Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – May 2018
Without further ado, my new games this month include …
The historical knock on all deduction games is their fragility. Worst is if one player’s mistake hurts other people (a la Black Vienna), and this at least doesn’t do that. This takes fragility in another direction. Here you’re inferring opposites – it’s green positive so it can’t be any of the combinations containing a green negative, which you both mark on your sheet and place a matching chit on your player board. Now if the chit falls out of your player board and you can’t recall exactly where it was, hopefully you’ll be able to work it out backwards from your player sheet. But what if you’ve also made a mistake on your sheet somewhere because you’re tired? Not a lot of fun working all that out again, and realising you’re knocked out of the game and there’s little point continuing for the next 90 minutes. The other knock I had was what if you simply don’t get the cards to narrow down the last 50/50 aspect of a component. The game only goes 6 rounds so now you’re probably forced into some guesswork in the hunt for points. Do you trust what others have inferred, or have they been making some educated guesses as well? On such can the game depend, and I’m not really in the fun camp on that one. The game is LOOONG, and I was as much a culprit as anyone, checking and re-checking inferences, working out optimal things I wanted to test next based on what was available. Not only does that length increase the chances of frustration escalation (at mistakes and incomplete knowledge), but it doesn’t accordingly increase the level of satisfaction gleaned from correct inference-making to compensate, compared to games of half the length. I can appreciate the game – the thematic linking to academia is brilliant and the rules clever and fun – but there’s too much risk that I won’t enjoy any given playing, either through my own mistakes, or apologising for the game for other players who’ve made mistakes given its length, or through card and choice frustration. Further it requires all the players to really love the core mechanic – there’s too much risk that those I’m gaming with on any given night aren’t all in the love-it camp, so how often will it find play?
This is a very neat co-op which I’d usually rate higher as I quite enjoyed it, except for a few things. There’s no hidden information so it can have an alpha dog issue, we won it on the first game so I’m not confident in the quality of the challenge, and the game seemed to devolve to one of guard manipulation – for example, you need to move off the floor so the guard won’t move this turn and kill the next player, or go here and set off this alarm to force the guard this way, saving the next player from using a stealth token, and so on. This seemed to be the primary consideration over many turns, and it became rather repetitive by the latter stages of the game. Especially when there’s no overt in-built timer – as long as you continued to manipulate the guards, you could proceed relatively safely to the win. That gets harder as the game proceeds as you’d expect, and they were nice co-op problems to solve, but felt rather anti-thematic once the cool-ness of the game wore off. On the positive side, the room tiles had lots of interesting effects to manipulate, there were risk/reward decisions to make (peek vs move), and best moves weren’t always obvious. Midway through the first game I was thinking potential purchase, but by the end I was thinking hmm, a nice challenge but a bit too long, a bit repetitive, and not enough drama for extensive replay.
Fun game. Random, but fun. Did I mention random? Draw 6 action cards (move left/right, up/down, take money, shoot someone, etc), and the players play them into a common deck, one at a time, in player order, some face-up, some face-down (as the round card dictates) so you’re never quite sure by the end (when the deck is played out) where everyone’s going to be, whether people will be in range to shoot them, if there’ll be money left by the time you rob, and so on. Most money wins, but it’s possible that you never draw a rob card in the whole game and you literally can’t get any money. That, my friend, is random. Apparently it’s an SdJ winner (I stopped paying attention to that award many moons ago). It’s family friendly for sure, and it was fun seeing it all play out. Turns are quick, rules are easy, nice components and so on. But … random.
This is a pretty interesting take on the age-old “simultaneously compete over multiple things in the middle using cards” type of game. The interest lies in that it finally finds a decent use of the solomon’s choice mechanic (a mechanic which in the past has killed off long multi-player games stone dead with analysis paralysis and unfair kingmaking; see San Marco). This 15 minute version uses 2 different versions of it each round (offer 3 cards, opponent takes 1, and then offer 2 pairs, opponent takes 1), plus some other plays that you cycle between. With an almost known deck (one card’s out), and only 21 cards in the game, the decisions each round are delicious without requiring undue agonising. The problem, as with all micro-games, is that you can only play it so many times before you’re repeating yourself – replay will be decent for a bit and then it’s going to drop off the table and only see occasional play when someone shows some interest. It’s very likeable in the meantime though.
