The Essen Experience: Week 2—Day of the Dice

Last Saturday, we once again got together to play some of the new Essen games my buddies Ben and KAS had just purchased.  Tom wasn’t able to join us, but three was still more than enough to get in some good playing.  As it turned out, the majority of the games were centered on dice.  Did our playing experience come up boxcars or snake-eyes?  Read on to find out!

Rolling Japan:  This is a dice filler by Hisashi Hayashi, designer of String Railway and Trains.  It’s a true multi-player solitaire game, in the style of Take It Easy or Finito.  The rules are dead simple—each player gets a sheet showing about 50 territories divided into six differently colored areas.  Each turn, dice of those colors are rolled and each player has to individually put the rolled number of each die into a territory of that color based on some simple rules.  If no such legal territory can be found, the player has to put an X into one of the territories.  After 8 rounds, whoever has the fewest X’s wins.

This sounds like complete fluff, but after a couple of turns, you realize that there are actually non-trivial choices to be made.  Clear thinking and advance planning are definitely helpful.  Plus, there were the usual good-natured curses when the dice refused to cooperate.  Overall, a good filler and one I think I prefer to something like Qwixx, which has a vaguely similar feel.  More than anything, it raises my admiration for Hayashi even more, at being able to create an engaging game with such simple rules.

Hellweg Westfalicus:  We decided to stray from the realm of dice to check out Michael Schacht’s latest design, which might have been the most anticipated game of the day.  Schacht is best known for accessible titles like Coloretto and Zooloretto.  But 10 or so years ago, he also created several opaque designs, where you’re fighting the game system, as well as your fellow players, in an attempt to accomplish much of anything.  I’m thinking of games like Hansa, Industria, Magna Grecia, and Dschunke, in which the activities tend to be tightly interwoven and every aspect of the game depends on everything else.  These are actually my favorite Schacht designs.  So when a perusal of the rules made me think that this might be a return to the style of those earlier games, I was quite interested.

The rules for Hellweg are reasonably simple.  The board shows 12 towns connected by roads and each town has a demand for one or two of three types of merchandise.  Each turn, a Trading Card is revealed which shows what actions are available to the players.  Different actions allow players to store merchandise in towns and place carriages on the roads, opening them up for their use.  Other actions allow the players to buy Merchandise Cards, which have an end-game value greater than their purchase price and also give the player an additional ability.  The Trading Card also lists which cities want to buy some merchandise and the players have the option of selling to them, either by having the appropriate type of merchandise available in that town or by tracing a path from another city that has that type of merchandise to the buying city over roads with carriages.  At the end of the game, the value of each players’ Merchandise Cards are added to his cash on hand and the highest total wins.

We all liked the game, albeit with some reservations.  It was absorbing and thinky, but not exactly fun; there were no brilliant advances or daring gambits, just steady progress.  I was hoping that the game would be even more involved and interconnected, but since I finished far behind the other two, maybe it’s just as well that wasn’t the case!  Actually, that leads me to my main concern about the game.  During the setup, KAS and Ben both concentrated their networks on the western side of the map, while I focused on the east.  As fate would have it, the first few Trading Cards all had most of their cities in the west.  As a result, the two of them earned considerably more money than I did early on.  By the time the eastern cities started showing up, I felt that they had had time to expand their networks to where I was set up.  Moreover, I thought it allowed them to buy Merchandise Cards earlier, allowing them to get their benefits for a longer period of time.  The final score was 97-97-59.  I freely admit that I may not have played the game that well, but I’m not convinced I played that poorly.  So I have a real concern there may be a runaway leader/fallaway trailer issue if the early Trading Cards have a skewed distribution.

We played with the basic rules.  I’d like to use the advanced game the next time we play, although that may not happen if there are new players.  Hopefully, the expanded rules will make the situation we saw less likely.  It’s also possible that there was just a really distribution of the cards.  So while this may not be quite a return to Schacht’s earlier heavy games, it is a title that I’m looking forward to playing some more.

Grog Island:  Back to the dice!  This is a pirate-themed set collection game with an unusual dice auction mechanic from Michael Rieneck.  The auction mechanic is pretty interesting, although it can sometimes last a little long.  The mechanic is such that from turn to turn, one player often has the monetary edge on his opponents, making the auctions less competitive; this problem might be lessened with 4 players rather than 3.  The rest of the game is competently designed, but nothing we haven’t seen before.  Basically, this is more of a challenging family game than a gamer’s game.  It plays fine and I would have no problem playing it again if someone wanted to learn it, but it’s not something I’ll seek out.

