Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tuesday's Games

It got off to a little bit of a slow start since most people arrived late but it turned out to be a fine, well attended game night.

My first game of the evening was a three-player game of Pillars of the Earth. I've been asserting for weeks now that the game would be best with three players and this playing did nothing to discourage that opinion. With three there is still stiff competition for the best craftsmen and resources but it isn't nearly as tight as it is with four. Once again the master builder draw proved painful but I still managed a respectable finish, coming in second by a single victory point.

The new Days of Wonder game: Colosseum is finally here and I played for the first time last night. We played a three player game and it went reasonably well. This game is about putting on the best events at the Roman Colosseum. Players secure the rights to produce specific events and then must bid and trade in order to secure the correct resources to produce the events. If you don't have all the necessary resources, you can still produce the event but it won't be worth as much points. None of us had played before so we all made plenty of strategic mistakes. My biggest mistake was not realizing until it was too late how important it would be to make sure that I stayed focused on the last turn's event. The game lasts for five turns and during each turn you may produce an event. The thing is, unless you screw up, only the fifth event really matters because your score is a high-water mark of your scores from each event. Since each completed event contributes a fixed amount of points towards the next, the only reason to worry about maximizing the earlier events is to get more money (you get payed based on how they score) and that's often not a good enough reason to worry about maximizing the event. It's better to focus on maximizing whatever event you plan to produce last. I think I'm going to really like this game but after one play I'm not completely sure. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about this one. Oh, and if you're wondering, I lost. Pretty badly.

My last game of the evening was (yet another three player) game of Elasund - The First City. In my opinion, this is the best game that Klaus (Settlers of Catan) Teuber has produced in years. It had been months and months since I last played this game and I'm afraid to say that we started playing with one incorrect rule as a result. Furthermore we discovered that there was a second minor rule detail that I had actually never played correctly at all! I blame the rule book which is not quite as clear as it could be. I blame the rule book because clearly I can't possibly blame myself. That would be unheard of. We switched to the correct rules mid game once our mistakes were discovered by a third party. I maintain that neither rule change significantly affected the outcome of the game (I won by a comfortable margin) and I think that either of my mistakes would make fine variants. FYI, the rule I had forgotten was that when the pirates take a resource, the victim gets to choose which card(s) to give up; we began by playing that looted cards were chosen at random. The rule that I had never played correctly was that when placing a permit token you must give up gold cards equal to the number on the token; I've always played that permit placement doesn't cost gold. The way that I've always played leads to a slightly faster game (due to more gold in the economy) and slightly stronger defensive positions (it's always advantageous to play the larger permits), but it doesn't really significantly alter the strategy or feel of the game. Sure it costs more to use some one's permits since they're more likely to be 4s and 3s but you've probably got more money to do it so it kind of all comes out in the wash.

The big "other" game of the night was a five player game of Die Macher. I like Die Macher. I really do. But I just can't see myself devoting five hours to it very often. In the time they played their one game of Die Macher, I played three games.

Also played was Nexus Ops, and I'm sure there were other games as well but as I wasn't involved, I can't really remember what they all were. (No Thanks! was one.)

I'm going to be out of town next week (and consequently, House Full of Games will not be processing orders for the week of June 4-8) but game night will still be on as usual. Have fun without me. I'm sure I'll be playing plenty of games with the family while I'm away. Perhaps I'll tell you all about it when I get back.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Game Night

I'm gonna try and get this out of the way first thing this morning because I know I won't have time to do it later.

We had a few newcomers at our game night this week. That's always good to see! Hope they enjoyed themselves and will come back again!

My first game of the night was a brief game of Sticheln. We played one hand where I did tolerably well and then we were nearly done with another hand where I ate a ton of negative points before we realized that there had been a misdeal! Whew! By then enough others had arrived that we were ready to break out into groups and play some meatier games so we never did bother finish the Sticheln game after that.

My first full game of the night was a four player game of Pillars of the Earth. I do like this game very much but once again the master builder draw proved to be decisive. I got out to an early lead but in at least three key rounds, by the time I was given a chance to place any of my master builders all of the spots I wanted were already taken. I was never able to upgrade to the craftsmen I wanted and, while the results among the top three finishers were relatively tight, I came in third. I really like the game but I also realize that I just have to live with a certain amount of randomness whenever I play. I still think that three players is probably the best number for this game.

While that was going on the others were playing a game of Alhambra which finished at about the same time as our Pillars of the Earth game. Since we all finished at about the same time we mixed up the groups a bit.

One group played Elfenland. I really like Elfenland, which is essentially a non-linear race game across a road network. Players attempt to visit as many cities in Elfenland as possible by playing cards that allow them to travel over certain roads in the network. It's a very clever game and it's pretty easy to teach so it's very family friendly.

