Like many gamers, I got to try several new games over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Here are some of my thoughts of these new games: Dominant Species (Chad Jensen, GMT), 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza, Repos/Asmodee), and Merchants and Marauders (Christian Marcussen & Kaspar Aagaard, Z-man)
Dominant Species is the most complicated worker-placement game I have ever played. Designed by Chad Jensen and published by GMT Games, DS has been an unexpected hit, and GMT is now sold out, but is rushing a new printing into production.
In DS players take charge of one class of animals–mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnid, or insect–and try to make their critters thrive as an Ice Age slowly changes normal environments into tundra. Players score points by having the most species (little wooden cubes) in a terrain hex when the hex is scored. And scoring a hex is just one of the actions a player may take by placing his action tokens on the worker-placement tracks.
DS has an unusually large and complicated menu of worker-placement tracks. Various tracks allow players to advance their token on the turn-order track, claim a new environment token to be added to their animal card, place environment tokens on the edges of the hex tiles of the game board (which allow hexes to support animal classes with the corresponding tokens on their cards), choose which hex will become a glacier this turn (which basically allows a player to nuke a hex and wipe out most of the species there), add species cubes to hexes on the board, add new hex tiles to the board and migrate species cubes to the new hex, eliminate opposing species cubes, and score hexes. Naturally, there always seems to be more to do on a turn than a player has action markers for. I might place my action tokens on the score-a-hex track only to find that my scoring opportunities have been lost if other players use their actions to eliminate my species or send a tundra into my best hex.
I found Dominant Species intriguing, but also frustrating because I was whacked pretty hard by other players in the first turn of the game, and never managed to catch up, or even seemed to have a chance to catch up. I attribute my frustration to the fact that I was playing in a six-player game, and I had only three actions to take per turn. The owner of the game assured me that players feel much more in control of their destinies in three, four, and five player games.
I am eager to try Dominant Species again, but only in games with less than six players. The Hobbesian war of all against all in the six-player game turned me into evolutionary road-kill all too soon.
7 Wonders (designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Asmodee) doesn’t need me to praise it as it already appears to be the most popular game of the last six months. While I tend to shy away from pure card games, I was interested in seeing if the game lived up to its hype. To my surprise, I found that it did.
So much has already been written about 7 Wonders that I am not going to go into a description of the game here. But the thing that impressed me the most about the game was the quick simultaneous turns. Players all choose the card they will play at the same time, and then pass the rest of their hand of cards to their neighbor. These simultaneous turns means that a seven-player game can be played almost as quickly as a three-player game. I expect to see other game designers copying this simultaneous turn mechanism in the months ahead.
Merchants & Marauders
Once upon a time I wrote a column for the Boardgame News website entitled The Merchants & Marauders Opportunity. M&M was originally supposed to be published by Pro Ludo, but the company changed its mind , and Christian Marcussen posted the rules online, hoping to generate interest in the game. I read the rules, and was impressed enough to write a piece about how the game might be a publishing opportunity for a discerning company. I specifically said that M&M might be a good fit for Z-Man Games or Fantasy Flight Games.
Now, I don’t think for a second that Zev at Z-Man needed me to steer him toward a good design. He probably never saw my column and discovered M&M on his own. But I am proud that for once my column was prophetic, and of course I had to acquire the game to see if it lived up to my expectations.
In M&M, players are captains of ships in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy (which I believe occurred shortly after the adolescence of Errol Flynn). Players can choose to be a pirate who preys on available merchant shipping, or be a merchant yourself and collect gold by shipping valuable goods from port to port. There are four nations in the game (England, France, Spain, and Holland), and players can attack ships from some of these countries while maintaining good relations with the others.
Players get three actions a turn, and these can be move actions, scout actions (searching for merchant prey at sea) or port actions (selling goods, buying goods, buying a bigger ship, repairing a damaged ship, buying special ship modifications, and collecting rumors). Each player gets a captain card with four ability numbers (seamanship, scouting, leadership, and influence) and these affect various die rolls. In sea combat, for example, its good to have a high seamanship number while the influence rating is needed for collecting rumors.
Each area on the game board contains a port that belongs to one of the four nations (with the exception of one central all-sea area). Each area also had one unique characteristic; ship purchases are less expensive in one area, and merchant prey might be easier to find in a different area.
Players win the game by collecting ten glory points. Players gain points by selling at least three units of high demand goods in port, plundering a rich merchant ship, buying a frigate or a galleon, winning a sea battle, completing a mission, or accumulating large amounts of gold. Missions, by the way, are cards that usually tell a player to go to a particular area and perform a particular action to gain a reward. Sometimes there are risks associated with a mission.
As pirate players become more successful, they get a bounty on their heads, and some players may be tempted to attack opposing players to collect a reward from one of the nations. And if players don’t feel inclined to attack each other, cards often bring non-player ships onto the board. These ships may be the armed forces of the one of the four nations, and are thus a danger to pirate-players, or they may be non-player pirates who pose a threat to players acting as merchants.
As you can see, there is a lot going on in M&M, and a full game can take three hours (although it can be less if one player has a string of good luck).
What was my reaction to the game, and the reaction of the other players? I rather liked Merchants & Marauders. While there is certainly a lot of luck in the constant drawing of cards and rolling of dice, I don’t mind those things in an adventure game. And I appreciate that the game lets me choose to be a pirate or not, and gives me many ways to try to score points. I can mind my own business and trade goods and go on missions, or I can attack both merchant shipping and opposing players if I am willing to press my luck. Also, the physical production of the game is good with sturdy plastic ships and so many cards that you might think it was a Fantasy Flight game. One friend I played with was initially skeptical of the game, but soon wanted to borrow a copy of it.
But not all the other players liked the immense amount of luck in the game. In the second game I played, Tom quickly won with a merchant strategy before anyone else had more than three or four points. Tom said he had been incredibly lucky with his draws from the merchant goods deck which allowed him to deliver high-demand goods to nearby ports, and caused him to speed to victory. Tom thought it should have been tougher for him to win.
Those who like adventure games with a lot of good bits and a lot of luck should like Merchants & Marauders. Those who favor luck-less strategy games should probably avoid it.
— Kris Hall
[Editor’s Note: Due to some technical problems, I have posted this column for Kris. When we get things straight, the “authorship” of this article will revert to Kris Hall. –DY]