HEAVEN & ALE
Firstly, throw the theme right out the stained glass window. This is an optimal placement puzzle game. For track-pickup games, you normally have a fair idea what people will be going for and can assess what you need to rush for and what not. Bury that notion in the hops as well. Each tile can be quadruple-scored (by number, by colour, by monk adjacency, and by surrounding a shed space on your tableau). This makes knowing what each player is going for highly unclear, so the usual risk/reward track-pickup nuance is replaced by ongoing whatevers. Yes, people will target the high tiles so as to multi-score them. But surrounding shed spaces with low tiles so as to progress your score-multiplier higher is just as key. What will each player target next? I don’t know. It’s a mystery! The game is also particularly unforgiving to new players, with the need to plan the exact positioning of your big tiles to multi-score them. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly a lot heavier than I was expecting. This learning curve, and the desire to plan and execute better next time, is no doubt the attraction, but to me it felt like I was having to work throughout the whole game. It’s not enough just to collect stuff – you need to work the placement puzzle, and then you need to work the scoring mechanisms. These realisations, plus the track lottery left me less excited for playing the game than I was when reading the rules – I expected a lighter, more enjoyable, less work-type affair. It’s a good game, and one I’ll enjoy more in future now I know what to expect, but neither is it one I’m excited to explore for the reasons given.
Another poster child for pop-up disposable card games. It pops up, it’s fine, and you move on. Play sets (based on number) to acquire more and bigger sets so that the sets you play eventually can’t be exceeded, as then they’ll score and you’ll also probably force players with lesser sets to take cards back into their hand. Which is good given that the goal is to get rid of all the cards in your hand (as each is a minus point) whereas each card in a non-exceeded set will score a plus point. The decisions are froth and bubble, but it can be fun to play a low card to hopefully get it beaten so you can pick up a high card from the draft and add to a solid set in your hand and watch players either fall over themselves to avoid giving it to you or getting sucked in. The game somehow finds a sweet spot with a few laughs and the odd surprise. It passably fills the time when time needs filling.
A beautifully themed game, where you’re builder, store-keeper, trader, and shipper during the reconstruction of Lisboa. The players need to do everything, and it’s a constant juggling and balancing act. I need money to build stores to generate goods to do actions, I need clergy for influence to do actions, I need goods to build ships for influence, then more goods to ship for money, but not in the second half of the game, and the way to get VPs is to generate meeples and use them to build public buildings, and … and all the cards can be used multiple ways, and there’s a million different icons, and I need more time to analyse all the options and all the icon possibilities on the clergy tiles and the building spaces and the cards, and I NEED MORE TIME!!! The game’s many aspects are harmoniously interweaved into a whole, and I’ve been engrossed throughout each game (which take closer to 3 hours but feel like 2). The rules are great, and make thematic sense, but it’s an awful lot to cover. There’s no direct competition for resources or actions spaces or such. Instead, mastery of the rules, iconography, and process is a major step towards victory, as you’re mostly battling the game rather than the other players. You always seem to want to be doing way more things that you can get to in time. It took me a couple of plays, but I’m now in harmony with the game and what it provides.
It’s a Glory To Rome mini-me, but designed for fewer players with a smaller deck (I have the 2-3 player Mini version). Cards are similarly 4-sided and each side can be used in different ways. It provides the same challenge of getting cards into your hand and your materials area to build other cards for points and effects. It adds a nice decision on whether each point-earning card, if you pair it up, will further boost your action boosters or your point cards. On the downside, a lot of your result still depends on drawing the right cards to allow you to do the action you want when you want it, and whether you draw a nice set of synergistic effects or not. It’s also seriously not spouse-friendly; gamer-zone only thanks due to the head-spinning contortions required of cards and actions to get stuff done, so the low player count makes it tricky to get to the table. I quite like the challenge of making it all work and searching for those combos, willing to accept the luck, but many won’t.
