Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – June 2018 (Part 2)
I’ve been recently thinking about the preponderance of 7’s in my world. I started euro-gaming in 1999 when new-game junkies like myself just had to suck up whatever came, the good and the bad, to get their hit. There weren’t 100+ new good games each year (which is what I’ve averaged), so our ratings were more varied.
These days we know average ratings are rising because of selection bias. You can spend all your gaming time playing just those games you like and love without having to resort to games that aren’t your thing for the sake of variety – which means that the low ratings for such that might have been generated in the past (when they were played for variety’s sake) aren’t being generated as much anymore. Hence the rising rating levels.
The good news is that there are so many new games these days that new-game junkies like myself can pick and choose which new games to play (dependent on what my gaming groups are interested in anyway), which generates more selection bias because naturally I gravitate to those I’m most pre-disposed to liking. (Well, except when Craig brings some obscure print and play Japanese micro game along that’s obscure for good reason. But I don’t mind taking the occasional grenade for the greater good J). It also means I form an overall impression that game design is improving because I keep playing good games. But I need to be mindful that I’m not playing a ton of under-developed kickstarter crap as well which would drag that impression downwards.
Also, a lot of games I rate a 7 (good) these days would have been rated an 8 (great) back in the day. Not due to jadedness, but because the bar for greatness is being raised, like it does in all works of life. Footballers who were great at the dawn of football fall down the scale as more and more great footballers come along. Such is the same for games. We can only play so many games each year. If enough great games are “less great” than your favourite great games, then they slide over into good games. You don’t want to play them as much as the others, they’re not as special. Accordingly my barrier for greatness has raised over the years, but that’s not denying that there are many, many good games out there. One of my game groups has a running gag; “What did you rate it?”, the table replies “A solid 7”.
So what does it take to get an 8. It has to generate an itch to play again. I love exploring new games so, when a game has strategic divergence with many avenues to explore, the game tickles my exploration lust in a similar way and generates the itch. If the game is instead about mastery (where everyone’s trying to do the same thing but we’re assessing who can do it better this time), then I’ll enjoy it, but it doesn’t excite me as much these days. A lot of games tending to the abstract tend to fall into that bucket.
Why the long prelude? I’ve played a lot of 7’s this year. But suddenly, these last few weeks, a world of 8’s has come along (one may even turn into a 9, which I don’t give out until they start proving themselves with constant replay) and the sun came out. Unicorns and butterflys were frolicking on the lawn. And then came Space Base. sigh. There’s nothing like a quick roll in the 5’s gutter to make you appreciate the great stuff!
So, onwards to the recently devoured new stuff …
This game conflicts me. At heart, it’s a simple worker placement with a goofy loan system. It then obfuscates everything with layers of theme and complexity to either a) generate interest and challenge in mastering it or b) generate massive irritation depending on your point of view. It has issues. The importance of start player is always my biggest bugbear with worker placement, and with places for new workers, resources, and buildings (the core spots) at a premium and costlier with each placement, start player seems even more important than usual. It felt like each player’s compulsory goals might be a touch unbalanced, and the breakthrough tiles a sideline. And yet … Once you learn how the goofy loan system works in reality (rather than the stupid time-travel thematic explanation i.e. you need to build a building that allows you to re-pay a loan from up to X turns ago, and you get VPs each time you do) then that’s an interesting sub-system worthy of exploration. I like how the building costs are personalised (depending on how many you’ve already built in that type), and are balanced by power vs VP ratios. I like how the workers are specialised, with benefits at some placements and restricted from others, and I really like how workers don’t auto-return in usable mode – the game forces you make a choice on how and when you get your workers from last turn back (as a free action but at VP cost, or pay up and use an action and gain VPs). It means you want a bigger pool of workers than you can actually use each turn. Otherwise, it’s standard engine building stuff – get workers to get resources to get buildings, which offer personal actions to enhance your abilities to get workers to get resources to get buildings. After my initial game I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to explore it, but it kept me awake thinking about it so I guess it’s worked its claws into me.
I’ve played all the major cycling games over the last 20 years and still have a few of them, and I think this is my new favourite. It lacks epicness with the relatively simple track approach – flat, mountain, downhill – but it captures the feel of cycling beautifully none-the-less. The slipstream rule nicely allows for peloton splits and pullbacks. Tracks with uphill slogs to the finish really do favour rouleurs, We see sprinters come roaring home over the peloton on flat finishes. It’s all managed by each player having two cleverly constructed decks, a relatively balanced one for your rouleur and a high/low deck for your sprinter, which are cycled through. Played cards leave the deck so you tend to start with low slow cards and keep your big cards to the finish – thematic. But be wary of breakaways. The other clever touch is that you clog your deck with a low-value exhaustion card if the turn ends and you have an empty space in front of you, either because you’re in the lead or you haven’t got back in touch with the peloton – also thematic. You can play a one-day-classic or a tour with timings (using the app). The game-play itself is too simple to be anything more than a 7, but it gets an 8 for capturing a theme I’m pre-disposed to liking so elegantly.
