By Patrick Brennan…
And here be the remaining games I played for the first time in June.
I’ve also been thinking of adding a spotlight game each article, something I’ve played a lot of over the years and have been re-visiting during the month. So let’s try that out as well.
BETWEEN TWO CITIES
Any game that takes 7 players well, plays at a nice filler length, gives a nice decision each turn, and all with no downtime, is a winner. And so it proves here. The decisions aren’t that deep – there are only so many ways to score and some turns are more obvious than others – but for the market it’s aiming for, it hits the right tone … enough to keep you engaged, without being frivolous or overwhelming. I’m a fan of the novelty factor as well, where you’re simultaneously building a city with each neighbour. It encourages you to make lead plays that you’re hoping your partner will follow, and this generates a satisfying social element. I liked it, centurion.
This is really just a variant of the main game, so the comments and feelings it imbues are much the same as the original. It’s still engaging enough to get lots of replay. With fewer cards in play, there’s less downtime than the original and that’s a plus. It’s also more family and social friendly – pictures just seem more “fun” than words, in the same way that family and social gamers might favour Pictionary over Scrabble. I prefer the original Codenames because it provides a bit more scope for finding and enjoying cleverness, but this provides a nice lighter mode if there’s a need. Same rating as the original.
Each turn you’re spreading out and taking territories from other players to advance along the score track fastest. The danger with biff games is the ease with which they can descend into an unwholesome whine-fest. This gets around it in two ways. First by matching the colors of the areas you need to win to the spaces on the score track (ie to pass over the next 2 spaces which happen to be yellow, you must own 2 yellow areas) so usually there’s little question on who’s area you’ll be targeting because the score track leads you there by the nose. This style of score track provides a point of interest though, nicely differentiating it from other games. Secondly, one of your two attacks is restricted to the colour rolled on your die. Areas change hands frequently, there shouldn’t be any hard feelings or whining, and the map morphs in interesting patterns (it reminds me of the old “Life” automaton) due to its elegant rule that you must commit troops to an area equal to the number of adjacent territories you own. We’ve found it more of a 20-30 minute affair, shorter than the suggested playing time, and it’s a good timeframe for it given there’s little depth, just some look-ahead at what areas you’ll want / need to be winning soon. As such, it’s more of a long filler, and played in that vein, it works just fine.
It does have a decent idea, in that each turn you play one of two cards to your scoring tableau and give one back to the dealer, who then gets to play one of these discards from the other players. But in practice it doesn’t seem to work well, as it generates downtime while players wait for the dealer to make their decision. This isn’t good given the fluffy theme doesn’t hold you in by itself. In principle you’re choosing between cards which give you submarine upgrades or points, and you can choose upgrades that give you more power (more cards to look at, etc) or more points. Basic stuff. On top of the downtime, it felt like too many fiddly rules for any payoff, and it seemed too luck based regardless of the upgrades you went for. This one sank for us.
This is a wonderful match of mechanics and theme, using a process I haven’t seen before to create a real sense of impending and imminent doom. You’re striving to take enough money in (by taking yet more loans each turn) to pay the crippling interest on the past “loans” you’ve taken, in the hope that someone else will go bankrupt just before you do, in which case you get to score and be in contention for the win. The problem is that the last few turns generate some wild point swings with the point-tiles changing hands via trades, and hence the game is rife with king-making decisions on whether and when to accept them or not. There’s also a high degree of uncertainty on whether any given turn is the last turn (a lot of money changes hands secretly as part of the trades), so it feels like a lottery re the point at which you go hard(er) for points. Make a wrong choice and the game blows by in the wind. These issues were enough to turn us off the game, despite the thematic appeal.
The concept is the age-old decision on whether to spend resources on buying cards, on building them to your tableau, or passing to get more resources (or buying cards that give you more resources instead of VPs). To this end, the decision making is decent – not only are you trying to develop a VP engine, but you’re trying to find cards that match up colour-wise with the other cards in your tableau. But the bidding process seems dangerous to good gaming health. Getting stuck in a bidding war while other players watch you self-destruct isn’t a lot of fun, nor is the potential ill-feeling generated by nefarious negotiation ploys (ie straight up lies on what each player is thinking of going for). Blind bidding is not my favourite game mechanic. In the end, the downsides outweighed the upsides for me.
VILLAGERS & VILLAINS
It’s pretty much a luck-fest, but at least it’s of an appropriate length and theme for that. You shoot for something you like in the draft, roll the die, and you get it if your roll equals or exceeds the card’s position in the draft. Otherwise, you get the first card in the draft. That’s luck-fest part 1. If you choose/get a monster, roll a die to see if you defeat it and get its reward, otherwise take a penalty. You want to collect cards that increase your income (surprise), give you VPs, or generate VPs via combos or monster kills. It’s one of those games where you get what you get and don’t get upset. It’s a harmless enough way to pass the time if time needs passing, without pressing too much of a replay case however.
