I keep a log of all my game plays in an Access database, and have done since I re-caught the gaming bug in 1999. Being able to *know* things rather than guess them (like how many times have I played that game) has always been of interest to me. One of my favourite books from circa 1980 was The Book Of Lists (for those who remember it!), full of facts, trivia, and opinion lists (eg list the top 10 people you’d have liked to have to dinner, and why). It was always fun to open up anywhere and just read a few lists..
All by way of saying that it’s easy for me to whip up quick lists. Let me throw one at you to give you an idea of what’s happening in my gaming life outside first-plays. For newer readers, it may provide a touchpoint on where our gaming interests align and how much weight to give my various first-play commentaries in each game genre! So, here are the ten games I’ve spent the most minutes playing over the last 6 months:
2 Pandemic (Season 2)
3 Spirit Island
4 Mystic Vale (Yucata)
6 Argent: The Consortium
7 Bethel Woods
8 Pulsar 2849
9 Three Kingdoms Redux
10 The Oracle of Delphi
Yep, my groups like co-ops. I play lots of Euros and Ameritrash, but usually each one not more than once or twice before it goes into the shelf rotation, making it hard for them to climb the list over the campaign stuff.
And with that context provided, let’s move on to the first-plays from the last fortnight or so …
BETRAYAL LEGACY (2018)
After three sessions, I’d have to say disappointing so far. The original game is hampered by imbalanced scenarios and a game structure that provides few interesting decisions. It’s really only played for the thematic ride, with dice-rolling deciding pretty much everything. For the occasional outing that’s fine and enjoyable as we know what we’re getting going in. I was hoping that the legacy development effort might provide a game of more interest, but so far it’s been playing exactly like the original, with the legacy aspect primarily being used to drip-feed new cards to the game. This means same old, same old; a mass of dice rolling and few interesting decisions. At least now there’s an overarching story tying scenarios together which is welcome, but the legacy is not providing anywhere near enough oomph to warrant what was only ever an occasional outing turning into a regular must-play. I was expecting more. At some point we’ll continue onwards hoping for more but there’s no sense of rush to it.
EVOLUTION: THE BEGINNING (2016)
This is my favourite of the Evolution family that I’ve played so far. It captures the dynamism of the theme, playing an era almost every 20 seconds (with species propagating and going extinct left, right and centre) but does away with all the accounting that bogged earlier versions down. You still get the cool stuff like combining traits to form your new super species … only to see it eventually wrenched apart and pulled down by evolution! This is very much a game of hit the perceived leader, so one must be prepared to smack and be smacked. But the fun of the theme provides an amenable setting for such, and the quick rules and fast game-play are perfect for the niche. Good fun.
A first impression from release time
FIRST CONTACT (2018)
Arrival is one of my favourite movies of the last few years, so I jumped at the chance of exploring a learn-an-alien-language concept. The aliens are racing to see who can teach the puny human team their language fastest, while the human who grasps the alien language fastest wins as well. There are 25 words, each with an alien symbol. On their turn, a human secretly chooses one of the 25 words and taps the cards in the 5×5 Codenames type grid that match that word (say needle and shackles). The alien tries to work out which of the 25 words the human is trying to indicate (say metal) and then provide the alien symbol for that word. On the next turn, let’s say a human learns the alien symbol for big. On an alien turn, they write out alien symbols that matches one of their pre-selected cards in the 5×5 grid that they want the humans to choose (say big + metal to indicate shackles). The first alien to get three of their pre-selected cards chosen wins, and whichever human has chosen most correctly also wins. It’s a really interesting concept, and can be hammed up by the aliens inventing words to match the symbols and stringing them together in alien chat mode. It’s a little slow as the humans pore over possibilities, and there might be some guesswork involved if the 25 chosen alien words don’t match a pre-selected card well. But hey, language ain’t perfect, and I’d enjoy exploring this further to simply reward the concept alone.
