Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – August 2018 (Part 1)
Gloomhaven and Pandemic Legacy Season 2 continue apace, unfazed by any competition that new games might throw up. Spirit Island continues to hit the table – I’ve played all bar one of the powers now and we haven’t even started in on the adversaries yet. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. I’ve also been spending a bit of time playing a trick-taking game I’ve designed which seems to be going well. The beauty of such is that you can hit all your own buttons!
Meanwhile there’s been one real new-game high this month, but let’s start low and build up …
Real time matching of lots of coloured shapes in your hand of cards to the card/shape requirements on the goal tiles on the table. It’s a race to claim tiles from the table, meaning it’s a race to work through all your colour/shape possibilities and identify a tile you can actually do. If you can’t, lose a point and draw 3 more cards and hope you now can. Eventually stuff will come, and yeah, you get better with practice. If you’re falling behind, you can claim free points by slapping down any cards you like with a tile, because only the sets of the player getting the most points this round are checked. Stupid rule. Plus, constantly sorting and re-sorting your card elements in your head to get the required configurations while under constant time pressure is … just … not … fun. Thematically, if you win you’re the smartest monkey and you’re sent on a spaceship to Mars. As one of my gaming buddies proffered, the smartest monkey is the one who doesn’t win the game. I could go further and say the smartest monkey doesn’t play this game in the first place. Ooh-ooh.
AMUN-RE: THE CARD GAME
A pretty good invocation of the original boardgame. (Although you know you’ve been around for a while when, during the rules, it emerges that no one at the table has even heard of it.) This version captures the auction mechanic well, which was ground-breaking at the time and is the essence of the game, being the trade-offs made re scoring pyramids vs farm incomes and the dilemma of how and when to ramp up prices (and potentially getting stuck with something you don’t want so much) vs just going for what you want (and whether you can get away with lower than you value it). There’s some nice differences (the strict gold card selection process for one), but there’s simplification as well – no action cards, and no secret goal scoring, which makes for a lesser game than the original. But as a card game, it packs some nice decision punch into its 30-45 minutes, and it feels different enough from the pack to probably earn sufficient replay and a place in a collection.
CHAMPIONS OF MIDGARD
A fun blend of Euro-Ameritrash elements with worker placements generating the dice and goods needed to smack the baddies for points. The dice rolling no doubt upsets Euro diehards and the worker placement the Ameritrash blowhards, but I’m in the growing band of gamers that have a foot solidly in each camp so I had a good time with it. There’s some secret objectives to shoot for, but ultimately the game is about risk/reward decisions on how many combats, or how big a combat, you can risk your hard-earned dice on to max your points each round – and committing early enough during the worker placement to grab the shot at it. The Valhalla expansion added a nice touch where you spend the dice you lost in combat on rewards, furthering the need for battle lust. There’s nothing much else to explore in it, but it’s fun enough for the occasional outing.
A nice dice game with enough newish elements to feel fresh. You’re rolling to get the rivers and mountains you need to get through your current goal card (and then get a new one to work on) or to claim an ongoing power that will help with future goal cards, or do dice manipulations or goal swaps. Standard stuff. But dice used for other than completing goal cards get returned to the centre board where anyone can claim and use them, which means the dice move around between the players. As you can only use one rolled element each turn, having lots of dice to get a lot of one element and have a big turn is a good thing. But use your opponent’s dice quickly, as they can use a turn to claim all their dice back and deny you their use. Turns are really quick and the game keeps moving at pace. The choices are nice without being time-consuming or taxing. It’s very likeable.
