a bit. Nevertheless there are enough important choices to be made that the better player should win most of the time.

The Downfall of Pompeii plays fast, it's easy to learn, it's attractive, and it's fun. If you're looking for a light family game that you can play with non-gamers and gamers alike you should give it a try.

Review: the Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is a new game by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler based on a novel by Ken Follett. It plays in around an hour and a half and accommodates 2-4 players. Originally produced in Germany by Kosmos, it's distributed in the United States by Mayfair Games.

The buzz around Pillars of the Earth has been building for quite a while now. Ever since its introduction at the annual Essen game convention in Germany, I've been hearing what a great game this is and I've been eagerly waiting to try it out. Perhaps the most common description that I've heard for this game is "Caylus Light", in reference to last year's smash hit game. How accurate is that description? Read on.


Pillars of the Earth comes in the now industry standard square box format. The beautiful artwork on the cover is continued throughout the rest of the game's production. Inside the box you'll find a lovely, full color illustrated eight page rule booklet and a gorgeous full color game board. Under that you'll find a custom molded plastic tray that holds a pack of half-sized cards, a nice cloth bag and two plastic bags full of wooden cubes and brightly colored pawns and worker tokens. You'll also find six large wooden cathedral pieces that fit together to make a pretty nifty wooden model of the cathedral shown on the box cover. The cathedral pieces don't really serve any function in the game except as a turn counter but they look very cool and they do a good job of reinforcing the game's theme. All of the components are first rate but the artwork on the game board is particularly beautiful. In fact, it's one of the prettier boards in my collection.


In this game, players represent master builders working together to construct a cathedral. Resources in the form of sand, stone, wood and metal must be gathered from the surrounding countryside and brought to the work site where they will be handed over to master craftsmen who will use the raw materials to erect a magnificent cathedral. Players earn victory points by employing the best craftsmen and contributing the most materials to the cathedral's construction. During the construction, the King and local church officials may lend their support or occasionally present additional challenges that threaten to stall the project.

I have never read Ken Follet's novel, upon which this game is based, but I can only imagine that they've done a pretty good job of replicating the feel of his story without negatively affecting game play. I never felt that I was lacking something essential by not having read the novel but at the same time I would imagine that the various characters mentioned on the cards might have meant more to me if I had.

The theme works very well for this type of game and it is strongly reinforced by the beautiful components. It's an interesting theme and it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the game. It also made me consider tracking down a copy of the book.


As you might expect, the Pillars of the Earth is a production style game. Players gather resources which they use to produce victory points. As the game progresses, the formula for translating resources into points improves, increasing the potential to score more points in later turns.

The game is played over exactly six turns. At the end of each turn another piece of the cathedral is assembled in the center of the board and by the sixth turn the cathedral is complete. Each turn is divided up into three phases: a purchasing phase, a placement phase, and an action phase. I don't intend to describe all of the rules here, just enough to give you some idea of what the game is like.

In the first phase, the board is set up for the coming turn and nine cards are placed at the bottom of the board. Two of these cards are craftsmen and the other seven are resource cards that represent workers going into the gravel pit, the quarry, or the forest to gather raw materials. Players take turns purchasing cards to place in front of them. Craftsmen cards cost gold and resource cards require that players commit a certain number of worker tokens to the appropriate space on the board. Once all players have passed, any remaining cards are discarded. Craftsmen cards that have been purchased are kept from round to round but resource cards are returned to the supply for the next round as the resources they represent are collected.

Craftsmen cards dictate how a player exchanges resources for victory points. Each card has a formula that indicates which resources the craftsman can convert into victory points and how many times each turn he can do so. For example, the Stonecutter that each player starts with can convert two stone cubes into one victory point up to four times in a turn. So if you had eight stone cubes you could produce four victory points at the end of the turn. In a later turn, you might be lucky enough to employ a Sculptor who can exchange one stone for two victory points a certain number of times each turn. Players are normally only allowed to keep five craftsmen at a time so as more craftsmen become available it becomes necessary to decide not only whether or not to employ them, but also which craftsman to let go in order to make room for the newcomers.