An abstract with a too wide decision tree for me to enjoy much, the game beholden to analysis paralysis as it is. On a turn, place a tile, which will generate resources in spaces shooting out from it using a fancy terrain algorithm. Then move to pick up resources and/or land on spaces to spend your resources on big VP potions (but no powers) or little VP animals (but with powers). The problem is that there’s an oodle of places to place a tile, plus the option of turning your tile into any terrain needs to be taken into account. For each of these possibilities, you need to analyse all the consequent resource gathering alternatives, taking into account what the current potions and animals are, and what other people are likely to buy before you, as well as setting up moves for subsequent turns, which may also depend on what other people might do, and you have special actions that allow you to move 3 spaces or to deviate your path to consider spending, plus all the animal tile powers to consider, plus planning to achieve goals, plus … sheesh, just place already and get on with it! I enjoyed exploring it, but I was over it by mid-game as the decision-tree ground its way inexorably wider and wider.
So, I hear you ask, what would happen if you crossed a trick-taking betting game with Hanabi? Well, I’m glad you asked. It turns out a Pikoko would break out. After analysing the cards on everyone else’s rack bar your own, there’s a round of simultaneously placed bets on how many tricks each player is going to win. Then it’s normal trick taking … well, except you play the cards of the player to your left anytime it’s their turn to play. Meaning the player to your right plays your cards. Meaning whatever the player to your right bet re how many tricks you’re going to win, that’s what I’d be betting on myself. Each exactly correct bet scores most points, close bets get fewer. Having a handful of cards missing each hand however generates too much trick-luck for the game to be more than ‘well, that’s interesting’. If you can’t see the high cards in other hands, you can get an idea of whether you have them or not depending on what people bid on you, but you have little idea on suit, or enough data to be confident on much. Simply play it out as best you can to screw up the other players’ bid and land your own. The other luck is that there can be big score discrepancies in a hand depending on the fall of unknown cards, and with only three rounds, that can be the game right there. On the upside the components are absolutely lush, but I’m just not sure there’s enough to take it out of the ‘well, it’s interesting at least’ category.
An alternative take on the game
THE QUACKS OF QUEDLINBERG (2018)
Buy chips to add to your bag. Each round, pull out chips and keep pushing your luck until you dare no further. Score VPs and then buy more chips to improve your drawing capabilities for future rounds. The game’s downer is that there are 9 rounds, and that’s a lot of rounds doing the same thing. Pulling out little chits from a bag over and over again can get tiresome. The game’s upside is that there’s good variety in the special powers that can be associated with each chip colour each game, and choosing a strategy pre-game Dominion-style and watching it bear fruit (or not depending on the draw luck each round) is interesting – it can generate desire to play again with a different set of powers to see how it pans outs. The two sides of the coin end up with me happy to play again, but not so much that I need to seek it out.
It’s an attempt to turn Kingdomino into more of a gamer’s game by adding special scoring tiles that score different manner of things. The issue is that it slows the game down and makes the scoring at the end feel like a mathematics test. I mean, it’s dominoes. Adding lipstick to a pig doesn’t really improve things. At least the part which makes it a decent version of dominoes is kept, being the rank of tile taken dictates turn order next turn. I guess it adds some variety if Kingdomino itself wasn’t enough to hold your attention, but then I’d be asking, if that’s the case, why invest in this game family at all. It’s fine and playable if this is what’s available as it only overstays its welcome by a bit, but on the whole I’d prefer the other.
A nice deck-building variation that we wrangled on Yucata. Play resource-earning cards, play building cards to acquire buildings (each has a card on it), and add those cards to your hand (which are immediately playable, nice). Like Dominion, at the start of the game you’ll want time to assess what buildings/cards are in play and develop a strategy. Unlike Dominion, there might be only one of some cards in play, so it adds a race element to ratchet up the tension and trigger reassessments when beaten to the punch. On the downside, even though all cards aren’t in play each game, the base approach will be the same – buy some green buildings early to get a resource engine, acquire a blue building or two to overcome resource shortfalls, and aim to get the yellow VP-earning buildings asap. The normal deck-builder experience is in force – there are rounds where the cards you want aren’t in hand, other times they are. An inclusion I liked was, when the end-game is triggered, each player reforms their deck, shuffles, and plays through their deck one more time to get the full benefit of their build. This does away with the typical deck-builder experience of final-round card-draw-order shafting when your deck is at its most powerful. You’ll only get to add 5-8 or so new cards to your deck so the game is quite tight, but I enjoyed it as a result.