The god-like shuttling around of tectonic plate style land movements reminded me of Die Magier Von Pangaea, but this does it better. Not so much thematically though, because it’s still just as daft a thematic explanation of an abstract game as ever. (We’d hope that games could at least do it in such an over the top manner that everyone’s in on any self-mocking deprecation). But turns here are both quick and clever. Quite the achievement as one usually results in forgoing the other. It’s a race to get your pieces spread across the boards next to point-scoring temples before others beat you there, and you score bigger if you’re on different tiles or if you can touch each temple on a tile. You only place three pieces on a turn and you spread from where you are, but each turn you get a special action to help you spread faster – for example placing a piece on an edge space of a tile, then rotating or moving the tile so that your piece is now adjacent to another tile, and then placing your next piece onto the newly adjacent tile. The map size seemed to allow just the right amount of blocking, but without overly blocking players’ options. Overall it felt nicely designed, and strangely enjoyable for an abstract.
More an activity than a game. Each card is a modern art type mish-mash of colours, and your task each turn is to determine if each card in the display is correctly placed, ranging from the card with the least of the stated colour up to the card with the most of the stated colour. Like Bluff, you either call (in which case the cards are flipped to reveal the colour percentages) and a point is won either way, or you add a new card to the line, inserting it into its hopefully correct position. That’s it, over and over. Its flaw is that if the player to your right plays perfectly (calls incorrect placements correctly, and inserts cards correctly), it’s impossible for you to score a point. As an activity it’s ok for a bit, but I have no need to further test whether my ability to assess “what percentage of a card is a particular colour” is better than yours. No, really, it’s ok, I’ll concede you that.
This at least has the benefit over other Munchkin titles of not vastly outlasting its welcome. It’s still a completely random affair, and there’s obviously a (teenage) market for that. If played at speed and with a group that are happy to go with the flow and don’t care about the win/loss, it provides some good fun. But that’s a big caveat. The Marvel theming definitely helps and provides opportunities to generate positive social, particularly when players combine elements from different heroes to make their own super-hero and ham it up a bit. But did I mention that the game was completely random? That’s typically a death knell hereabouts.
PANDEMIC: RISING TIDE
We’ve been quite taken with this implementation, and it saw constant play over a recent gaming weekend. The card system remains, but the board structure is overhauled. There’s only one disease: water. Your job is to keep building dikes and pumping that water out, while still arranging to get the regular 5 same-colour cards into hands to build the 4 required structures to win. Which may sound duller, but the game has quite a different feel, and the decisions on where to build dikes, pumps, and ports are non-obvious and non-trivial. New decision inputs include wanting to keep the water flowing back to your pumps, and the fact that dikes are built between regions – when a region card is revealed, it’s important which of its dikes is removed as it has consequences for its neighbouring region. We’ve also been enjoying the provided goal objectives, which replace the 4 structures with different win conditions, often involving getting population cubes into dry areas (which die if they flood again). It’s not an easy game to win as the end-game escalation can get wild and hairy, and bad luck can cruel you (a breach in just the wrong place can be catastrophic) but regardless, I think it’s my new favourite version of the game (putting Legacy to one side).
Each turn you receive a tile showing patterns of moss and raked sand to be (usually) placed in your tableau, gradually building a garden, and placing stones in the garden. There’s about 193 ways to score points – making circles, being symmetrical, placing stones in any number of patterns, and so on. If you don’t like your tile picked, you may offer it to other players, or if you draw a tile that’s great for another player, they can simply pay a bit and steal it so there’s some interaction. With so many scoring options you’d think you could always do something, but once you go down a scoring path you’re pretty much locked in and there’s some luck required to complete a “perfect” garden. It was enjoyable enough, aided by the aesthetics, but the only decision each turn was the gamble on whether you’ll be able to get the tiles to successfully finish what you’ve started, and the end-game generated some resignation that in life sometimes plans just don’t fall out how you’d like. No doubt this is meant to provide some thematic motivation to spend more time in the garden meditating on how such is life.