For a sea theme, this is pretty dry. Action dice availability on your turn seems disproportionately influential given you only get 12 turns in the game. Mostly because the loading of ships is governed strictly – sometimes the dice will allow you to load how you wish, other times they won’t. As you’re only loading a few times in the game, you just have to suck it up and do the best you can. Which doesn’t feel appropriate for a game of this length. Additionally, I’m not a fan of share-based games because of the weird player dynamics it produces. Here it seems to add superficial complexity without adding much in the way of interesting gameplay. Lastly, it feels too long for what’s basically a load-up-and-move game. It’s ok, but it wasn’t able to keep me fully engaged.
I’m not sure why this is rated as highly as it is (currently 56th at BGG). Maybe it’s the spouse-friendly lack of confrontation. Maybe people like the way it makes you take time to work your way through all your placement options so as to fit in these upcoming pieces just so. At first blush the decisions on trading off income vs size seem like they may be interesting. But once into the game, even those become a tad, if not obvious, then underwhelming. After all, how much excitement can they add to the process of evaluating the next three pieces to see which will go best on your board? With little risk/reward tension generated, for mine it’s just an ok analysis piece – do the best you can, and see how it plays out. Which is ok, but hardly the stuff of replay.
SPOTLIGHT ON: A FEW ACRES OF SNOW
7 plays: I’ve had this on ice the last 5 years, waiting for my boys to be old enough to explore it. With school holidays on, we’ve had it out for a week playing once a day. I thought it was interesting when I first got it because I loved how the theming worked, capturing the delay and unclear delivery timelines in ordering supplies (cards) and receiving them. It’s a nice deck-building twist with strategic decisions to make on how you build your deck – settler heavy to build cities for VPs, troop heavy to inflict sieges to steal cities, raider heavy to steal VPs, deck manipulation cards, defence cards, and so on. As your deck grows, you get good turns and poor turns, simulating the ebb and flow of the conflict. It doesn’t feel like a war game, more of expansion and competition for restricted spaces, with multiple ways to choose to do it. But the quick discovery of the nigh-unbeatable Halifax Hammer strategy worried me (even though I deliberately ignored it, and even though rules changes came through quickly to limit its viability) – firstly that Martin Wallace had once again whipped a game out to market without sufficient playtesting (a common lament) and secondly had he just re-worked the Dominion mechanic into a themed game without fully understanding that mechanic. In short, thin, thin, thin your deck. We explored a number of strategies this past week, both sides variously concentrating on (or playing a mix of) military, settling, and/or raiding to earn VPs. Disappointingly, it seemed like my worries were valid – the settling approach just doesn’t work due to the continual clogging up of your deck and the need to spend actions to unclog it again. It means half the board (the western side) is nigh on useless. The British start well behind the French on VPs, and can’t outpace the French at settling, so their only recourse is full-out military on the eastern seaboard to generate point swings over from the French and towards themselves – which has the benefit of auto-thinning their deck each time they siege. Knowing this, the French prepare, fortify, raid, and aim to finish the game before enough point swings can be generated. While there may be quibbles on which cards to get in which order, the game otherwise seems too mono-strategied to engender mass-replay. I have no idea whether what we’ve found holds true for those with many more plays than us, but for us that’s where it ended and we’ve moved onto other games. The game has hit the shelves once more (and probably the trade pile) and the rating dropped, which is a shame given the promise it held.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry: For some reason, a lot of the games on Patrick’s list this month resonate with me, either in a positive or negative way, so here’s some additional commentary.
Alchemists – I share Patrick’s frustration with this design, but for me, it’s just that I don’t want to mix guesswork (which is pretty much required) and deduction, even though I think the central deduction mechanic is brilliant. Very disappointing game.
Heaven & Ale – I like this one considerably more than Patrick does. I find its heavy and intricate nature to be a real plus, along with its unique gameplay. Right now, it’s between this title and Gaia Project as my personal Game of the Year for 2017.
Linko – Better known to my group as Abluxxen. I’m actually quite fond of this one. Again, the attraction is that it plays differently than other designs, which is particularly unusual with a melding card game.
