Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – July 2017
Our sojourn into the Pathfinders: Wrath of the Righteous campaign is facing imminent abandonment. In the same way that each turn feels the same as the previous turn (flip a card and roll dice to kill it or acquire it), each scenario has felt much the same as the previous (keep flipping until you find the big guy, roll dice to close locations, and then roll dice to kill it). This was our fear from the start, but we were hoping that the scenarios might take the game in new directions (haven’t seen it) and that the deckbuilding might provide a fresh feel to explore. But the latter is limited; always reverting to the same deck mix with only minor card changes. So we move on. Tragedy Looper is next on our list. While perhaps not a true campaign, it provides multiple scenarios of (we hope) increasing complexity to explore.
In non-campaign gaming, Hibernia from last month has seen repeat play – my teenage boys like it as a quick smack-‘em game. We’ve also been pulling out oldies like Evo, Puerto Rico, Durch Die Wuste, Dominion, and Tichu, which has come back to the table after a long hiatus and is this month’s spotlight game. Sometimes you forget how good a game is.
Anyway, games I played for the first time during July include …
It’s a fun theme – everyone gradually discarding down to one card, which represents the antidote you’re going to drink in the hope that it’s the correct one to save you from the toxin running rampant through your locked lab. But the mechanics don’t provide much of interest. Each player starts out with knowledge of a subset of which antidotes (ie suit colors) are useless, and therefore can be discarded. You want to end with the highest valued card in the suit that’s been secretly randomly designated, Cluedo style, at the start of the game. A turn is to do a trade, or all players pass a card to their right/left, or all players discard one, carefully noting what other players are discarding and passing as indicators to what other antidotes are known by the other players as useless. But are they misleading you because they have two of that suit?! It’s obviously good to trade for antidote knowledge, but if everyone does it continuously then everyone will know what the missing suit is automatically and it’s a win-lottery as to who happened to get dealt the highest card in that suit. The game feels more fun by restricting trades, forcing players to infer knowledge, and by adding the variants which provide more complicated winning conditions for bigger but riskier points. I’ll play it for the theme, but it otherwise feels like you just want to accelerate the discards to see how it ends as there’s not enough game in the game.
This game asks the inevitable question of how much can a koala bear. The core of the game is the decision on where to place your tile on your board – for the spaces it covers dictate what types of tiles you add to your personal store for placing on future turns. It’s clever in its simplicity. While pleasant to play, my fear is that the game at heart is too simple – get and place the biggest (and highest scoring) tiles as fast as you can, because they’ll cover more spaces more quickly, getting you more big tiles for future turns as well as filling your boards more quickly (for other points). And then backfill the bare spaces as required with smaller pieces. My other fear is that analysis paralysis is lurking around the corner for the competitive beasts – there are lots of shapes and lots of potential configurations and the game is all about point maximisation in the minimum number of turns. If you have trouble configuring your Princes of Florence board, this is 4 times worse! Otherwise, bear with it, the game is dead easy to teach and play, and the components are nice to play with. It could easily find success in a family setting if they’re happy to play at a normal non-optimisation pace, and that has much merit.
It does an ok job of simulating the tv show which is fun enough, but by its nature it’s not much of a game. The questions cover such wide topics that it seems pretty random whether you get easy (which is most of them) or hardish questions, and missing one question in the first round is all it takes to knock you out of contention for the game, being enough to lower your score so that you can’t win unless all the others fail in round 2 (the multi-choice component). If you want a social get together with some easy trivia though, this is fun enough.
A fairly bland, luck-laced, set collecting game. The feature piece is that the draft is made up of pairs of cards – one half being a room for your house (and these come in the standard forms, earning more points by being placed in your house/tableau in the places you normally find those rooms), the other half being a roof, an action card, or a bonus point card. This pairing makes the choosing slightly harder as it’s rare that the perfect pair you want comes along, and that it’ll still there by the time it’s your turn. Sometimes you get lucky, mostly you don’t, and that’s the nature of the game. Taking the best on offer and hoping for the best in future. Much like looking for a real house really.
A simple enough game. Play a card and hope no one plays a higher card by the end of the round. If they don’t, your hand size is reduced by 1, and the first player to get their hand size to 0 wins the game. I liked the twist that cards of the same value played by previous players add their values together, allowing the formation of single round alliances to each get rid of a card (if the total value isn’t trumped by the time it gets round). It feels much like Trendy in that respect. The obvious strategy is to draw and keep the highest possible value cards, and draw cards that match what other players are about to play. Oh, and ally with players who aren’t in a winning position. This mass of luck means the game can flounder into a dire bog if players are looking for something more meaningful, or it can be a noisy, fun, cheering/groaning affair if players add some passion and spicy vindictiveness to their cardplay. It’s a vehicle upon which you must make your own fun, but at least it offers the means to do so.
