SPIEL keeps getting closer and closer! I just looked at the calendar and realized that I’m leaving for Europe in just under a week! My local group has been busy playing games and I have finally had a chance to write up previews on some of these games. Due to space and time concerns, I am going to have to write up a few of these previews in a single piece! This preview piece will give small capsule previews on 3 games to get us ready for Essen week. (For previous columns in the Opinionated Gamers Essen Preview series, click here)
Age of Steam Expansion: Outer Steam/Reversteam
Designer: Ted Alspach
Publisher: Bezier Games
First up is one of the new Age of Steam boards in the mega-set soon to be released by Bezier Games at Essen. (Disclosure – Ted Alspach is the designer and he is one of the contributors here at the Opinionated Gamers)
Like all of the previous Age of Steam Expansions, this one requires that you have the base Age of Steam game. All you get here is a double-sided board – with Outer Space on one side and Reversteam on the other and one full-color sheet of instructions.
Reversteam in an interesting take on the Rust Belt board. Essentially, it’s the Rust Belt printed in mirror format (well, with the text going to correct way) and the lakes made a bit more purple. Well, and the Detroit city hex on the new board doesn’t have a fading “3” sticker on it… (OK, so you didn’t hear this from me… but you really could play this variant at home with your existing AoS set since the board is otherwise identical other than being in reverse so that Pittsburgh is on the leftmost side instead of the right. Go ahead and play and write your own Essen preview!)
So, you play on a familiar map (that’s backwards) – here’s the catch. Deliveries are backwards too! Cities now want every color good EXCEPT for the one that matches. So… Cubes are delivered to the first city on the route that does not match the color of the city. However, this rule does not apply to black cities. Nothing can be delivered to the black cities.
This one simple rule-change really makes you change your mid-game strategy. Like in regular AoS, it’s easy to find the easy “1” deliveries to just get some initial income, and “2”s are not too much issue either – though you will end up you will possibly have to stray away from your usual patterns on the Rust Belt map because of the reverse color delivery rules. I had to constantly remind myself of the reverse delivery rules when I was planning out my turns so that I didn’t screw things up!
Building through towns was obviously the best way to generate longer deliveries, but the big change here was to the power of the urbanization action. Being able to control where cities went down (and which color they were) was very important. You could use the action to put down a black city to protect the delivery line that you had been cultivating. You could also Urbanize a red/yellow/blue/purple close to an opponent’s city to hose his huge delivery.
I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t expand my locomotive to the maximum in my first game with this board because I was afraid that my routes would be cut off. And.. they were – I really only had one potential “6” delivery in the end game, and my locomotive never made it that high anyways! (Of course, having only played it once – this could be my inexperience with the scenario…) In any event, this is a good twist on the AoS Rust Belt map – and one that I’ll need to play a few more times to get a better feel for the strategy.
From the designer: “Really exciting origin of this map: I originally wanted it to be “true steam,” where goods appeared in the cities of their color and were delivered to all other cities. So like, Chicago made red cubes, why in the world would they want them? But then the routes were even shorter (all cubes had one less potential city to pass through), so it wasn’t fun. It morphed into Reversteam (the map itself was the last major change, it wasn’t a backwards version of rust belt originally), and turned the gray cities into “dead” cities where they’re really just six-sided permanent towns (which is incredibly valuable here).”
The other variant/expansion in the set is the Outer Space board. This one has a unique map which is dominated by the existence of two wormhole hexes on the board. These two wormholes provide access to each other – if you enter a wormhole via track that leads up to its edge, you will exit out of the other wormhole. Note that if you go through a wormhole, you have to come out of the other one – you cannot pop out of a different track from the same wormhole you entered! The other big change here is that deliveries can only be made to a hex if you enter that hex via a straight track tile. If you get to the hex with a curved tile, you pass through the city without making a delivery.
The wormholes obviously make the topography of the board much smaller. It is fairly easy to get from one side of the board to the other once track is built to both sides of the wormhole. I did have a bit of problem visualizing my routes when I was planning in my head for some reason when they went through said wormhole, but I think that was just my personal issue as Luke and John seemed not to be bothered by that at all.
