Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 18)

Angus Sampson. Perhaps he is a secret investor in Plaid Hat games?

As at the end of July, I’ve rated (and commented on) 389 of the top 500 BGG games and 700 of the top 1000. 

If we ignore all the puzzle games and the multiple editions that clog up the rankings (did I mention I reckon they don’t belong there?!), and ignore most of the wargames (which I enjoy for the intellectual challenge, but they’re not something I seek out as a preference), there’s only a few games in each bracket of 100 that I’m still yearning to get my hands on.  

Then, whenever I think I have a handle on all the good stuff, new games come inbound. And then someone reels off a session report full of quality stuff that hasn’t risen in the rankings because not enough people have ranked it yet. It’s the nature of the times – there’s always more good stuff out there. Some of that may lie below for you …

ARCHITECTS OF THE WEST KINGDOM (2018): Rank 86, Rating 7.9

This is a good worker placement, but vanilla. The strength of your action is equal to how many meeples you have on that action spot. Get resources. Use them to build buildings for VPs. Get some techs to boost your actions. Add a wacky mechanic to clear the board of meeples for money and allow players to re-acquire and re-use them to make it feel different from other games (but just makes it longer for players to reach their end-goals). The asymmetric powers didn’t seem all that balanced, but if you’re not using those the game is even more vanilla. While it’s a perfectly ok game I’d be happy to play, I’m rather astonished that it’s top 100. Another review on it

Rating: 7

BETWEEN TWO CASTLES OF MAD KING LUDWIG (2018): Rank 686, Rating 7.5

The original BTC rates highly because of its welcoming social contract and its ease of play. This version keeps the former but adds multiple layers of complexity to triple the game-time. Each tile has a unique scoring model, usually based on what it’s connected to or what your castle contains. It takes significant time to process each hand of tiles and make the optimal choice and placement, especially with the unforgivably unreadable tiny-ass font used on the tiles. The game then adds another layer with bonuses for getting enough of a type which takes more time to plan for. The sweet spot for this mechanic is probably somewhere between the perhaps too simple original and this multi-complicated version. Until that happens, my preference is for the simpler version because its time frame seems a better fit for the system and the luck of the tiles (which remains in this version).

Rating: 7

HOLMES: SHERLOCK & MYCROFT (2015): Rank 1407, Rating 6.9

A nice spouse-friendly 2-player game. The board starts with 5 action possibilities, and in each of the 7 rounds a random action is added (the different orders of appearance provide inter-game variety). With your 3 actions each round, you collect currency and spend it to acquire cards from the draft in various ways. The card sets range from the 3’s (which has 3 cards in it) up to the 9’s (which has 9 cards) and whoever has the most in each set scores that many points, less a point for each card the opponent has collected in that set. There’s a few other rules wibbles that provide interest (reserving, wild cards, etc). There’s luck in how the cards appear in the draft (as always), but the game has lots of nice little decisions on which actions to take to eke out advantage, without it being overly taxing or challenging, but satisfying and pleasant none-the-less. Our older review…

Rating: 7

HOLMES AND MORIARTY (2018): Rank 9621, Rating 7.2

You read the rules and you ask yourself is that all. Then you play the first hand and ask the same. Then, in the second hand, once there’s a board situation and both players realise what specific cards the other player needs to win a trick with, and how to negate that … then it’s all oh, ooh, ahh, second guessing, third guessing, oh crap. Suddenly the game is head-spinning! In a good way. You want to win mini-tricks where the played cards are revealed simultaneously. Each player contributes a trump card (the highest defines trumps) and a trick card, the highest (taking trumps into account) wins the trick. Each trick helps put a token on the 4 x 4 board, and you want to get three tokens in a row to win. If Moriarty wins, he places a token on the board spot = the number of his trump card. If Holmes wins, his trick card. So both players want to win tricks, but with different specific cards. It gets better. You swap hands after each mini-trick. For the second mini-trick, each player knows exactly which 5 cards the other player has. For the third mini-trick, each player knows exactly which 3 cards the other player has. You’re not only trying to outguess the other player, but also playing to deny them winning with the cards they want to win with. This is dead-set a gamer’s game, and I’m pretty sure I admire it more than I want to play it given how much work you have to put into it, but you have to admire the punch it provides with just 16 cards.