It takes a while to get to grip with all your options, but eventually the game begins to flow and the dice battles come thick and fast against either cards in the draft (to add them to your tableau for money and points) or against other players (to raid their money and/or deny them points). The battles are nicely constructed, short and interesting, wanting most axes to win, but wanting some shields to stop your ship being damaged, and also wanting hammers to use your powers (being the three different sides of the dice). But there’s huge potential for the game to drag on if players start picking on each other rather than killing stuff in the draft (which is also the game clock), and tit-for-tat never strikes me as all that interesting. The conclusion (where each player participates in a cage-fight for a ton of points that can be game-winning) just seems a broken mess, both in the original rules and the designer-provided variant. So while I enjoyed my single playing well enough – the dice fights are fun after all – it’s not a game I’d seek out ongoing.
Spotlight on NOTRE DAME (29 plays)
It’s been 5 years since last seen in these parts, but getting it back to the table this month reminded me of how much I enjoy this game. It fabulously suits my engine building and low-pus preferences. You want to do everything – get money to pay for an extra action each turn, get your rat protection up to avoid losing points each turn, get your cube count up so you can build the power of your chosen actions, and then, oh yeah, actually score points. But of course you can’t do it all. Your strategy is driven by the action cards you draw (there are 9 different actions), what action cards remain, the knowledge of which actions you pass away to your rivals (and thus won’t be able to do in a later turn) plus your analysis of what action cards your rivals will likely pass to you given their board state and previous passes to you. The action card passing means everyone’s strategies diverge, and the striving to get the most out of the strategy you settle on is engaging. It makes for a clever and thinky Euro, but without being over-thinky – it moves along at a nice pace. To do well, you need to know and plan for the end-of-game bonuses (maximising the benefits of as many as possible), and this is a potential downside for new players and may hinder their enjoyment, a hump that needs to be overcome. With replay though, I’ve found it provides me a new and interesting challenge each game that I enjoy.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Hibernia – Wow, it’s been forever since I played. I played a half-dozen times or so but it never made it back out again. It’s still on my shelf since it (a) takes up little space and (b) does give a quick “wargame” sort of feel in a minimum of time. If my memory serves, I’m a bit on the fence on this one as I’ve been “burned” by the dice rolls a few times. There’s some room for kingmaking, but I do like how the dice limit how much one can really pile on the leader. As a quick game, it’s fine. If it runs long, not so much. For now, I’m still keeping it in my collection, rated as “I Like it.”
Viceroy – I believe I’ve only played this once. Like Patrick, the very antagonistic bidding turned me off. Not my personal style of game. Could give it another go, but just not my preferred mix of mechanics.
Ponzi Scheme – While I really wanted to like this, I found that the entire process took too long as players decided what to offer, what to counter offer, etc. Like Patrick, I also found the wild swings of fortune–particularly as the game neared its end–to be too game changing and too “kingmaker” heavy.
Between Two Cities – Very meh. I found the control limited and many of the decisions were fairly obvious. And the “share with your neighbor” concept seemed to add very little as well. It’s pleasant enough, and I suppose if you’re looking for a 7 player game and want something simpler to explain than 7 Wonders, this might fill the bill. But I’d much rather split into two groups and play something I actually like.
Codenames: Pictures – I much prefer the base game. Words are so much more flexible in their meaning than pictures, that the joy of cleverness (from any of the players) is largely missing in this version. Then again, Codenames is such a great idea that if this is what people wanted to play, I’d still join in.
Ponzi Scheme – Only played this once, but was very impressed with how well the game fit the theme, despite fairly simple rules. That feeling of riding a killer wave is there, with it seeming like you’re one step from disaster for most of the game, which is great. Then again, with only one game under my belt, I can’t say if kingmaking or randomness is an issue. But I would really like to try this again, with the right crowd.
Notre Dame – This is a consistently enjoyable game, that plays particularly well as a closer if you don’t want to stress your brain cells too much. That said, of the five great designs Feld did for Alea, this is probably the one I’m least likely to suggest. I guess I like there to be a little more meat on the bones and Notre Dame is just a shade on the lighter side. Still, it’s an excellent game and it’s one I’ll happily play if the group wants to play it.
Codenames: Pictures – Although I prefer the original game, this one is still quite fun to play. It offers a different challenge – interpretation of the images. It can be a bit more difficult (due to the strange imagery), especially for non-gamers so I usually introduce the original first.
Notre Dame – I just played this game again recently; I still love it. It is the perfect game for three players.
Between Two Cities – I love the idea of this game, but I will repeat my caveat from my initial review. The game can become a serious dud due to the player binding. If there is a single player amongst the group who just doesn’t get the strategy of the game, that player and both of his neighbors are dead in the water before the game even begins. As the scores of the other three players will be affected by the poor strategist, the scores of those boards will likely be poor. And, to me, that is super frustrating, when my success or failure ends up being controlled by things entirely out of my control.
Codenames: Pictures – I prefer the original.
Between Two Cities – This is a strange one for me, I am never particular enthused when this is suggested, but then I actually quite enjoy it when I play it.
Notre Dame – Certainly not in my top three of the now defunct Alea Big Box series, but still a solid game worth playing. My favourite memory of this game is that one day I rang up our FLGS to see if it was in stock. I was told it was, paid for it over the phone and the FLGS staff member delivered it to our house on his way home that night and stayed to play it with us too!