KANBAN: AUTOMOTIVE REVOLUTION
This game feels difficult to grok after a single play, let alone what one might think of its long term replayability. It’s not so much too many moving parts, but the means to success seems to rely on non-thematic game-play. You’re in a car factory, but the aim is not necessarily to generate cars … you might instead be aiming to earn points by collecting blueprints and converting them into designs, or by activating the assembly line to move cars to the test track, or by acquiring cars from the test track, or by investing in car parts. Thematically, it just seems a too-hard-to-explain mess, and it makes for a wandering we’re-not-playing-to-win, just-to-understand-it type of first game which is unsatisfying. There’s some sense of desire to play again with experienced hands to see if the gameplay evolves into an interestingly competitive grind-out of VPs where the interlocking mechanisms shine and the decisions are delicious. Which may well be the case, and it offers that promise as the action selection mechanism is quite cool (and replay-worthy). But the other part of me sees the game-play as too much hard work and not enough “fun”, and the game requiring too heavy a time investment for any potential (and uncertain) reward, and therefore wants to walk away. I’m not sure … I might get talked into another game, and from there it could go either way.
MASK OF MOAI
It’s not so much a game, more of a co-operative pastime. Start the app on your phone, and place the phone in the most impressive part of the game, the fancy constructed cardboard viewing thingy with the feel of a periscope. Each player takes a turn viewing their part of the maze (on the phone app viewed through the cardboard thingy), getting out of their seat and turning in circles to view all directions, plus jumping up and down to investigate both levels, all the while describing everything they see to their colleagues – who attempt to mimic what you’ve described in realtime using the game components. Then another player has their turn. The aim is to mimic the maze accurately, including making replicas of the different aliens you see using plasticine, and you’ll see at the end how successful you’ve been. I’ve always detested craft (the thought of playing Barbarossa again makes my blood curdle), so this is already grounds for a rating breaker. Combine that with the fact that there’s nothing really to do, and no decisions to make, and there’s not much game in the game. It doesn’t help that the game irritatingly shows red and yellow walls as orange and light orange, so if a player only sees one of these colors, they can easily mistake one for the other through no fault of their own. You can make the game harder by reducing the time each player gets in the app, and by making the maze larger, and by reducing the number of available replays. Increasing this stress might make the game either less or more enjoyable depending on the crowd. It’s not as daunting being the viewer/caller as it first sounds, and it’s decent enough fun, but I’d rather be doing other stuff. Of all the cool things one could imagine for the blending of VR with boardgames, this doesn’t turn out to be one of them, but hopefully it’s a stepping stone along the way.
ONE ZERO ONE
A quickish game of playing your cards out to rows, aiming to control a row (and earn points) by having the most cards in it. Each successive row is worth more points, but you can only start a new row if every line above it has a minimum of 3 cards in it. Which promotes delaying / avoidance moves unfortunately. 10 of your 16 cards will have various commands on it – play again, flip a neighbouring card, etc – and these elevate the game to something interesting enough to get some replay, especially as the players jointly decide which command cards to include each game, providing some inter-game variety and allowing you to shape the game to taste. The fact that the decks are identical means the game should typically go to the player who draws the most useful commands at the right time – for example, you really don’t want to draw a “play again” card early, you’d prefer to get it when you can use it on a higher scoring row. I’m from an IT background so I enjoyed the thematic linking of the commands to the game mechanics, and we’ve enjoyed exploring it for what it is, but the game is probably too abstract for casual enjoyment, and there’s a surprising number of unanswered rules questions that arise from the various commands as well that dampen the experience.
(Disclaimer: I received a copy for helping Englishfy the rules, but wasn’t involved with the final edit nor with the card effects – both of which have a typo, which is a shame. Having said that …)
This game surprised me on the upside, providing more interesting decisions than I was expecting on just reading the rules, and much of it is to do with the card interplay. You’re racing to move your cubes from Earth to your spaceship, and then from your spaceship to various buildings on Mars so as to gain VPs. This can be done using generic actions, or faster through card effects. Cards have a top effect which can be used from hand, and a bottom effect which can be used when you play it from your tableau against a building (which also provides the main means of getting your colonists onto buildings, other than directly through effects). Much of your game is spent trying to work out the best way to use the cards you draw, and consequently which of the multiple scoring avenues you wish to pursue. In a nice get-out, the game also provides the option of using another player’s card against a building, giving them the card effect, but you get the colonist (maybe) and the building’s effect. The action and effect variety means the game packs a pretty fair punch for its weight, which comes in neatly around the 30 minute mark, and the game does some interesting things in its mechanics and effect interactions, including referencing both the front and the backs of the cards. There seems to be a decent amount of luck involved in how much the cards you draw will help or not, especially as the game is shortish, and its nature will tend to have the VPs relatively clustered. But the luck feels acceptable for its weight, and I enjoyed the constant decision making on what cards to keep in hand and what to place in my tableau for their respective effects. I’ll be happy to pull this out again in future.