Rating: 7

LAMA (2018): Rank 2819, Rating 6.5

Froth and bubble filler (which makes it a surprising SdJ nomination), harking back to how fillers were 20 years back. Get rid of your cards by playing equal or one higher to the pile. The only real decision is when you can’t play – do you draw to stay in the round in the hope that the round will go longer and you’ll be able to reduce your points later, or withdraw and suck up the points you have in hand. It’s a guess – you have no idea what others are holding, and whether they’ll eventually go out (leaving you stuck) or withdraw (allowing you to play on). Nonetheless it’s simple, easy to teach, and a classic filler in the making. The fun is what you bring to it – with some groups it’ll die a death as a 5 as they ask is that all it is; with others who ham it up and egg each other on it’ll be a 9 and become a go-to game to start the night. I’ll sit on the fence as a 7 to start with and see how it plays out with different groups; I can see myself going either way. It works well with larger numbers and I’d happily play it if others wanted, but probably would have preferred a little bit more decision meat.

Rating: 7

LIFEFORM (2019): Rank 9118, Rating 7.9

This is unashamedly an implementation of the move Alien, complete with ship’s cat and a SISTER mainframe rather than Mother. One player plays the alien, the rest the crew. I helped out on an early version of the rules and the instruction was that not a single rule was allowed to be cut – this was exactly how the designer wanted it. And boy, if you ever wanted thematic chrome, you’ve got it in spades here. One-off actions you may never do, one-off cards, a raft of tokens for rare situations, rules exceptions overload. The 50 page rulebook is a huge barrier to entry to what turns out to quite a simple game of fast micro-turns. The crew members either play a card for icons, generally to move towards the escape shuttle, or advance the timer (bad) to draw cards. They need to pick up enough mission tokens along the way to enable the escape. The alien either plays a card to move the alien images (there are three on the map) or re-fills their hand, the aim being to begin their turn adjacent to a character, with an attack icon in hand, to attempt to kill that character (which they will if the character doesn’t have an escape reaction). While the crew don’t technically know which lifeform image is the real image (the only one that can attack), in the 2p game it was pretty obvious and there wasn’t quite the tension I was expecting. If it proves more fun with more players, as I expect, I’ll up the rating. My working theory is that for those who get right into the game and play it a lot, there’ll be enough depth and chrome overload to take it to a new level, but for the occasional player, there are just too many rules and the game decisions a little too simplistic to want to play much further. The artwork is wonderfully evocative though.

Rating: 6

LOST LEGACY: THE STARSHIP (2014): Rank 1453, Rating 6.7

This is another implementation of the Love Letter system by the same designer, but with a different set of effects that seems to weigh towards more player elimination and quicker rounds. The players are searching for the ‘lost starship’ card – if two or more players remain alive at the end of the round, the first player able to state where the starship is wins the round. It lacked the charm and more-ishness of the original, and the warlike characters felt non-welcoming, probably because you felt like you got shafted by the cards more often with usually little you could have done to avoid an elimination. It didn’t really work 2p, where we found each round was usually over within 3 or 4 card plays. Definitely better with more players, but not enough to win me over. 

Rating: 6

PEAK OIL (2017): Rank 3476, Rating 6.8

It’s kind of a simple game in that you use action spaces to acquire oil and then spend the oil to both buy shares and to boost share prices. Most valuable share portfolio wins. I like how it tempts you to put oil out on the board for everyone but in return you get to boost a share price just for you. However then the game goes and adds rule after pesky rule to obfuscate that it’s a shares game – sometimes the oil goes out of the game, sometimes to the black market, sometimes back in the bag, blah, blah, blah without a cheat sheet to help. It creates a barrier to entry that the game-play doesn’t reward. The main twist is that you can only do an action if no one has more meeples than you on an action space at the start of the turn, which gives all the other players a chance to hose you each round. It unfortunately leads to a slower than desired game pace (as players take more care with placements, plus there are more dead turns), and creates a level of nastiness and a sense of wasted turns that reeks of negativity (rather than joy and satisfaction) and that’s the biggest knock on the game.

Rating: 6

RES ARCANA (2019): Rank 586, Rating 7.8

Use your card effects to acquire and transform resources to buy common cards worth VPs. The difference from Century and Splendor et al is that you have your own deck of card effects to work with, either drawn randomly or through a draft. Both methods have their luck issues that you’ll need to accept to be able to enjoy. Then it’s a function of drawing and playing the deck out in a race to acquire VP cards from the common pool. I enjoyed the game and the challenge of getting the best out of your deck, but at the end of the game it can feel like you’ve played it out as best you could and never had a shot at winning as someone fell into a more efficient combo. The game length almost makes that sense of inevitability ok, and you could argue that the game is all about your deck drafting ability, but I’m not quite sold. The other concern I had was that long term replay might be hampered by the smallish number of cards in the game. Still, a good game for what it is. Our initial review liked it better!

