Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 15)


We recently conducted our Sydney-wide no-shipping mass auction, resulting in lots of new games falling into local gamers’ hands and a wealth of new games to be played. Over a 1000 games were simultaneously auctioned off or traded away (we allow any game to be traded before the auction deadline as the whole point is to move the games around between the various Sydney groups) and the overall changeover rate was over 50%, an excellent result. The no-shipping aspect means you can only buy, sell, or trade games in the auction if you can arrange to bring the games you’ve offloaded, and pickup the games you’ve won, on trade night (either by yourself or through a friendly mule). With the cost of postage these days, it saves a ton of money for everyone.  Trade night this time happened to be here at our local Tuesday night gaming haunt in Chatswood and over 100 people filled our little club to the rafters. It was truly like gamer Christmas, presents all round!

He’s excited. He just pulled the bat out of the giant Jenga tower and nothing fell over.

BARONY (2015): Rank 3079, Rating 7.0

The initial placement of cities (aka starting camels) and consequence dash out to claim territory in which you can backfill is hugely reminiscent of Durch Die Wuste (as the old hands know it, aka Through The Desert to next gen). Barony adds a layer of complication in the form of territory protection. Your pieces are roaming out to either claim spaces for your own or protect spaces you’ve already claimed. If you leave any spot with only one village on it and no protection, it can be stolen by opposing knights. There’s an ability to build strongholds or upgrade villages to cities, making them impervious to other players knights, but sometimes you have to just leave a knight at a village to protect it. This protection requirement prevents you settling as much land (ie placing camels) as fast as you can. As with DdW, initial placements and the direction of early land grabs is crucial, and together this should determine the pace-setters. If other players start sending out knights to stop them settling so fast, forcing them into protection mode, then the game may fall to the player who just continues to settle. Thus does the game revolve. Multi-player balancing works beautifully in DdW because it’s all over in 15 min and players can accept that that’s the art and the game, but it’s less satisfying in a 45 min episode where you may not have as much control over the result as you’d like given the time investment. However this is still a fine mid-weight Euro with fast paced turns and threats to be countered at every turn.

Our review from the initial release

Rating: 7

CARTHAGO: MERCHANTS AND GUILDS (2017): Rank 3079, Rating 7.0

This is a re-do of Porto Carthago fwiw (which I haven’t played). A game of only 5 action spaces, aiming to collect trade cards (one action gets you a sure thing, but two actions gets multiple random cards) and then spend them to earn ship cards and guild seats (they multiply for VPs) or end of game scoring bonuses. There are some tricky things that get you thinking. The cards are multi-use – do I use it to activate that action type, or for its symbol (to get a ship) or for its coins (to buy a guild seat). It’s further complicated because you want to do actions in a different sequence than the other players, as doing an action that others have done since your last action will cost you more cards and cards are hard to come by. Meaning you can get shafted by sequence order, and you can also get shafted by the cards you draw. It’s clever, but I think the actions are too limiting to carry a 75min game, and with so few opportunities to get cards and only 15 actions in the game, you need the cards to run your way.

Rating: 6

CENTURY: SPICE ROAD (2017): Rank 236, Rating 7.4

Same rating and comment as Century: Golem (which I played first), given they’re virtually identical games, being: Pleasant without being riveting. Your cards either collect gems, upgrade gems to better gems, or provide different formulae to trade in gems for other gems. On a turn you either play a card, acquire a new card to help you in future, get all your used cards back, or spend the gems you’ve diligently been collecting, upgrading, and trading for to buy VP cards. This is reminiscent of the old Bazaar, but more interesting here because you build your own collection of trade-up formulae and try to parlay that into point-scoring collections faster and more efficiently than your opponents. The rules are easy, the game is pacey enough with some good think-stuff provided, but it features a fair amount of luck in regards to what cards are on offer to buy on your turn (is there anything at all that can help build a better engine?) and whether the VP cards on offer match the gems that your engine can build efficiently. The real knock is that once you’ve played, that’s it, there’s not much more to learn or experience – you’re going to get the same game next time and the time after that. If you’re ok with that, this does the whole gem tradeup thing pretty nicely. As is often said while playing though, what this game really needs is golems.

Chris likes this one better (and doesn’t need/want golems)

Rating: 7

DICE & DRAGONS (2018): Rank 11453, Rating 6.2

I can see a place for this, and enjoying it, if you’re a sucker for dice combat against dragons, but I couldn’t get past the fact that I was playing Dragon Yahtzee. Each player has three turns at rolling their 5 dice (with 2 re-rolls) to get various combos which inflict damage on the poor dragon. It then has a turn rolling dice to inflict damage back. Repeat. Kill the dragon before it kills you. There are some slight differences between the combo’s required by different class characters (other than how rangers need to roll bows, and warriors need to roll swords, for the same effect). One neat touch is that you can pass on dice that you can’t use in a combo but the next player can, setting them up, and that teamwork can make a significant difference. In campaign mode, you can buy a power and maybe level up and go on to the next dragon, which will be more powerful. But the powers and level ups feel weak (eg increase the damage that one particular combo does by 1) so it still feels like you’re playing Yahtzee continually. Further, the tracking of hit points with pencil as opposed to a tracker may have been either a deliberate design choice to give players a sense of D&D nostalgia or just not knowing any better, but it felt antiquated and out of touch. While I had fun enough with it while it lasted, it didn’t engage me enough to want to continue.

