Brandon Kempf: Three Games – Three Older Euros

I have a lot of games. A lot of games that are on my shelves, or on my table being played, that I have told myself that I want to review at some point. For one reason or another, this doesn’t always happen. My goal here on The Opinionated Gamers is that I want to get about one review out per week, but I’d like to write about more games. So I’m taking a page out of Patrick Brennan’s playbook, and we’re going to start writing about games in threes, in snapshot form. This should be a good way for readers to get to know me and my gaming tastes a bit better, and also another way for me to talk about games that I maybe don’t really want to dedicate two thousand words to. Welcome to Three Games.

Pueblo

Back in 2002, famed design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling brought the world a bit of this abstract goodness. Each player gets a set of building blocks in their color and a set in a neutral color. On the player’s turn they play one building block, either their color or neutral. Their next turn they have to play a block of the other color. The goal of doing this is to create a home for the Chieftain. The Chieftain does not want to see any building blocks of the players’s colors, only the neutral colors. After a player has placed a block out, they have to move the Chieftain around a track on the outside of the board, one to three spaces. When you stop the Chieftain, it looks directly down the line and penalizes the player’s whose blocks that can be seen in that row. Penalty points are based on how high up on the building they are. After the players have played all their blocks, the Chieftain will make one more trip around the board, stopping at every spot and judging and divvying out penalties. The player who is penalized the least, wins the game.

Pueblo was a wonderful find for me, it fits in a lot of different things that I really like in board games. The building and 3d aspect of the game board as you progress is a sight to behold and always changing. It’s a new puzzle each and every play, there is going to be no two games ever the same and you can try different things and not be crippled in your scoring. In a couple weeks, you will see more thoughts of mine on Pueblo in a series of articles being put together by Chris Wray, so watch for that. In the meantime, I wonder who would ever be able to produce this today, or would even take a chance. Might be a fun Kickstarter experiment to see, then a main stretch goal could be an added Lazy Suzan for the game as that’s about the only thing it needs to be perfect.

San Marco

Note: I am only talking about the three player game, I have not played the four player version. Area control in Venice, designed by Alan Moon, yup, that Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum. In San Marco the players are vying for control of the different island districts in Venice. The game is played out using a wonderful “I split, you choose” mechanism. There are two decks of cards. One deck will be the Action cards, these contain District Cards, Doge Cards, Bridge Cards, Transfer Cards and Banishment Cards. The other deck is the Limit cards, these are broken up numerically up to three. On a turn the active player is going to flip a base number of Action Cards and Limit cards and then split those cards up into a number of groups equal to the number of players. The player to the left of the Distributor of the cards then gets first pick of which group of cards they want. The Action Cards do as they say, they are actions that the player can take, from placing cubes in districts to scoring districts with the Doge, to Banishing others from Districts, et al. The Limit Cards that go with are basically what tracks the round. When a player’s Limit Cards equal ten they are out of the round and everyone else gets one more round, unless of course there is only one person left. Do this three rounds, add one more scoring round for the districts and the person with the most points will be the winner.

Visually, as soon as I saw it, I thought of Rialto. The lighter weight Stefan Feld game from a couple years ago based on Venice as well. But it plays so differently and honestly a lot more exciting and that is all thanks to that “I split, you choose” mechanism. The only rule with splitting is that each group must contain at least one card, that’s it, so you are free to mix and match as you please. You have to evaluate each grouping carefully and try your best to make the decisions as tough as possible, or easy as possible if there is something you really want. It’s a really fun balance to strike. You’ll hear more about San Marco in the near future as well, but in the meantime, if you like clever forty-five to sixty minute area control games, find a way to get this one played.

China

So, this past month we played, China and Web of Power, we didn’t have a copy of Han to try. I think this was partially brought out due to the Kickstarter for Iwari, the fourth iteration of this famed game. It’s another area control game, surprise, surprise. Michael Schacht gave us this iteration back in 2005. Nearly identical to Web of Power, in China players are playing cards from their hand in order to place houses along the roads, or emissaries in a region. All in the hope of gaining the most points. Dead simple in play, but strategically deep. Your cards are associated with a specific region, and playing a single card allows you to place a piece in that region, you can use two cards together as wilds to do the same thing. Your hand of cards never exceeds those three cards, as you play them, you draw back up to three after your turn. One of the bigger differences here is that instead of only two cards in the offer, China will have four. It’s a simple change that greatly increases your planning abilities.

While playing essentially the same, China feels to me a more modern version of Web of Power in nearly every way. To me the more garish colors on the map make it look nicer and a lot easier to distinguish regions. Also with that larger card offer gives the feeling of more control, and I like that. Ultimately, I didn’t back Iwari for some reason. I think it’s partially because we played these two titles this month and I realized, I don’t need all the extra bling and pizazz that Iwari is bringing to the table. I’ll stick with my old, worn copy of China.

Three older titles that have occupied a lot of table time over the last two months. I think it does me good to dive into these older titles now and then. I am a self professed card carrying member of the Cult of the New, so I am constantly churning new titles to the table. It’s important to see where these new titles got their start, and even sometimes see how designers got it right the first time as opposed to improvement through age. Don’t get me wrong, I think overall game design has gotten better through the years, but that doesn’t always produce better, more intriguing, games.

Until next time!