GANZ SCHON CLEVER
The PB Translator translates the title to “This game thinks it’s clever, but really it’s too clever for its own good”. It has some nice decisions on your turn on what to use after each of your three rolls, because using a high dice burns all the lower dice, which you then can’t use for the remainder of your turn. Roll well and it’s not an issue, because then it’s just a decision on which scoring method to focus on so as to get to the “clever” reward levels (advancing enough in each colour leads to bonus advances in others). You get a minor decision on other player’s turns as well with one of their unused dice, but otherwise your opponents’ turns feel long waiting for them to determine which dice won’t be used, and the downtime seems to make the game go on and on, much longer than I want a roll & write game to go.
If I owned this I would happily explore it. It holds just enough possibility for strategic divergence through purchase of elders (which provide actions exclusive to you) and buildings (either immediate or ongoing powers) to maintain interest with repeat play. The shorter than usual timeframe and having only three actions in each of the seven rounds mean you need to really focus on the essentials. The usual worker placement pressure and associated first player advantage is dissipated because there’s usually a few things you want to get to each turn, with multiple ways to go about it (including getting exclusive actions in the fields you want to specialise in so you’re not main-board dependent). The fish (income) mechanic is fresh. I suspect we’re back to the bad old Rosenborg design haunt in that we’re resorting to preparing for big building buys for VPs in the backend, but I like that we get exclusive access to two of these for a few rounds at least. On the downside, the game slows with unfamiliarity due to the wide range of buildings and elders that are available and need reviewing, but it develops a nice pace once people are comfortable with the options. It kept me happy and entertained.
Knizia doing old-school here in an attempt to relive his glory-packed 90’s. Knowing it was nothing but 40 minutes of blind-bidding, I wasn’t expecting too much but I was pleasantly surprised. There’s the right amount of auctions to enable the swings and roundabouts and inherent unfairness of the blind bids to even out. When you don’t win you’ll often be able to do good stuff anyway, just not getting as many tokens out (the aim being to place the tokens so as to connect up certain combinations of revealed tiles to the coast so that you can score them by building a Moai). The play is fast, there’s positive Vizzini-action at work, the components are nice, rules are easy. There’s no big learning curve in play, just getting into the right position to outbid your opponents at the right times. It’ll never garner huge replay, but it provided some good cheer/groan fun in the right timeframe.
THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO
Knizia uses Dominion mechanics in a race-across-the-board game. Cards can be used to either move (across their corresponding terrain) or to buy another card, and your early strategic choice is whether to buy better move cards or to buy better money cards that allow you to buy even better move cards later. And/or buy the standard deck manipulation cards. The interesting choices are made in the first third of the game, deciding how you want to structure your deck to get through the terrain fastest – steady tortoise, come home strong, or a mix. The game eventually becomes one of playing your deck through, making your movement choices based on what’s likely coming up next in your deck and hope you don’t get bad draws at important times. Can’t move? Oh well, buy another card!. There are different courses that will require different weights of each terrain in your deck. The game is partly learning what works well with what and learning values accordingly. It’s nice to have a deck-builder fuelling a physical purpose, but once I was happy with my deck mix, playing out the race seemed rather rote, generating a slide from early interest to late ambivalence, ending up with an in-betweenish ok rating as a result.
I’m pretty open to mindless die-rolling games (as in I won’t throw them up against the wall and burn them after playing) but others I play with maybe aren’t so kind. I’m not sure this will be coming out again. Roll two dice, buy the best income generating card on offer in the draft. Accumulate money from your cards on other people’s turn. Roll two dice, buy the best income card you can. Continue. Eventually you’ll build a good enough income generating engine to start buying point scoring cards. First one to accumulate lots of points wins. The decision on which card to buy is generally based on whether you want to continually score each die separately or score combined totals, and once this is settled on, the purchases become pretty obvious. The cards are basic, with no interesting powers or combos to build. It’s just dice rolling over and over again for 45-60 minutes, gradually, gradually, gradually building up your income and score bases until it’s over. I didn’t mind it as a one-off because I could see what I was building towards, but I also have no need to invest another hour doing it all over again.
Love the theme; spirits attempting to drive human invaders off the land by generating unnatural natural phenomena (i.e. your actions) to both instil fear and wipe them out. Each turn humans in one terrain type will fight, another terrain will grow more humans, and another terrain will generate a brand new set of humans, and each terrain will progress through those three stages over three turns so you know what’s coming up. The fascination in the game is the almost-paralysingly wide breadth of options available to you each turn. You’ve only got a handful of actions, but they vary between happening before (stop this turn’s bad stuff happening) and after humans go (stop them doing bad stuff next turn), plus the need to manage costs, plus the need to work out exactly where on the board is the best place to do each of those actions. Lastly, is it possible to coordinate actions with your partners to get a better result. This generates positive options debate, some of which concerns exactly what a “better result” looks like. There’s so much to think about just within your own sphere that the chance of alpha direction is limited. There are lots of different base powers to explore, varied by the acquisition of random powers each game, plus various scenarios and difficulty levels. Best of all, it provides a palpable sense of enjoyable accomplishment when the board is finally cleared of human taint. In short, lots to like.