I like Elfenland but I didn't play it. Instead, I was begged to make up a fourth for a game of Tichu. Kai and I squared off against Greg and Mike. It was a tight game with an unusually large number of Tichu calls: all of them made. At the end of the game we were tied at exactly 1000 points apiece. Mike and Greg won the tie breaker. There was one hand early in the game where Kai probably should have called large Tichu and if he had, we'd have won the game. But hind sight is 20-20 and he didn't have the confidence to do it.

That's all for this week. Come join us next week. 5:00 on Tuesday night in the Microsoft building 50 cafeteria. If you don't have a badge, knock on the cafeteria door and someone will let you in.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Review: Mü

Lately I find myself playing an awful lot of , a trick taking card game for 4-6 players by Doris and Frank. The box also contains rules for four other card games that can all be played with the same special deck but none of the other games is even remotely as compelling as Mü. Of all traditional style trick taking games, Mü is easily my favorite. Let me try to explain why.


Mü comes in a very nice box which is officially labeled Mü & More. (The "& More" part refers to those four other games.) The box is far better than the standard tuck box that normal playing cards are generally sold in. This is a hard cardboard box with a nesting lid, similar to boxes used by many other European card games. It's very durable and under normal use it will typically outlast the cards themselves. Inside you'll find a very nice, and complete rule booklet, and a deck of cards. The cards themselves are quite nice with a luxurious linen finish. They are sturdy and should last for many, many games.

The deck itself is composed of sixty cards divided into five colored suits. The twelve cards in each suit are ranked from 0 to 9 with two 1s and two 7s. Each card also has a number of chevrons (or pips) printed under the rank. Most cards have one pip but 1s and 9s have none and 7s and 6s have two. Each pip is worth one point so there are sixty points distributed throughout the deck.


Mü, like most trick taking games, is played over a number of hands, usually until one player reaches a predetermined amount of points. Our lunch group typically plays to 1000 points and our games span several lunch hours but it's more common, and still quite fun, to play to a smaller score or play a predetermined number of hands, perhaps ensuring that each player deals the same number of hands. The rules state that playing to 200 points will take about an hour and my experience would say that estimate is perhaps a little bit optimistic.

A hand begins when one player shuffles the cards and deals all sixty cards to all players. Since there are sixty cards in the deck, each player will have an even number of cards whether there be four, five or six players.

After the cards are dealt, a bidding round begins. The really clever thing about Mü is that the bidding is done silently by revealing cards from your hand and placing them face up in front of you. Cards that are bid remain part of your hand and are played just like any other card but they must remain face up in front of you until they are played. The genius of this bidding mechanism is that as you bid you are also revealing information about your hand. This is especially true since if you win the bid, you will be required to name a trump suit from the cards you revealed. If you haven't revealed a blue card then you may not name blue as the trump suit.

This bidding round is really the heart of Mü and a huge part of what makes this such a brilliant game. Unlike Bridge, where hand strength is revealed through complex bidding conventions which must be learned and practiced over dozens, perhaps hundreds, of games; there are no complex bidding conventions in Mü. They aren't needed. The bidding in Mü just naturally seems to do what it should: reveal something about the players' hands, form a contract for the hand (called a goal in the rules), and select trump.

Once all players have passed, the bidding round ends and whoever has won the bid is named the "chief" of the hand. Whoever comes in second is named the "vice". In the relatively rare case where no one comes in second, there is no vice. The vice's job is to name a lesser trump suit and thwart the chief. The chief's job is to name a greater trump suit, choose a partner from the remaining players, lead the first trick, and, as a partnership, try to capture enough points to fulfill the contract based on the number of cards in the bid. Naturally, the more cards that were bid, the more points the chief and his partner are required to take and the more difficult it will be to win the hand.

Since both the vice and chief call trump, there are (usually) two trump suits in a hand. The vice chooses a trump and the chief must either choose a different trump or choose "no trump" in which case only the suit named by the vice is trump. These two trump suits then merge to become a single trump suit. What's more, either colors or numbers can be declared trump. For instance, the vice could declare that 1s are trump and the chief could declare that blacks are trump. In this case, the two black 1s would be the highest trump cards (since they are doubly trump by virtue of both their rank and color), followed by the black 9, 8, 7s, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 0 (the chief's trump), with the eight other 1s (the vice's trump) tied as the lowest trump cards. Note that the 1s would be in the trump suit; and thus not considered red, blue, green or yellow cards. This can lead to some confusion (many is the time I've accidentally played a trump number card when I thought I was following suit) but it also leads to some very intriguing play possibilities.