The “only able to deliver with a straight track” rule made for some really interesting builds. Oftentimes I would weave multiple paths from a city, some with straight track and some with curved so that I could either deliver to a city or just pass through it to make my delivery longer. While the basic rule remains in play that you cannot go through a city twice on the same delivery, the ability to skip certain cities makes longer deliveries possible much earlier than in regular AoS – because you don’t necessarily have to deliver a blue cube at the first blue city you run into!
This results in much more competition for the Locomotive action early on and it also reduces the strength of using Urbanization as a way to screw over an opponent as it’s not always a guarantee that you will cut off someone’s long delivery path with a well-placed colored Urb city.
I have only played this with three players, and it felt pretty crowded with even that few number of players given all the track we were trying to build. I’m guessing that this would be a hoot with 5, with the board causing you to possibly use your opponent’s track a bit more than usual to get where you needed to go. The routes in and out of the wormhole would also probably come into play a bit more with that number. Of course, that’s all conjecture until the time where I can find 4 other people who all want to play Age of Steam over at my house!
Russian Games from RightGames
A few months ago, I was contacted by the folks at RightGames to see if I would be interested in trying out some of their new titles for Essen. They shipped me their set of new games, and I’ve had the chance to play them with a couple of different groups over the past few weeks. They will be making their first appearance at Essen this year with these games. They all appear to be games that were published in the recent past, and many of them have won awards from the Russian gaming community. All of these games have been fully translated with the rules and cards all being printed up in English. In general, the rules are concise and there are plenty of example illustrations in the rules to help you learn how to play the game. They all come in identical sized small boxes, (6.5 x 7 x 1 inch) that will fit nicely in your luggage. Prices for all of these appear to be reasonable, somewhere between 10 and 15EUR, though I’m not sure if a final SPIEL price has been set quite yet. (NB: All images here are courtesy of Ivan Tulovskiy from RightGames)
Designer: Sergey Machin
Originally Published: 2005
The first Russian game we played was Potion-Making Practice. This 2005 release has won a number of awards, according to the box which bears seals and ribbons across the back… It is an interesting hand management card game. The game itself is played with a 76 cards, most of which have dual function. Each card (example shown below) has a title at the top, with its victory point value in the upper right hand corner. Along the top left side of the card is the recipe for that particular thing. So, for example, in order to make the Elixir of Wisdom (which scores me 3 VP), I need to use a fern flower, spring water and waves of ether.
The other function the card has is that it can also act as a single ingredient – this information is found in the lower right corner. In our example card, this would be worth one “Power of Astral” ingredient. What determines which function the card has is its location (whether it is in your hand or face up on the table).
The game is played in a number of rounds until the entire deck has been drawn and all the cards played out of the player’s hands. At the start of the game, four cards are dealt faceup to the table. This forms the initial “Desk of Elements” – when a card is on the table, it is simply an ingredient which can be used by any player. The only part of the card that matters here is the type of ingredient it is which is found in the lower right corner. There are 16 different possible ingredients, so make sure you have enough space for 16 piles! If there are multiple cards with the same ingredient on them, stack them in a single pile. Four cards are then dealt to each player – these cards are formulas – and use the top half of the card. When the card is in your hand, you can turn in the appropriate elements from the Desk of Elements on the table to make whatever is on the card.
On your turn, you must first draw a card and add it to your hand. Then, you play a card from your hand – EITHER as an element or as a formula. If you play a card as an element, you simply add it to the face up cards in the Desk of Elements at the center of the table. If this element was not already present in the Desk of Elements, you score one point for adding this unique ingredient to the Desk. Otherwise, simply put this card on top of the other cards of this ingredient type. If you play a card as a formula, you place it faceup in front of you, and then take the necessary ingredients from the faceup cards on the table and cover up the bottom portion of the cards with those ingredients.
Simple formulas will only use ingredients from the Desk of Elements. More complicated formulas will use things that have already been created – by yourself or other players! As you complete the formula, you score a number of points found in the upper right of the formula card. Additionally, if you used another player’s finished thing as an ingredient, that player scores one-half the value of the finished product. Finally, if you made a complex formula, any cards which were ingredients of the simpler components are returned to the Desk of Elements though you do not score any points even if some of these ingredients were not already present there (you only score points for unique elements if you choose to play a card as an element).
This continues on, with players either adding an Element to the center of the table or using cards from the table to complete formulas in their hand, until the entire deck has been drawn and all the cards in the player’s hands have been played to the table. At that point, whomever has the most points wins. (I should note that the scoring tracks included with the game are a bit fiddly and good old pen-and-paper works a bit easier and with fewer errors!)