WORD SLAM (2018)
My brain freezes up in real time guessing games so this isn’t a great game for me, but it’s pretty good fun for those who like this kind of stuff. The two team captains see a common word, and then race to find and put out word cards (nouns, verbs, etc) that best represent that word. Each team can only see their cards, and as the cards come out they shout out potential answers Charades style (and yes the shoutouts means you’re also giving the other team more clues) until the answer is uttered. The problem I have is all I can think of is “Music Man, Music Man, Music Man”, rather than all the things that might satisfy a Music Man clue. So though I might stink as a team member, the captain concept allows me to come good and actually be helpful for a turn, so that saves it somewhat for me.
Dale also reviewed this in the past
SPOTLIGHT ON: STEPHENSON’S ROCKET (1999)
I’ve recently played the (I guess) 20-year-anniversary reimplementation, the China map in particular. The new maps don’t provide too much different in the way of gameplay. I like having more industry types, and therefore more industry points to play for, which may provide a different strategy to explore (it didn’t pay off in our first game though, so maybe not). The map layout differences otherwise seem too marginal to change the experience much, therefore it gets the same comment as the base game, being you need a few games under your belt to understand the full repercussions of how and when to merge, and if you have a table of players who do, this game can take on some nerve tingling menace. It’s just missing that little something that would encourage the game to come to the table more often. I think it’s the lack of instant gratification in a move (i.e. your stations have to hang around for a whole turn before you know whether you’ve been pus’d, or whether you can get to them), plus the fact that moves are too incremental to feel like you’re really progressing much. It also feels like there’s just a bit too much blackmail (when a train moves other than where you want it to go) and therefore too much kingmaking (in the choice of whether to blackmail or not). Otherwise, it remains fairly interesting, mainly because the constant overhang of blackmail provides a different challenge to solve.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Alan How: Quacks – I was deterred from playing or buying the game because of the name.It’s possibly a mistake on my part, as I did not investigate the game further. However, once I had looked at the game and sore had some reasonable ratings I re-evaluated my decision not to acquire the game. And I’m pretty pleased that I did. Unlike Patrick, I do not find the nine rounds at all tedious as the first few rounds go really quickly. I also like the variety posed by the different spell powers and so my rating while the same as Patrick’s is probably higher in my mind because of his comments.
I was also pleased to see that Argent the Consortium is so high. It’s one of my favourite games and also one that sees it come to the table infrequently. If I was to Huberize my collection* this would be one that would have to be retained.
*never going to happen
Mark Jackson: Quacks – I like it much better than Patrick… but I have a high tolerance for push-your-luck games.
And we’ve been having a delightful time with Betrayal Legacy … it feels like the vast majority of the rough edges have been smoothed off the old Betrayal engine and an interesting story keeps us coming back. (There are a couple of recurring threads in our game that keep popping up – which is part of the point, I think.) I highly recommend it as an experience game.
Queendomino was Kingdomino with ankle weights.
Larry: Valetta – I really struggle with deckbuilding games, so this stripped-down, fast playing deckbuilder suits my abilities much better than others in the genre. Despite the pace, there’s good decisions to be made and you can win by either racing to add territories, or upgrading the ones you own and play for a longer game. This is one of my favorite Stefan Dorra designs, which is saying something, since he’s been cranking out good games for over a quarter of a century!
Stephenson’s Rocket – One of my top 10 favorite games of all time. I think the veto rule is absolutely brilliant and means that every player is involved with every move. When we play, it doesn’t feel like kingmaking, since vetos are so frequent that no one is singled out. Each decision feels important and a single share or a small turn of the track can mean the difference between winning and losing. And yet, with experience, it plays quickly, with games rarely lasting over an hour. It’s astonishing how a game of perfect information, with no change in geography, can play so differently from game to game. Many consider Tigris to be Knizia’s best game, but for me, his masterpiece is Stephenson’s. I consider myself lucky to have friends who enjoy it as much as I do, since it really isn’t that well known.
Doug G: The asterisk on the following is the fact that they were both played 2-player only, which can affect our opinions. However, Shelley and I are NOT fans of Quacks at all – I actually hated the game after 3 plays and have no desire to play it again. On the other hand, Shelley and I liked Queendomino’s additions to Kingdomino. We talked about Queendomino all the way back in Episode 627 and Quacks even farther back, in Episode 621 of Garrett’s Games podcast.