Rating: 7

SPOTLIGHT ON: MEMOIR ‘44 (2004): Rank 122, Rating 7.6

100+ plays. This is my preferred game using this system – it’s an attractive theme, the rules are not as complex as Battlelore, the tanks provide more dynamism than Battle Cry. That dynamism breaks down the conservative defensive approach typically taken by troops, making the game more fun. No doubt it’s heavily luck-laden, from the dice to the cards, but you can play smart and dumb, and smart will win using combinations and weight of numbers, waiting until the time is right to strike hard. All the different available scenarios provide all the variety of tactical situations you should ever need, especially if you start adding in variants. We weren’t fans of the air-pack (didn’t feel there was enough punch for the rules effort, nor for the action effort for that matter), but we’re still enjoying continuing our way through all the Russian and Mediterranean scenarios most school holidays, years after purchase.

Rating: 9

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:

Mark Jackson: Memoir ‘44 is also my preferred version of C&C… and I’ve been playing it for 15 years pretty much non-stop. The new “New Flight Plan” expansion is price-y but accomplishes adding air power without the unnecessary complications of the Air Pack. (In fairness, the Air Pack did give us the majority of the excellent “rule cards” which make teaching new twists surprisingly easy.

We’re enjoying Res Arcana immensely – but I do hear Patrick’s concerns. We play mostly two-player, and are getting ready to start drafting to see if that helps with balance between decks.

I didn’t love Between Two Cities… and while there are some more interesting tactical ideas in Between Two Castles, it’s too long by about 20-30 minutes and my bifocals are not enough to deal with the font. (My problem with BTCities remains in BTCastles – sub-standard play by one of your partners dooms your chance at winning.)

L.A.M.A. is a great filler – but it’s not SdJ nominee material.

Matt Carlson:

I love Memoir, but just can’t seem to get it to the table.  I have only myself to blame, although it looks like my “gamer” son leans more toward Euros…  I have almost all the “stuff”, although I let my Air Pack go a year or two back since I couldn’t justify holding on to it with the price on the open market.  I loved the “monster” and “magic” parts of Battlelore, but agree it does add a bit of complexity.  The digital version of Battlelore changed things around just enough to put me off playing it all that much.

Brandon Kempf: I really enjoy Between Two Cities, but Between Two Castles just lost me. We played it a couple times and the scoring takes longer than the game. It loses some of the charm of the original by adding too much to the game, or at least trying to.  

Fraser: I liked Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft technically as a game, but the theming of the sets actually got in the way of the enjoyment of the game for me (which is very rare). I read somewhere, on BGG I think but have not been able to find the post again, that it would work better thematically as competing drug cartels and I would have to agree. 

Only one play of L.A.M.A. and Peak Oil so far, but I would happily go back for more.

Larry:  Lots to talk about in this edition.

Architects of the West Kingdom – Decent game, might grow on me if and when I play it some more, but I’m kind of with Patrick in that it didn’t particularly grab me.  Shem Phillips is a solid designer, but his games are a little too light to fall in my sweet spot.

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig – Haven’t played and probably never will.  Between Two Castles was too straightforward for my tastes and having to scan everyone’s display in MKL (labeled, as Patrick puts it, with a tiny-ass font) made that a non-starter for me.  Strangely enough, I have no desire to play the mash up of two games that were meh for me. But both of those games are well regarded, so I’m not surprised that this has good ratings.

L.A.M.A – This truly is a slightly more involved version of Uno.  In my one game, we did have some schadenfreude-inspired laughs, particularly at the player who thought the design was utter crap.  But while there’s a smidgen of skill, it really is mostly luck. So it’s not anything I ever need to play again. However, I think it’s a fine game for families, particularly those with younger kids, so I think it’s quite a reasonable SdJ nominee, particularly given the current mindset of the jury.

Lost Legacy – I’ve played several themed versions of Love Letter and I don’t see the appeal of any of them.  It just seems so random to me.