Overall, this is a nice light game, and one that would work well with casual groups. Game play is mostly tactical as there isn’t a lot of advance planning that I’ve been able to come up with. I think that There appear to be a couple of expansions for this one already made, but they have not yet been translated to English, as far as I can tell. I will check out the booth at Essen to try to learn more.
Evolution: The Origin of Species
Designer: Dmitry Knorre
Originally Published: 2010
The other game from Russia which my group has played a lot has been Evolution: The Origin of Species. This is another boardgame which is really just a card game (not that there is anything wrong with that). The game consists of 84 cards which all have a salamander shape on one side and some sort of animal attribute on the other side.
During the course of the game, you will be trying to create animals (and make them stronger by adding different trait cards to them) to survive until the end of the game. At the end of the game, players score points for any animals still alive at that time.
At the start of the game, each player gets an initial hand of 6 cards. Play continues in rounds of four phases until the draw deck is exhausted. The four phases are:
- Food supply determination
- Feeding your animals
- Extinction and draw cards
In the development phase, you play cards to the table from your hand. You can put any card facedown on the table (i.e. salamander side up) to create a new animal. You could instead choose to play a trait to an existing animal – if you do this, you place the card underneath the animal so that only the trait name is visible above the animal. You can put as many traits on an animal as you want, with the exception that you cannot have two of the same trait cards played on a single animal. Play continues around the table with each player playing a single card on their turn or passing. The picture below (courtesy of Mikko Saari) shows two animals with multiple traits played to each.
In the food supply phase, you roll dice to determine how much food is available that turn. The specified number of red food tokens is placed in the center of the table. In turn order, players can take one food token from the supply and place it on an animal. Most animals are considered “fed” if they have a food token on them, though some traits cause the animals to need more food than a single token – this increased need is seen as a large +1 or +2 in the upper left corner. You may end up taking more than one food token on your turn if you feed an animal with certain traits like communication which allows you to feed both animals which share this trait.
Also during the feeding phase, you could choose to attack with one of your animals which has the carnivorous trait – essentially it can eat any other animal that isn’t somehow protected from being eaten (via a protective trait such as Swimming – seen below). Eating an animal gets you two blue food tokens – these are not taken from the supply of regular red food tokens that was set out. Each carnivorous animal can only attack once per turn, and they can only attack if they are not fed. Normally, animals can only take as many food tokens as they need to be fed – unless they have the fat tissue trait. If they have this, they can take one extra red food marker and convert it to a yellow fat marker. In a later turn, they can convert their yellow fat markers into red food markers. This is pretty much the only way to store food tokens from turn to turn.
Once all the food tokens have been taken (and all the carnivorous animals attack), the game moves into the extinction phase. Any animal which is not fully fed is now dead and thrown into the discard pile. Now, players get new cards dealt one at a time in clockwise order – though this number is based on how many animals you still have alive. You get 1 card PLUS one additional card for each surviving animal you have at that point. If you have no animals and an empty hand, you get a full hand of six cards dealt to you. The game continues on until the entire deck has been dealt out. At that point, there is a final turn. At the end of this final turn, scores will be calculated:
- 2 points for each animal that survived at the end of the game
- 1 point for each trait card attached to surviving animal
- +1 point bonus for each surviving carnivorous or high body weight trait
- +2 point bonus for each survivng parasite trait
As you can see, there is a lot of possible interaction between the traits, and lots of different combinations that you can come up with. The game is a hoot, and we spent a lot of time laughing about the animals that we were making and even more time laughing about creatures eating other creatures. We also pretty much relived an entire Yakov Smirnoff comedy act replete with bad Russian accents… “In Soviet Russia, Carnivore eats you…”
This is one of those games where all the scoring happens in the final round (similar to Sun, Sand and Sea from Cwali), so you definitely have to manage your hand to make sure that you are in a strong position in the final round to play cards and keep your animals alive in that final round. While you could just sandbag until the end, it is probably a better play to have a few animals alive at the end of each turn to generate more cards into your hand for later rounds. I’m actually looking forward to the expansion which will add in flying traits to the game, and will try to pick up this expansion at Essen.
That’s it for now – time to get back to packing for Europe! Hopefully more previews in the coming week before I leave…
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor