Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots – 2020 (Part 5)

My hits of Essen (Die Crew, Maracaibo, and Expedition to Newdale) have all seen significant play over the last two months, and I’m still very happy with them. They’ve been reducing the number of new games played though compared to the pace I set last year and that’s why there’s a longer than usual period between these articles.

Enough about fires and rains, here’s an Australian Shepherd dog!

As an aside, I introduced some in-laws who live 7 hours away to Ticket To Ride many years ago. Not evangelistically, just as something to share. One of their teenage kids (being my kids’ cousin) is with us this weekend and casually dropped that they’d been playing Root at home, that Woodland Alliance was her favourite faction, and they’ve actually played it significantly more than I’ve been able to, getting to that place where everyone understand the asymmetric powers and the repercussions of moves around the table. My jaw casually dropped in astonishment at the leap they’d made. It’s one of those moments where you sit back and reflect on how little seeds can sprout in surprising ways years later. And now I want to get Root back to the table again!

IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING (2019): Rank 1438, Rating 7.0

This is a really good game, but it’s not quite for me. Your turn is either to place a polyomino piece so as to extend your mining tunnel out from your start space, collecting the resources and statues it covers up, or pick up a card from the common display, add it to your pyramid, and collect all the resources from it and all cards under it in the pyramid. There are 6 or so different resource types, each required for different things, and most of the game is about choosing how you want to score your points and collecting the right type and number of resources at the right time to be able to do that. But mainly you want to cover up and accumulate statues, build tunnels into the middle of the board, get the resources to move the statues into the middle (the reasons why escape me) and move them there for big points (oh, ok). It was an interesting challenge throughout, but it’s quite sandbox-y and I could see future games being about optimising the tactics without too much change in strategy, and a lack of player interaction in tactical games doesn’t hold as much interest for me as others.

Rating: 7

LIFT OFF (2018): Rank 1108, Rating 7.3

I’ve been vacillating on whether this is a 7 or an 8, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt for the moment. It borrows mechanisms from everywhere (the engine level from Age of Steam, the draft from Fairy Tale, …) but puts them together in a nice way to provide a light-ish game perfectly in step with the theming (a 50’s impression of how the future may look when sending payloads into space). You draft and play 2 action cards each turn – sometimes you get exactly what you want for your strategy (you have secret objectives cards you *really* want to score), other times you have hard decisions to make. Sometimes you take cards for their bonuses, sometimes for their actions, happy days when they align. The timing is interesting on how and when to improve your tech vis a vis launching the biggest payloads for massive points by end of game – lots of tech and easy (but maybe not as many) launches vs quicker to be able to launch and more launches maybe but more expensive to do. That’s the game. There’s a nice mix of interaction and luck management, and every time you blink you score points. I can see this being in the rotation for quite a while as a non-heavy well-themed Euro that people enjoy playing. An earlier OG review of Lift Off

Rating: 8

MARVEL CHAMPIONS: THE CARD GAME (2019): Rank 144, Rating 8.4

I’m a big fan of FFG’s LCG constructs (having worked on previous LCGs).  This works just as well as the others that come before, featuring the same effect language and combo types. You construct a deck consisting of a set of hero specific cards (with effects themed on that hero) boosted by a standard set of cards (leadership, aggression, etc) which allows more variety in the base game than you’d expect from an LCG. You’re inflicting hits on a boss (and there are a few provided) straight out of the Sentinels playbook – nothing much new there. This game falls between the cracks a little for me – it’s not a theme I need to play, and the decisions didn’t seem tense. Play towards your best cards and hope the boss deck allows you to win. If I want an easy-play co-op, I’d probably lean towards the deck simplicity and card-play simplicity of Sentinels though – get going fast, draw cards, play cards, smack. This was good fun though, and would be an excellent buy for co-op lovers who dig the theme. If it’d come out years ago, I’d be right into it, wanting to play more, and rating it higher as a result.

Rating: 7

ON MARS (2019): Rank 557, Rating 8.5

Oof, that’s a lot of rules. With so many VP possibilities, it’s also rather daunting figuring out a reasonable approach in your initial play. You may end up doing a subset of the game because there’s just too much to take in and work out a synergistic whole in one game. This ain’t a game played for fun. It’s a game aimed at those who love chasing mastery and tries to make that as challenging as possible. The actions are as expected – lay tiles, build buildings, get tech, gather resources, get settlers, use settlers, buy specialists, fulfil quest conditions, and so on. I wasn’t a fan of its staccato nature though, with slow ‘do-a-lot’ turns interspersed with fast but necessary gather-type turns, nor that to play well requires downtime while everyone’s special powers are assessed with respect to the right time to borrow them – the available action pool increases through the game from 13 or so actions to over double that. Having said that, the game provides a wealth of strategic approaches to explore, is amazingly challenging, and is clearly worthy of love if you and your crew have the time to invest. I’m not sure I’m quite the target market though, preferring slightly more approachable games.