SPOTLIGHT ON: ST PETERSBURG
50+ plays. It’s a simple convert-money-into-more-money-and-then-VP’s game, but it’s executed nicely enough that the replayability continues to surprise me. It’s been one of our 30-40 minute staples for 15 years now, and it’s continued to shine as we’ve all grown experienced with it together. The expansions didn’t impress us much, and we’ve gone back to the simplicity of the original. A lot of the early game is scripted (which goes pretty fast at least) but the decisions start to flow from rounds 2 and 3 onwards, when you’re choosing between buildings vs aristocrats, what to hold in your hand because you want it later, and what to take even though you’d prefer not to just to ensure there’s a free slot for the card type you really want next round. There are some slight card imbalance issues, and maybe a touch too much luck in what comes out when, but it’s one of those games that no one says no to when we have 30 minutes left in the night, and that’s exactly what you’re after in a game in this niche!
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Jonathan F.: I enjoyed my one play of Amun-Re: tCG, but not enough to seek it out and buy it. I definitely like Dokmus more than you do, but part of it is that it provides aha moments where you can plan ahead and do something cool, even in a super abstract game (come to think of it, maybe that is common in abstracts). Thanks for putting Rising Tide on my radar, as I stopped with Iberia, liking that one most of all. St. Pete is excellent. They might not be shiny, but HiG games really do have a timeless quality, even if they are rarely flavor of the month.
Joe Huber: I played Snowkod – every single time I see the box for Dokmus, the letters are upside-down, and therefore the game will forever be Snowkod in my mind – for the first time this month, mostly because it’s kept its popularity so well locally that even though I didn’t expect it to be a game I’d want to play repeatedly, I figured I should try it. And – it was exactly what I expected; too abstract to be a game for me, but nicely done. I’m coming up on 150 plays of Saint Petersburg – it’s been a local favorite since it came out – and what strikes me, the more I play it, is actually how balanced the cards are. I know the expansion tried to re-jigger the balance, but for me it actually threw it off; I will only play the original game, with the original cards. And I will admit that the Mistress on the first turn is nice, but – it’s far from enough to do more than tip the scales a little.
Larry: It took me half a dozen games to become competent at St. Petersburg. And after that, I was done with it. The luck of how the cards came out seemed to be at least as important as skill and the game was sufficiently fiddly that I lost patience with it. Someone did turn it into an excellent 5 minute PC adaptation, but I’ve never had the urge to play it face to face again. Its continuing popularity shows that many find it appealing, but even though I’m an unabashed HiG fanboy, there are many, many more of their titles that I would choose before this one.
Fraser: St Pete got a lot of plays when it was new, it still comes out occasionally. With newbies it doesn’t matter how many times before and during the game you point out the aristocrat scoring and the potential 55 points 95% of them ignore you :-)
So far I have never bothered hunting down Amun-Re: the card game. I really like Amun-Re, so I am not sure why would I bother. It may be quicker than the board game, but I am happy to invest the extra time to play the real thing.
Simon Neale: I regard Discoveries as a simplified version of Lewis and Clark with quite restrictive dice usage. For me, there is not enough going on to hold my attention for the length of the game which is a little disappointing.
Dokmus has a quirky feel to it, but the special actions you can take to move/rotate tiles along with the short play time make this an entertaining game.
I arrived late at the St Petersburg party playing the game for the first time in 2013 – perhaps someone forgot my invitation! That said this is a clever game and I enjoy the Card based engine building style of play and the split between money and victory point generation. I believe that this game holds its own despite its age against a lot of the more recently released games.
Matt Carlson: I consider St. Petersburg to be an excellent example of a VP engine development game. The idea of early development for late game scoring is stripped down to its bare bones to make an enjoyable strategy gaming experience packed into a half an hour. Sure, the game can have its random bits (slightly improved by some of the expansion cards) but I’m willing to accept that due to is short playing time.
Dale Yu: I do like Dokmus, but I’m not sure that I’ll keep it forever. The games now kinda feel the same. The abstract-ness doesn’t bother me, though we have had some issues with clumsy fingers upsetting pieces when rotating board sections, and that can be a frustrating thing. I know that there are those that love it – and in fact, some that have done amazing home-made jobs of the pieces – you can see Scott’s set here: https://www.instagram.com/p/BiVQo92hvo1/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link