Rating: 5

FIRST MARTIANS: ADVENTURES ON THE RED PLANET (2017): Rank 1585, Rating 6.7

I worked my way through the ton of rules (and there are a lot!) to get it to the table in the hope that it would be an improvement on Robinson Crusoe. To no avail unfortunately. The app mostly just leads you through the phase sequence but it does have the benefit of lathering on the random (?) events that set you back and provide things to fix. When you get to crunch time, the game has the same issues as RC:

– there’s little differentiation between players (apart from some skills), and

– it’s really only a solo game, and 

– there’s effectively only one decision to make each round which is usually pretty obvious, driven by the scenario needs and the events – we need to build, or explore, or X. And the only sub-decisions are whether to split pawns over two actions in the hope that the dice will provide success, or use both pawns to guarantee success in one action. Other than that, the game plays you and you go along for the ride. Which is a thematically rich ride, but at the end of 2 hours I want to have made more than 7 largely obvious decisions and undertake status tracking and accounting for the remainder. There are lots of scenarios, a couple of campaigns, some legacy bits, and a smorgasbord of pieces covering a wealth of thematic-ness. All great in theory; it’s just lacking a more interesting decision space to get me wanting to play it.

Rating: 6

MESOZOOIC (2017): Rank 6334, Rating 6.5

Each player shuffles their identical 11 card deck into a faceup 4×3 grid and then does a sand-timed sliding tile puzzle to shift them around into configurations that score (this next to that, that above that, etc). If that’s all there was you’d be going ho-hum, but then all the decks get shuffled together and you get to collect your next 11 cards through a Fairy Tale draft, so you can choose your own scoring strategy! This definitely added interest. You still only get one lightning quick shot at sliding everything into their right spots after it’s all laid out to max your score, but now you’re invested because they’re the cards you’ve chosen. Repeat for round 3. It’s a nice filler, but heavily geared to those who really *get* sliding puzzles and can quickly manipulate multiple cards into multiple slots in cohesion rather than one at a time.

Dale’s review from awhile back

Rating: 6

ONE DECK DUNGEON (2016): Rank 543, Rating 7.2

It’s a clever little thing. If you think you have enough dice to beat something, roll away. But there are no re-rolls! All you have are the powers to manipulate dice that you’ve acquired so far. If you beat a monster (rolling the requisite pips on the requisite coloured dice), you can claim the card and either use it to increase the number of dice you roll ongoing, or add its power to your power-set. Lose and it’s the inevitable loss of health. Three times through the deck (you’re not facing everything … there’s lots of adding cards to the discard pile along the way to speed things up), and hopefully by then you’ll have beaten enough monsters to give you enough dice and powers to beat the big boss. It’s not something I’ll want to play a lot because there’s every chance of simply getting smacked by bad dice rolls and there’s nothing much you can do, but I enjoyed the decisions on what to attempt and how to best use each card after you’ve won it, giving it a fair bit of punch for its weight. On the downside, while there are 2p and 4p options, it’s really only a solo game (with 2p you roll half the dice each) and the deck doesn’t have enough variety to sustain huge replay, even with a campaign mode available (where you keep your skills and ramp up your stats).

Rating: 7

RAIDERS OF THE NORTH SEA (2015): Rank 84, Rating 7.8

I was impressed with the action choice mechanic (place a meeple in an empty spot to do that action and then remove a different meeple from an action spot to do that action). It kept you thinking and required flexibility. I also loved the progression in meeple colours, gradually retiring black meeples to get grey and then white, where each colour allowed different actions to be undertaken so the meeple you took was just as important as the action it provided. Once you get past the theme, it’s about performing resource gathering actions until you have enough resources to perform raid actions, which award you VPs and yet more resources. I liked it, but I can see it getting one-dimensional after a few plays and it felt perhaps a tad long repeating the gather and raid loop. The expansions (which I played with) however added enough action variety and choice of strategy to raise the rating from 7 for the base game to an 8 with the expansions included.