Tricks are played as in most traditional trick taking games. A card is lead and each subsequent player must follow the lead suit if they can. The highest card in the lead suit takes the trick unless one or more players was void in that suit and chose to play a trump card, in which case the highest trump card takes the trick. If two identical cards are winning the trick (possible since there are two 7s and two 1s in each suit and also since numbers can be declared trump) the first of the tied cards wins. The winner of the trick takes the cards played in the trick and earns the right to lead the next trick.

Once all cards have been played, the hand ends. Each player counts the number of pips on the cards they've captured and earns that number of points. The chief and his partner add their pips together to determine if the chief has fulfilled his bidding contract and won the hand. If the chief has won the hand then both the chief and his partner are awarded bonus points based upon the difficulty of the contract. If they fail, the chief is docked points and each of the players on the vice's team for that hand are awarded a bonus.


The doubled 7s and 1s, the uneven distribution of pips, the ever-changing partnerships, the double trump suits, and the ability to name numbers as well as suits trump all make for a very strategic and relatively complex game. While the rules themselves are not that complex, the ramifications of those rules can be. This is probably not the best game for trick taking novices; yet it is far easier to learn than Bridge and much richer and more elegant than any other trick taking game I've played.

Probably the most common mistake newcomers make is forgetting that all trump cards (numbers or colors) become part of the same suit during play. If the trump is black over 1s (to use our earlier example) and a black card is lead, then the 1s are all in suit and may be played without breaking suit. Conversely, if someone leads a yellow card then your yellow 1 is trump and may not be played unless you have no other yellow cards. It takes some getting used to but once everyone gets the hang of it, it's brilliant.

The play of the hand makes use of skills that will be familiar to seasoned card players. Players who understand the value of roughing, draining trump, and especially card counting, will benefit. The uneven pip distribution and the fact that the length of the trump suit changes from hand to hand (depending on what was called) make the play even more exciting and challenging. For instance, 9s are powerful but they are worth no points. 1s can be thrown on hands you know you're losing to avoid giving away points. 6s can be thrown on hands you know your partner is winning.

But where the game really shines is in the bidding. The simple bidding system offers so many possibilities. As the bidding unfolds it's typical for two players with strong hands to battle back and forth for chief while the other players lay down just enough cards in an attempt to be chosen as the chief's partner. Bidding can get brutal when one player indicates he might be a good partner only to get cold feet as the chief's bid rises too high for comfort. So he lays down a high enough bid to secure the vice position, thus forcing the chief to partner with one of the weaker players instead. Bidding is always tense and good bidding is what sets a good Mü player apart from the rest.

Mü is for four to six players but I think it plays best with five and it's almost as good with four. With six players your hand is very small and the chief's team is outnumbered two to one. This makes the deal a little more fickle and it makes it more difficult to bid with confidence. But don't let that deter you from playing with six! It's still quite enjoyable. With four players you have more information but the chief's team seems to be just a little more powerful. Five is the sweet spot.

If Mü has one flaw (other than its complexity which, with practice, becomes a virtue) it is that, like most card games, it can be very susceptible to the whims of fate. Even the best Mü player in the world can lose by being dealt several bad hands in a row. As players become more comfortable with bidding this becomes less of a problem but it will never go away completely. If you want a fair game then you really need to play dozens of hands to allow the luck to even out.

So if you are looking for a rich trick taking game that will provide experienced card players with a lifetime of enjoyment then you need look no further than Mü. I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday's Game Night

Tuesday night was Curt's last game night with us for two years. He's taking his family to China where he's going to work for one of Microsoft's teams over there. Personally, I think he's a little nuts but then aren't we all? Seriously though we'll miss him (and his games) and we wish him all the best. In fact, we even got a cake for him to send him off properly.

There were several games played. Games that I wasn't involved in included Bluff, Puerto Rico, Tigris & Euphrates, and even Chess!

My first game of the night was a few hands of Sticheln. This is the anti-trick taking game where taking cards in your pain suit can be so . . . painful. We had (I think it was) seven players which for me is really a bit too many but it was fun nonetheless and I did rather well.

After that I managed to get involved in a four player game of Shogun. Three of us finished very close at the top of the pack. I was one of those three, unfortunately I was the third. I continue to really enjoy this game and I'll happily play it just about any time.

I finished the night with not one, not two, but three games of Tichu played back to back. This being Curt's last night with us we just had to humor him and I was more than happy to do so by playing my favorite card game until the wee hours of the morning. I won two out of three games despite being so tired that I badly misplayed more than one hand. What a great game.

Come join us next Tuesday!