SPOTLIGHT ON: TICHU
50+ plays. It’s one of the all-time classic 4 player partnership climbing trick games. The decisions come thick and fast on what cards to pass on, when to play or hold back, when to Tichu (bet that you’ll be first to rid your hand of cards for bonus points) and when not, when to be selfish and when to help your partner. Someone’s always going to go out first, and if they didn’t call Tichu (it must be called before their first card is played, but that could be well into the trick while others are playing theirs out while waiting for the opportunity to pounce), that’s 100 points effectively lost, so there’s always an interesting analysis to perform on your chances. The other aspect that elevates the game is the ever-present fear that a bomb (normally 4 of a kind) is lurking in an opponent’s hand that will ruin your otherwise unbeatable plan to be the next person out. And the fun of holding a bomb! There’s lots to enjoy with each hand.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Barenpark – I really want to like this game, but the prolonged setup keeps me from loving it. Seems to be the perfect opener for a game night – as long as you have the fifteen minutes needed to get everything out of the box and arranged on the table (can anyone explain how that insert is supposed to rationally organize the pieces?!) AND if everyone in your group is timely at the start as there won’t be much space left for a filler with this setup. Once the game starts, it’s a delightful puzzle, and one that I enjoy playing. I have had some decent success trying to deny people the small 1 and 2 space green tiles at the end of the game; i’ll pick them up whenever there’s nothing better to take with my Greens, and it often stops someone from finishing a board near the end of the game.
Tichu – so, there was this one game where Ted did something dumb, and we lost the game… JK, this is one of my favorite partnership games, and it is strangely the game that I’m most likely going to try to dissect later (right after the hand usually) – to talk about what we could have played better or differently. Sadly, I only play this one at conventions now. My group at home doesn’t really like Tichu, and without four people that love it (and of similar ability), this one will fall flat. That might be the only failing of this game – that I can’t play it whenever/wherever I want.
Barenpark – Clever and elegant little game. I agree with Dale that the setup is annoying; maybe the best idea would be to open a game night with this and then the host can have it set up to play when everyone arrives. But it plays very fast, with lots of little decisions. I can see it easily serving as a gateway game or follow-up design.
Kanban – Patrick puts his finger on the exact issue I have not only with Kanban, but every Vital Lacerda game I’ve played. The themes are strong, but the things you need to do to succeed usually run counter to the theme. That, and the many layers of interconnected subsystems (too many for my poor head), have led me to swear off his games for the time being. Kanban was at least moderately enjoyable, but was frustrating as well, as I never felt I had a handle on any kind of coherent strategy.
Tichu – Tichu is clearly a great game. But its many enthusiastic devotees don’t usually realize how hard it can be to learn, with lots of little rules and exceptions. I played another climbing game well before I encountered it and as a result, I have a hard time remembering all of its nuances. This makes me a pretty poor partner. There are also other climbing games that give more options of how to play your hand, because of how the wild cards work, and I usually enjoy those more. So I’ll play Tichu if asked, but I always give a strong warning about my questionable abilities and that scares off all but the most fanatical players.
Dream Home – while I don’t think bland is an unfair criticism, it’s not one I agree with – the bright and playful artwork has helped this to go over very well. It’s not a complex game, but I find it very enjoyable. And it has the best tiebreaker ever.
Fuji Flush – it’s hard to get a traditional-style card game notice, and Friedemann’s attempt here (with the original Doppelt & Dreifach edition) was not entirely successful. But I think the game is a good one for fans of traditional card games – and it has two distinct advantages, in playing well with a large number of players, and in being easy for casual gamers to pick up.
Tichu – I’ve tried Tichu three times – and it’s never captured me; in fact, it’s the game that convinced me that partnership climbing games were not a good idea. I really wish even some small portion of those taken by Tichu would given Bridge a fair try, as it’s so much more interesting a partnership game.
Barenpark: I was pleasantly surprised by Barenpark, as I was frankly not expecting much. I find it a very straightforward, yet entertaining tile-placement game. There are significant decisions to be made, but none too taxing so as to prevent families with middle-schoolers from playing. I can see this one being a “gateway” game to introduce folks to our hobby.