SPOTLIGHT ON: VALDORA
11 games. I have too many games to play each year so quality games sometimes languish on the shelves through no fault of their own. This week we came back to Valdora, reminding me how good it was. I’ve picked it here, not because of anything astonishing, but to highlight how enjoyable it can be to come back to a game after a long wait and re-discover it almost as if it were fresh and new. It’s a pick up and deliver game that solves a few of the genre’s problems. Most money is replaced with most VPs and it introduces a strategic element on how to acquire VPs – specialisation in one colour vs generalisation over many colours, together with simple vs complex deliveries. Instead of just picking the best contracts, you’re faced with decisions on whether to pursue your strategy when the board isn’t helping or sacrifice it for easier but short term gains. It also solves the “long haul” issue – when most money requires multiple turns doing nothing but moving from one end of the map to the other. Here, the map is navigable in two turns, allowing the focus to remain on the core delivery and VP acquisition aspects. On the downside, it’s pretty themeless (faceless gems to nameless places) and the map is perhaps too constrained, both of which reduce the sense of delivery satisfaction. But the game runs fast, turns are pacey, it’s all done in 60 minutes or less, generates some tension along the way, and provides a pleasant experience that we’ve enjoyed coming back to.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson: Flamme Rouge manages to capture cycling quite nicely… and the Peloton expansion adds more players and some nice twists terrain-wise.
Orongo was a nice game, but the components made it more difficult to play than it needed to be.
I like Quest for El Dorado a bit more than Patrick… most of our games have had tense finishes and different board layouts demand different kinds of decks, which I like.
Matt Carlson: I’ve played quite a bit of Ganz Schon Clever lately and still enjoy it. I have to admit almost all the plays were 2p, so that greatly affects the length of the game. I worry about whether a particular strategy is favored (I alway seems to get 20 pts and only 20 pts in yellow) , but I’ve not given up. My one play of Quest of El Dorado was fun, and came down to the draw in the last two turns. I found my deckbuilding to still be relevant until almost the end. I still found the endgame captivating as I was watching if my deck would pan out with the correct draws. Spirit Island was a great find for me. I played my first game in March and was amazed how many of my buttons it pushed. I like co-ops, varied special powers (and game variability), and deckbuilding – all of which are present. Its main fault lies in its complexity. The game is a brain burner within one’s own domain and just gets worse when you try to coordinate elsewhere. The complexity requires a certain level of gaming experience to play, so that limits the situations where I can get it to the table. It also affects the game length, which is fine but can get a bit long if players start to get AP problems. Oh, and the sheer number of “expansion” options is almost overwhelming. It’s nice they’re there but I have only dipped my toe into just a few of them since they pretty much require gamers experienced with the base game. Right now, Spirit Island sits in the “would love to get it to the table” pile, with hope that I could play with some of the non-basic additions.
Joe Huber: Flamme Rouge was, for me, an excellent example of a 7 worth exploring a few times only to find out that – it’s a 7 rating for me. Not bad, at all, would play – won’t buy. Ganz schön clever, in contrast, I’m picking up after three plays to dig in a bit deeper. Won’t necessarily result in it placing any higher, but – I’m curious to find out. I have similar net opinions about Nusfjord and El Dorado to Patrick, but Spirit Island – well, by the end of my one play, I was rooting for the natives to be wiped out, which is probably not what the designer was looking for…
Jonathan Franklin: I really like Valdora and am glad it got a spotlight. I have not played it in a while and was happy to find a new home for my Africana. I am not sure why I prefer Valdora so much more, other than finding the paths in Africana to be counter-intuitive and that its edges were smoothed down a bit too much.
Space Base is a game I will be fine never playing again. I don’t see much to it that makes me want to try it again independent of any claimed balance issues, but I also would not run away screaming.
I liked El Dorado more than you did, but also think of it more as a base game and hope that the expansions bring more to it and might elevate it. I am also a sucker for adventure themed games and those with predominantly blue/green boards. Also, it reminds me of the platters in Mississippi Queen and Black Rose, which I remember fondly, but have not sought out in ten years.
I won’t be seeking out Spirit Island, but really liked one aspect of it. It is a co-op where each player has a sector they are effectively responsible for. This means you can handle things in your sector without tons of communication, but if you need help, it is easy to reach out and see if others can help you. This made it more fun than a co-op where you can zone out and the game goes on without you.
Fraser: The only one of these I have tried is Nusfjord and only once or twice, it is definitely on the play it more often list.