During the second phase of the turn, the bag is used. It contains three master builder pawns for each of the players in the game. One by one a master builder pawn is drawn from the bag and its owner gets to place his master builder on one of the action spaces on the board. Master builders that are drawn early can either be placed on the board for a price or they can be set aside to be placed for free later in the phase. There can be a lot of competition in this phase since some actions are clearly better than others and usually only one player can claim a given action. Once all of the master builders are placed on action spaces the final phase of the turn begins.

In the final phase, actions are carried out in sequence. Each action space is visited in a predetermined order and whoever's master builder is at that space gets to carry out the appropriate action. These actions include claiming cards that grant special abilities, claiming a couple of easy victory points, securing tax immunity for one turn, obtaining additional craftsmen for free, getting a couple of additional workers to help gather resources for a turn, being allowed to trade resources in the market, and claiming the right to be the starting player in the next turn (meaning you'll get the first crack at purchasing cards).

At the end of the turn, players use their craftsmen to exchange their resource cubes for victory points. Only five cubes may be carried into the next turn so it's important to be able to exchange enough of your cubes so that you don't find yourself wasting precious resources.


It's pretty clear to see why so many people have compared the Pillars of the Earth with Caylus. Like Caylus, players are working together to construct a major public work. In Caylus it's a castle; in the Pillars of the Earth it's a cathedral. Like Caylus, there is a worker placement phase where players take turns claiming actions which will then be executed later in the turn. Unlike Caylus, the order in which those actions are executed is the same every time the game is played, all actions are guaranteed to be executed, and the actions don't significantly change over the life of the game. The card purchasing mechanic at the beginning of each turn is also not found in Caylus and actually is a little more reminiscent of Saint Petersburg. And, of course, the Pillars of the Earth is a significantly shorter game than Caylus, playing in about half the time. I think that Caylus is definitely a deeper game and it is absolutely a lot less random since Caylus is a perfect information game whereas the Pillars of the Earth has many random mechanisms that introduce quite a bit of uncertainty into the game.

It is this random element that really makes the Pillars of the Earth its own game for better or for worse. There are a lot of areas where randomness is introduced: there are the event cards and the privilege cards which appear in a random order; there is a die roll to determine taxes each turn; there are the craftsmen cards which, although they appear four at a time in a scripted order, two are chosen at random and made available for purchase while the other two can only be claimed with master builder pawns; and then, far more significantly than the rest, there is the master builder placement order which is completely random. The order in which the master builders are placed has such an enormous impact on the game (particularly in a four player game where the competition for action spaces is so tight) that it is often the deciding factor in determining who wins or loses.

Overall, the game seems quite well balanced. All of the games I have played have been fairly close with one game even requiring that we use the tie breaker. There are plenty of potential strategies to choose from and no single strategy seems obviously stronger than the others. A lot of the game seems to come down to who gets lucky during the master builder draw and who just happens to have gotten lucky in other ways as well. Yet for the most part, none of the luck seems overly harsh. It's possible to have a few things go wrong and still recover.

Furthermore, the game seems to play well across its player range. I've played it with two players and I've played it with four players and while the game feels very different it seems no less enjoyable. I think the two player game is just a bit better than four because with four players it is so easy for one of the other players, or just the luck of the draw, to completely ruin your strategy. With two players, there might be very little direct competition so long as you each choose to pursue mutually compatible strategies. I think that three players might be the sweet spot for this game but I haven't yet had the opportunity to try it out.

So to sum it up, I think that the Pillars of the Earth is an excellent game. It's particularly well suited for casual or family play since there is enough luck in the game to allow a weaker player to occasionally score a win. It's not nearly as deep (or in my opinion as good) as Caylus but it does have the advantage of being easier to play and it has a significantly shorter playing time. The theme is strong and the artwork is excellent. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bye Bye Forums

All the reviews have been transferred over and the HFoG forums are no more. The reviews were entered under their original dates so if you're wondering why they aren't showing up on this page, well that's the reason. They're hiding over in the archives on the right.

Reviews Coming

I've decided to move all of the House Full of Games game reviews from their old home on the old (mostly defunct) HFoG chat forum over to this blog. The principal reason is that it will let me once and for all destroy the old HFoG chat forums but I also just think that the reviews look a heck of a lot better here. Recently I've been posting them in both places and now I won't need to do that any more. As a side effect, you're going to be seeing a lot of old reviews posted to this blog in the next few days. Hopefully you'll enjoy reading them.