Brandon: We’ve had mostly the same thoughts about Betrayal Legacy as we’ve played three sessions as well. The first session was good fun, but it was also the least traditional Betrayal game. Since they have been progressively looking more and more like traditional Betrayal, which is as you say, imbalanced luck fests. The Legacy aspect feels weird to me here, it almost feels as if the story is secondary and all you are doing is building a game to play later instead of playing through a game that will tell a story and you COULD play it after you are finished.
We’ve had a delightful time with the push your luck fun of Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg but I do wonder if we are done with it at this point. There is quite a bit of variability in the box and more on the way though, so time will tell if we venture back and play. Like a lot of games at this weight class, we may have become kind of stagnant in our strategies in how to win and things kind of started to seem to play out the same.
Jonathan: I am also not a fan of Quacks. ‘Nuff said. On several of the other games listed, I like them quite a bit. I would always be happy to play Valletta, Stephenson’s Rocket, and PIkoko. I prefer the former two. I really messed up by introducing the family to Evolution through review playthroughs of Evolution: Climate It hurt my chance of getting The Beginning to the table – plus no one really likes the art, which has a huge effect on what gets to the table these days.
Betrayal Legacy – we just finished 1830 (about ½ way through). I enjoy it as an activity because it is social, I am playing with fun people, and there is barely strategy or tactics. I am treating it the same way I think about a rollercoaster – enjoy the ride. Thanks to the rest of the team, I am.
Quacks – I do not usually like push your luck games at all, but I did enjoy this one. I’ve taught it several times and everyone has been keen to come back for more. It’s not deep, but it’s fun and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I don’t think I’d play it regularly, but it works well for occasional fun.
Word Slam – I think this is an outstanding game. I’ve played it in small groups (4-6) and very large groups (16+) and it definitely works better with more than 6; I’d say 6 is really the minimum number of players. I played it recently with a large group of graduate students from all over the planet, with very varying levels of English fluency, and it was an enormous hit – so much so that we didn’t get to anything else, because we were having so much fun.
I’ve always enjoyed Betrayal, and Legacy is no different. So, we are having a blast, being silly, making up names, and digging into the the storytelling of what happens in each session. Sure, as a pure game it’s pretty luck dependent. Our traitors are also finding that they have a pretty tough task. But, it’s become my only appointment gaming and we are looking forward to the second half of the campaign.
Pikoko – I liked it okay in my one play. The luck factor didn’t bother me too much for most aspects of the game, but when it comes to bidding your own hand the best you can do is what Patrick suggested and bid what the person controlling your hand did. It also seems to lend itself to more table talk than should be happening, unlike the structure of Hanabi. I did enjoy trying to finesse tricks while viewing 3 of the 4 hands, though and I will try it again if given the opportunity.
Quacks – I am somewhat ambivalent to many push-your-luck games, but I really like this one. I think the luck factor is mitigated somewhat in that you don’t completely wipe out if you go over- you still get to do one of the options instead of both – and while you can’t control what you draw you can stack your bag to lessen the risk. It also lasts the perfect amount of time.
Word Slam – Some of my fellow Opinionated Gamers introduced me to this at our trick taking weekend (we did play a couple of non-trick-takers – sssh, don’t tell anyone) and I really enjoyed it; I loved the challenge of making a sentence with less-than-perfect words that would still lead to your answer.
Larry is spot-on with his assessment of Stephensons’ Rocket — it’s Knizia’s masterpiece. The veto action is the heart of the game, but that’s not obvious to new players nor is it obvious how to use it to best effect. Despite this “barrier to entry”, the game rewards those willing to make the effort.
I also agree with Larry that Valletta is one of the better deck-building games out there.
Both Quacks and Queendomino have been indulged in recently. Very impressed with Quacks… A Quacking game, for sure!
Interesting to see comments about Valletta – I have a ‘gateway deckbuilder’ game design that streamlines the deckbuilding process by allowing you to hand two of the same cards in for one of slightly-lesser value than the sum of the two combined — do you keep the cards but clutter your hand, or reduce their immediate value but give yourself a stronger hand? The game (Aliens Ate My Planet!) keeps your choices high and decision-making plentiful… Money is usually always worth upgrading, but as you earn more of it, the return from cashing two cards in for one gradually diminishes… this helps all players build towards a ‘middle ground’, and the ability to take cards into your hand that you just purchased makes things speed along… I’d happily send a review copy out…? Alex Bardy