Res Arcana – Tom Lehmann is a masterful designer, but his strength is games whose considerable depth is revealed following many playings.  Unfortunately, that isn’t how I play games these days, which has kept me from really appreciating a design like Race (along with issues with the iconography).  In Res, though, the main skill seems to be the more tactical one of figuring out how to play your randomly dealt 8-card deck and then further dealing with the way the cards come out.  Consequently, this was very enjoyable on my first play and I look forward to more seat-of-my-pants fun in the future.

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10 Responses to Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 18)

  1. I’m not at all surprised Architects cracked the top 100. I’m actually more surprised by the lack of love here. The more I play it, the more impressed I am. Actually, the thing I’m most surprised about is that people would call it vanilla. In what other worker placement game is there anything approaching the build up and flow of workers? Comparing it it to heavier games in unnecessary and unhelpful. It’s a gem in the 60-90 minute (actual time) category, that greatly rewards multiple plays and different strategies.

    • James says:

      Yeah, it’s decidedly not vanilla WP, like say Lords of Waterdeep. There are not many accessible games that play in 60-90 mins with 5 players and have higher levels of decision making. Maybe Calimala/Ragusa or New Frontiers?

  2. Pingback: Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 18) – Herman Watts

  3. Steve Marano says:

    Concerning L.A.M.A.:
    I posted a similar comment about this on BoardGameGeek: my family had the ‘misfortune’ of being introduced to LAMA immediately after we played Fuji Flush for the first time. Afterwards, all six of us (to a man and woman) asked: ‘Why would we ever want to play this over Fuji Flush?’ I mention this because for us they scratch a similar itch, and FF is FAR more compelling.

  4. Both are very light and luck-based, but Fuji Flush has a level of mean-ness and kingmaking to it (i.e. when people choose to follow and when not) which is great for families who like a game to be more combative, but LAMA has a place for families who prefer their game more friendly (which is where my family sits), so horses for courses.

    • Steve Marano says:

      LOL. I’m going to forward your quote to my wife. She always saying how she doesn’t like ‘take that’ games, but she loves Fuji Flush.

  5. James says:

    Architects is ranked so high because it plays so quickly at 5 (I’ve played two 5p games that ended in less than an hour with mostly new players) while being a refreshing take on worker placement – the risk/reward of the virtue system, with satisfying player interaction around the worker capturing/black market refresh (lumbering players with imprisoned workers debt cards) and also requires players to pay attention to timing considerations, you can be stuck building your engine if the game ends earlier than you expect. It’s certainly a much better mid-weight worker placement game than the likes of Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep.
    A portable box and nice art also don’t hurt.

    And don’t understand all these criticisms of Res Arcana being random, is luck really so unwelcome in a 30-45 min game? I’ve seen strong players win all 3 games in a row (playing the regular, non-draft variant). It reminds me of people who complain about the luck of the draw in RftG, to which I always suggest they go play the AI and see how it manages to get lucky time and time again…

  6. I’m using vanilla to mean it uses the timeworn trope of using actions to gather resources and then using actions to turn those resources into building VPs. The theme is vanilla, the use of actions is vanilla. I’ve played this game 100 times. It does it in a nice way I agree, and the twist re meeple kills and acquisition makes it of interest.

    Re Res Arcana, if luck is distributed than yeah, strong players will win. But I’ve seen games skew to players with amazing combos, winning before other players had barely earnt VP’s. It plays a part. To some that’s a feature, to others that’s a drawback and a valid criticism because that’s not what they want in a 30-45 min game, regardless of what players who are experienced in the game evangelise. As long as we understand what the game is, it will find its audience.

    • pfbrennan says:

      Rather than saying I’ve played this game 100 times, I probably should have said I’ve played variations of this trope 57,315 times … :-)

    • James says:

      Definitely agree that the theming and WP action selection is vanilla, but like you acknowledge, the package as a whole isn’t exactly vanilla WP (as say, Lords of Waterdeep is).

      While all card games have the luck of the draw, Res definitely has more variance than Race, primarily because you’re doing less random drawing from a deck (you see eight cards vs the dozens of cards that go through your hands in Race). I think with Res what makes a bigger difference than the straight composition of your deck (and therefore, whether you draft or have random decks), is how well your initial hand of three cards synergise, this seems to dictate how quickly you can start your engine without the need to burn cards or scry through your deck for the necessary components.

      I think Res is a lighter game than Race, but I don’t mind the added luck factor as it also means more interesting games when playing with less experienced players. In Race, the veteran will beat the casual player 9/10 times, in Res it’s probably more like 7/10 times which, along with the simple iconography, contribute to its much greater accessibility over Race.

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