Rating: 7 (base), 8 (with expansions)

TEXAS SHOWDOWN (2015): Rank 3282, Rating 7.1

I can’t help but love misere games and I think this is (even after only a few plays) my new favourite trick-taking game for 5 or 6 players. It’s clearly not best suited (ahem) for fewer. But with a full crew, it provides interesting decisions throughout, mainly because it often provides the option to play in one of multiple suits to a trick, where any suit can win if it has the most cards played (even if not led), and your decision can sway who wins the trick to much general chagrin. With the whole deck in play it allows for card-counting, but the distribution is more important than simply knowing what’s left so there are surprises to be had and each card must be played carefully. I can’t remember a trick taking game that delivered so much smiling, laughing, and good-natured swearing. It actually even felt like a showdown. Go figure.

Rating: 8

SPOTLIGHT ON: SHIPYARD (2010): Rank 552, Rating 7.0

Weirdly and randomly, a few people in different groups have requested this recently so it’s been back in the rotation. It’s an excellent but seemingly flawed game. There are 7 available actions in the game which you use turn by turn to collect bits of everything you need to build ships – bows & sterns, different types of crew, sails, propellers, etc. And within each action there is cheap stuff and dear stuff, so you need to balance your need for something in particular vs the cost. The needs come from the VP drivers which are threefold – your overall objective cards which dictate your ships be built a certain way (many, or big, or lots of cranes, etc), plus the speed and attributes of the ship, plus the bonus point drivers you choose via the canals you pick up. There’s a lot to juggle and gradually bring together at the same time, a lot of considerations on how to build ships, and a lot of tradeoffs with your actions. The user interaction is limited, but vital. You can’t take the actions they’ve taken since your last turn, which can make for hard decisions on what to do next. Players can beat you to things you want, so there’s tension if you need something badly. Thankfully there’s so many things you need to do there’s almost always something useful available. You can also go a money strategy to get you out of holes by spending big to take bonus actions. Turns are fast. It’s satisfying to score your ships when they’re completed. Decisions are delicious throughout. All good, so … what’s the flaw? The points imbalance provided by the end-of-game objectives. There are only so many points you can make intra-game. The bulk of your points are provided by the end-of-game objectives. A player with a good pair can earn 50 points, a poor pair maybe 30 points, and that differential is usually the difference in scores at the end.  I’ve tried strategies to overcome poor objective sets but haven’t succeeded yet so my advice to newbies is hope to get lucky at the start with your objectives, and then try and enjoy the challenge either way, as it’s otherwise a game of considerable merit!

Rating: 8

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:

Brandon Kempf: I was just staring at Century Spice Road on my shelves the other day, wondering if anything was ever going to make me want to play it again. It really is a wonderful microtransaction, resource conversion game, but it started to feel a bit stale to us relatively quickly after a dozen or so plays, but yet I hold on to it in hopes of mixing it up with the two games that followed to see if they actually work 

And I don’t care what folks say about Mesozooic, that’s just a delightful game. 

Tery Noseworthy:  I am a big fan of Texas Showdown. I was very skeptical when it was first brought to the table, mostly because I thought it was going to be a poker variant, but it turns out to be a great game. I disagree with Patrick that it doesn’t work well with fewer than 5, but I do agree that it shines with 5 or 6. The mechanic related to following suit leads to interesting decisions, and it has the perfect balance of luck vs strategy to keep it light and fun without being random.

Mark Jackson: I’m not sure I’d be interested in playing One Deck Dungeon in person… but I’m loving the iPad app. It’s a very good little solo game.

Century: Spice Road feels like Sid Sackson’s Bazaar, but prettier. I’ll play – but I don’t need to own it and I’m very unlikely to request it.

Dale Yu: Whereas Century Spice Road is one of the best games from that year for me.  I have added it to my travel collection (i.e. permanent part of the game collection), and it might eventually make it into my top 10. 

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4 Responses to Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 15)

  1. I feel that Barony is even better than described. I take particular issue with “Multi-player balancing works beautifully in DdW because it’s all over in 15 min and players can accept that that’s the art and the game, but it’s less satisfying in a 45 min episode where you may not have as much control over the result as you’d like given the time investment.” Nothing against DdW, which is a fine game, but I’m not sure why 45 minutes is too long for a game where other players can mess you up. Seems to me that’s called player interaction. There is zero randomness, so it’s not like you have to slog through a long game after luck doesn’t go your way. Is 45 minutes a long game nowadays???

  2. Pingback: Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 15) – Herman Watts

  3. Player interaction is a spectrum (from zero interaction through to kingmaking). In our game it felt that the winner’s result was more the product of other player’s decisions than their own (we still enjoyed it regardless given its timeframe) which, even in a 45min game, isn’t really a preference. It felt harsher due to the wrap-around feature of the board where corners and edges aren’t safe (like they are in DdW, where you protect and then move on without being burdened by ongoing protection needs). But it sounds like you’ve played it more than I, and with more play I may end up agreeing with you that its not as pronounced as it felt on first blush.

  4. Alex Bardy says:

    A classic collection of titles. I would be particularly keen to play Barony again, I think…

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