Patchwork – Maybe the Geek’s rating of this is higher than mine, but I do think this is a quality design. I particularly like that there’s an economic aspect to it (the buttons), which lifts it above being a typical abstract. Plus, there’s genuine strategy in figuring out which shapes to grab and how hard to go after the 7×7 bonus. I find it consistently enjoyable.
A Few Acres of Snow – Patrick’s mixed feelings about this largely match mine. On the one hand, this is a hugely innovative and very challenging game where the central deck-building mechanism matches its theme perfectly. On the other hand, it’s one of a small number of games that you can categorically say is “broken”. However, if my gaming tastes were just a bit different and I had ready access to a like-minded opponent, I could see playing this repeatedly and choosing to ignore the Hammer, just because there’s so much good stuff in it. I’m honestly not sure how well that would work, but many people on the Geek report doing just that, so it must be feasible. At any rate, it’s something of a Glorious Failure of a game. My hope is that Wallace’s latest try at the system (A Handful of Stars), finally gives us a game that lives up to Snow’s great promise. My first play was a lot of fun, but Snow has taught us that first looks can definitely deceive…
Burgle Brothers: I’ve only played twice, but agree with Patrick’s statement that it comes down to guard manipulation. However, I found that guard manipulation to be pretty fun, especially combined with the special abilities and cards. As with all co-ops this could easily go downhill if anyone is prone to overanalysis.
Colt Express: This game is a bit too random for my tastes, but I have enjoyed playing it as a late-night or family game, and I think it would be a good choice for casual gamers.
Heaven and Ale: I am still really enjoying this game, even though I have definitely not figured out how to win or even come close.
Linko: Team Play has essentially replaced this in our group, but seeing this on Patrick’s list makes me want to break it out at our next game day; this got played at the end of every session for a few months last year.
Colt Express: played with the right group this game is a real blast. Yes, there is a fair bit of randomness with it but using a six shooter on a rickety train was never going to be accurate! I like some of the expansions and the game moves along at a swift pace – perfect to end the evening with this grab the loot and try to hold onto it game.
Heaven & Ale: Like Tery, I am really enjoying this game and I was pleased to see it get a nod from the Spiel des Jahres jury. There is quite a lot going on with what is really an abstract puzzle game. However, timing of when to score your tiles is all important and there is a certain amount of push your luck by buying just one more tile and hoping that there will be a scoring opportunity left for you.
Linko/Abluxxen: This has been a hit both at home and in my gaming group and for a long while was our filler of choice. For such a straightforward game, I have found it one of the most difficult to explain to a new set of players. Overall though one of the best card shedding games to be published recently.
Lisboa: I realise that I am in the minority here as I find this game a bit of a unnecessarily complex mess of mechanics, actions, tiles and pieces that could all benefit from streamlining.
Heaven & Ale: Oddly enough, I’m with Larry here. The set of Essen 2017 games was odd for me – there are four games I love, including Heaven & Ale, but almost no games I like. I don’t think Heaven & Ale will win the Kennerspiel des Jahres, but I’m happy to see it nominated, and it’s holding up well for me over a dozen plays.
Panamax: You know, this might be one of the best examples of a game I wanted to like, but – couldn’t. I actually think the mechanism for moving things through the Panama Canal are very good, and interesting, and would work well on their own – but for me, the rest of the game just detracts from that very good central core. I keep hoping the designers come back to design Panamin…
Here, two games that I haven’t been able to like. First, A Few Acres of Snow. The fact that the Hammer strategy is possible = broken game to me. My mind simply cannot choose to ignore this. It’s a shame that this game, which could have been great, is unplayable. Second, Panamax is one that we tried to play twice when it came out, but the game is just too convoluted to be enjoyable. I’ve never actually finished a game of this because both times the group decided in unison to abort.
I have nothing profound to say about most of these, as none are loves and some are neutral. I do like Mottainai more than most and wonder why it gets a bum rap while GtR is praised to the sky. I found Uchronia quite boring and really enjoyed Mottainai without finding it any more synergy-dependent than GtR. Am I missing something? Yes, the learning curve is steep and it is easy to make rules mistakes, but once you get it down and realize that you don’t have to play a card to the top at all, it seems pretty slick to me.