Uruk II:  We got rid of the dice again, this time for cards.  The original Uruk was a card-based civ game from 2008.  The updated version changes a few rules and has a much nicer presentation.  I liked the original game, but it had a few issues and the new version does nothing to change that.  Basically, this is a very abstract design, without too much of a civ feel.  The card abilities are fairly similar; the contrast between this game and the wild and crazy Patchistory, which we played the previous week, couldn’t be greater.  I still think this is a solid design, but in the 6 years since the first Uruk appeared, a large number of very innovative civ-themed games have been released.  Without much of a change in this game’s mechanics, it’s possible that time has simply passed it by.

Massilia:  We returned to the dice by checking out this title from the designer of Vanuatu, a well regarded and very vicious game from 2011.  Oh dear.  This game did NOT work for us.  It’s yet another dice drafting game, a genre I’m growing to dislike.  The heart of the game is a deterministic pricing mechanic, where chits labeled $1, $2, and $3 are rotated between three goods (which determines how much it costs to buy them) and the Temple (which determines how much you can sell any good for).  At the outset of the game, you know exactly how much each good can be bought and sold for during every turn of the game.  So the strategy is simple:  buy low, sell high.  It’s a bit more complicated than that, but only a bit more, which would make the gameplay trivial in the extreme.  In order to make the game worth playing, the designer introduces a figure which the players can move to the stall where you store your goods, causing you to lose money (or the goods themselves if you run short of cash) or even lose the stall.  This brings the necessary uncertainty into the game, but only at the cost of the most blatant of “Take That” mechanics.  And I hate Take That!

There were quite a few other issues with our game.  About midway through, I decided I Just Didn’t Care.  KAS hated it as well, although Ben was a little more tolerant.  I think he’d even like to play it again.  But it won’t be with me.

Ciub:  In case you’re wondering, that’s the Irish word for “cube”.  It’s pronounced “cube” as well.  This is a pure dice game by Tom Lehmann, in which you’re trying to get the dice you roll to match one of several scoring cards available each turn.  This process is made more interesting by different types of dice, which certain rolls allow you to add to your dice pool, as well as some dice actions on some die faces (such as Reroll Die and Set Die Face).  There’s a reasonable amount of thought that can be applied to how you handle each turn, although since we’re dealing with dice here, bad luck with the ol’ six-siders can still upset the best laid plans (and vice versa).  Downtime can be a bit of an issue; it was tolerable, but noticeable with 3 players and I wouldn’t want to play this with 4.  Overall, I thought the game worked, but I’m not sure there’s enough here to sustain something of this length.  I wouldn’t mind playing it again and I can certainly recommend it to folks who love dice games.

So our second week didn’t go quite as well as our first one.  In fact, the highlight for me may have been a 10 minute dice filler!  I also want to get in some more plays of Hellweg; I can easily see my opinion of it improving once I get more familiar with it (assuming that the runaway leader problems don’t resurface).  But this was a mostly forgettable week, highlighted, as always, by the good humor and excellent fellowship of my companions.  Not to worry—there’s still plenty of interesting sounding games to investigate, a process I hope will continue next Saturday.  If it does, you’ll be seeing another article by yours truly, giving you the blow by blow description of all the new games we play.  Talk to you then!

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2 Responses to The Essen Experience: Week 2—Day of the Dice

  1. Your initial thoughts on Ciub matched my initial thoughts; a four-player game which had a bit too much downtime for what was going on. But I’ve played it again, and then again, and then again – and the game starts to shine. Downtime rapidly diminishes once players get what they are trying to do and how they might do it, and cards are gained more rapidly as players become better at the game. So far I’ve stuck to playing the “short” version, initially to avoid those “downtime issues”, but I’m beginning to feel that it’s a bit too short!

    Like Tom’s earlier “The City”, this is a game that reveals it’s best parts only after a couple of plays, but it’s short and light enough to be worth persevering.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    That’s good to hear, Richard, and is certainly the sort of thing you would expect from Tom. If I can find a group that wants to give it multiple plays, I’ll try to see if my experience matches yours.

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