OG Links

Chris covered both San Marco & Pueblo recently in his February “What I Enjoyed Playing” article, and China in his most recent “What I Enjoyed Playing”.

Thoughts from The Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson: Pueblo & San Marco never did much for me… but I still think Web of Power is one of the greatest super-fillers designed. (I don’t find China as enjoyable – the 4 card draw row gives you too many choices, I think. A compromise of 3 might be about right.) There are a number of alternate maps available for Web/China on Michael Schacht’s website.

Greg S:  I am a big fan of all three games.  They are all tense, exciting and a challenge to play.  All three have stood the test of time, and all three remain in my collection.  

Ted C:  To this day, I still teach Pueblo as the “peeping Tom” game.  Peeping Tom sneaks around looking in the windows. At the corners, he checks out the sunbathers on the roof.  For some reason, people seem to understand these rules and the theme much better!!!! And, yes, I have a lazy Susan for the game.

Tery: Pueblo is definitely not my type of game. I don’t love abstract strategy in general, and I have a really hard time visualizing how I will place my blocks. The whole thing just feels like too much work. I do understand what other people see in it, but I don’t enjoy it.

San Marco is a game I still enjoy. I playtested the game in all its forms from its first inception and it still holds up well for me; it’s a classic area control game and I love the “I divide you choose” mechanic.

China is a fine game, and if I had only ever played China I think I would like it a bit more. However, every time I play it I think “I wish I was playing Web of Power”.

James Nathan: I’ve played China and Pueblo, but don’t have strong feelings about either. I played San Marco recently for the first time (3P) after years of seeing it on friends’ shelves, and, well, that was strongly not for me. My feeling was a solid “I’d rather be playing Tenka Meidou”. Yes, it’s I split, I choose, but the splitting and area control had a similar game play feel to me, but, as with most games out of Japan, it had been distilled and polished until things were smooth and elegant –two words I would not use to describe San Marco’s splitting, turn order, multiple decks, adding to see who’s out of the round, etc.

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5 Responses to Brandon Kempf: Three Games – Three Older Euros

  1. huzonfirst says:

    I didn’t have the chance to comment on these three games earlier, so let me do so now.

    Pueblo – One of Kramer & Kiesling’s more renowned designs and deserving of the accolades. I’ve never cared for it, since it’s a pure abstract, and I’m not fond of them, and because of my terrible spatial reasoning, which is obviously an essential element here. But I recognize it’s a very good game, just not for me.

    San Marco – I realize I beat the drum for the 4P version of this game a lot, but let me do so again, at the risk that it will turn into beating a dead horse. 3P San Marco is a nice little light to medium game. I can see why that would be popular. But with 4, it’s much meatier (and longer) and the reason is you’re splitting for 2, instead of 3. For me, splitting for 2 is so much more enjoyable, since it lets you get in the head of your opponent and try to arrange things so that he leaves you the cards you wanted all along. It’s very satisfying when you can pull this off and with good play, it isn’t uncommon. With 3, all you can really do is try to make the three stacks as equal as possible, which is tres fast, but tres boring. The 3P game is fast and fine, but the 4P game is unique and great. Unfortunately, the 3P game has become the standard way of playing (which was NOT the case when it first came out), so it’s hard for me to play this in what I consider its optimal manner. Maybe if I keep prattling on about it, I’ll have more success with that in the future.

    China/Web of Power – While I don’t consider WoP to be a great game, it’s a very good one and one that has absolutely passed the test of time. It still gets multiple plays every year in my group, which is almost unheard of for a game from the previous century. I hear similar things from other groups from all over the world. It was the first of the Super Fillers and still might be one of the best. When you have 3 players and 45 minutes to fill while the other group finishes their game, it’s hard to find a better option than good old WoP. China is even faster–maybe TOO fast–but the differences are interesting ones and it’s conceivable that I would prefer it if I had discovered it first. But with us, WoP is the one that gets played and the one I’m happier with. You could make a very strong case that the game is Michael Schacht’s masterpiece, which is quite a strong statement given all that he’s accomplished in over 20 years as a designer.

  2. Lance says:

    I have been lucky enough to play San Marco at 3p. Whatever caused the zeitgeist to believe that 3p was best had it’s influence on me; that is the impression I had heard. I look forward to playing 4p one day.

    Web of Power / China / Han / Iwari. I look forward to the future writing on this from the OGers. What are the actual differences between them? I already learned that WoP has a 3 card bank while China has a 4 card bank. I suppose an easy variant would be to change this based on the participants and desired experience (if one were to dare house rule a Michael Schacht game). Is there a “best” edition? A most encompassing one? For 1-2 years from now, how would the OGers rank them? Is there another game that has been republished with different names as much (outside of Coloretto)?

    • Web of Power also scores at the midpoint of the game, whereas China does not.

      As for the history, or another game that has been republished as much? I’ll leave that to the historians of this site, but Michael Schacht seems to kind of be ahead of his time so to speak with these upgrades and calling them new games.

      • huzonfirst says:

        No one has been better at retheming, repackaging, and retheming his older designs than Knizia. No one.

        However, the area where Schacht HAS been a trailblazer was in releasing game tweaks (and, in some instances, entirely new games) through his website, for free. This was much appreciated by his fans and since quite a few of those altered designs got turned into published games, it worked out nicely for Schacht as well. Kramer did some of this back in the day, but I suspect no one did it earlier or as often as Schacht did.

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