Once all the old reviews are transferred over, I hope to find the time to write a few new reviews. There are a few games that I've been meaning to review for ages but I've just been too busy to get around to doing them. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Yep, Another Game Night Post

We had a pretty decent turnout (better than last week anyway). There are still a few regulars on vacation but we had enough to keep a couple of games going all the time.

First up for me was Pillars of the Earth. This game has been called "Caylus Light" by some and that isn't far wrong. Pillars shares a similar worker placement mechanism and it's also a production game where players acquire resources to contribute to the building of a large public work: in this case a cathedral. It also has a card drawing mechanic that reminded at least one of our group of the card buying mechanic from Saint Petersburg. I have to admit that I didn't see that one until he pointed it out and I still think it's kind of a weak connection.

I really like Pillars. I've played it a couple of times now and I look forward to playing many more times. It's shorter than Caylus. It's more random (particularly the order that players get to choose actions which is almost completely random). At the same time it's also a little more scripted since the craftsmen always appear in the same order and they determine how you get victory points. The game seems to work well with two, three or four players although it definitely feels very different across the range. With four players, the competition for resources and actions is brutal and getting to place your master builders early (which is determined randomly) becomes critical; one unlucky draw can really ruin your day. With two players it's about picking the right strategy and making it work; the random element isn't nearly as big of a factor. I think three players is probably the sweet spot.

Next I played a couple of games of To Court the King. This game has some similarities to Yahtzee but it is far more strategic. It also plays pretty quickly and it's a lot of fun. We managed to dash off two games while we were waiting for the others to finish their game. Unfortunately, midway through our second game they started another game and so by the time the second one wrapped up I was left with a choice: wait for them to finish their game or go home early and get to bed at a reasonable hour. I chose the latter.

Other games played included Caylus, Midgard and On the Underground.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Game Night

We had a relatively low turnout this week. It's spring break for all the local schools. Perhaps that had something to do with it. My two oldest sons begged me to let them come to game night this week and I relented. It's a good thing I did too because the extra players were appreciated.

First up for me was a few quick games of Elk Fest. This is a pretty nifty little two player dexterity game from Kosmos. In this game you flick little wooden disks around the table so your little wooden Moose can use them as stepping stones to get from one side of the "river" to the other. Like most games of this sort, I could see it creating problems with the overly competitive since there are times when you could fudge the position of a stone to your advantage, but so long as you treat it as the light-hearted little game it is meant to be, it can be a heck of a lot of fun. And it's so quick that you can play it several times at a sitting. We did.

Next, my sons and Greg joined me for a game of Conquest of the Fallen Lands. I've talked about this game before. It's a clever game about conquering territory and using conquered territories as a power base to conquer more territories. You're only ever allowed to conquer unclaimed territory, never territory belonging to another player, so it's not really a war game. It's more of an abstract game where you try and out position the other players so you can be in a position to grab more valuable territory before your opponents are able. I like it quite a bit and look forward to playing it again.

Meanwhile, Kai and the Seattle crowd started up a game of Die Macher. Die Macher is a classic euro-game and I like it but it's a little too long for my tastes. Still, I'd be happy to try it again some time. Since it's such a long game, I pretty much figured that I wouldn't be playing with any of them for the rest of the night and I was right.

No matter. That left the other four of us free to play Pompeii. I've played this several times now and I enjoy it quite a bit. It's a little luck heavy but there are more than enough interesting decisions to be made and a decent strategy does much to improve your chances at success. It's also short enough that I don't mind the luck factor at all. I didn't win this time but I came in a close second.

The last game for me was, once again, Tichu. Greg and I each paired up with one of my sons and taught them how to play. They'd both heard most of the rules before but this was the first time they'd actually been taught them all and played a real game. I have to say that they did pretty well for youngsters just learning what is a relatively complicated game. It was a close game and while they both made a few rookie mistakes, we all had a great time and their play steadily improved throughout the game. I'm sure that in no time I'll have a couple of great Tichu partners on my hands.

Well, that's all for this time. Come join us next week so we can get a few more games going!