Rating: 7

NOCTILUCA (2019): Rank 2610, Rating 7.1

Place groups of 4-5 dice in areas on the board. On your turn, pick a line of areas and a number, and pick up all dice of that number in those areas. You’re aiming to pick such that you get the maximum number of dice that match your private score cards and no more (as any extras will go to the other players). For AP prone players, this process can take some time.  Then pick up more score cards from the display – you want cards that have dice colours the others aren’t collecting, that are plentiful on the board, and can be picked up with a single number in a line that hasn’t been used yet. For AP prone players, this can take some time. There are various bonus points for cards of the same type to complicate the decision. Or just play by the seat of pants and you’ll probably enjoy it more. It’s a game of continually running line and number options through your head until you find one that’s best or acceptable. It’s not a process I need to repeat, but it at least came in at a suitable timeframe for what it is. Dale liked it a little better…

Rating: 6

RUNIKA AND THE SIX-SIDED SPELLBOOKS (2019): Rank n/a, Rating n/a

Take turns picking out 4 coloured dice from the draft, and then roll them. If runes or VPs are shown, you can slide them in on the side of your 4×4 grid matching that die’s colour. Other die sides allow you to rotate the side-colours, or burn you. The aim is to construct patterns in placement and colour that match the score cards in the common display.  Fine in principle, but it lets itself down. After rolling, you have to wait and see which of the 4 common special powers have or have not been taken and whether you want to spend dice on those. With only 3 cards in the common display (plus 4 long-play perennials), they get turned over fast so you can’t plan towards them or plan on them being there by your turn, and you have no private cards to work towards. More downtime. It also takes a long time (60+ crawling minutes) to earn the required VPs for victory as a lot of the score cards offer a power but no points, making you even more dependent on rolling the VP side on your dice and scoring them when used to satisfy a card. In summary, too much luck, too much repetition, too much downtime, and not enough of interest on offer.

Rating: 5

STOCKPILE (2019): Rank 2422, Rating 7.8

It’s 6 rounds of accumulating stock and selling them in fear the price will drop or holding on. I find it hard to like stock market games – they’re usually akin to gambling games with semi- random price fluctuations and ergo non-interesting. Here’s why I liked this one. Firstly, stock acquisition is cool. There are card sets which start with a random card faceup and then the players add one faceup card and one facedown card to any set they like. The sets are auctioned off Evo-style, the best kind of auction. The sets are hard to value due to the facedown cards, but as a result bidding is fast because you’re taking a punt, which feels thematic. Do you go for the sets with the most cards (but the facedowns could all be dogs) or go for the more sure thing where you placed your facedown card? The types of price movements are fixed each round – three will go up, one will pay dividends, and two will go down – but they are assigned randomly and secretly to a different stock each turn. Each player secretly knows the price movement of one stock at the start of round, and one is common knowledge (so you know two stocks) and you can bid accordingly, and then later on you can get a feel for what’s going to tank as people start selling stock for more bidding money. Anyway, repeat for 6 rounds, ride the market, choose which stocks to keep for potential end of game majority points, most money wins. It was a good length, fun, and is probably about as good as a stock market game will get for me! A few years ago, we also reviewed this game.

Rating: 7

TIME CHASE (2019): Rank 6674, Rating 6.6

A quirky trick taking game where the winning card of each trick is left on the table in a timeline. After each trick you earn crystals depending on how many tricks you’ve taken so far, and each trick you may pay these to (instead of playing on the current trick) go back and play a card on a previous trick and presumably win it, taking it from the previous winner – or if you pay enough, go all the way back and change the trump suit to something you’re strong in. The first to have three winning tricks on the table wins the round. While interesting, the secret determination and reveal before each trick as to which trick each player is playing to is time-consuming and interrupts what would be the considered the natural flow of trick-taking games and is a little off-putting to what may be considered the target market. Also, it seems tricky to mitigate a poor hand. I like trick-taking games so I wouldn’t mind exploring it a little further to see how it pans out with more experience.

Rating: 6

WAYFINDERS (2019): Rank 5638, Rating 6.8

Get resources in 5 colours, use them to fly around the 5×5 grid of islands, building airstrips asap to get the island points and its instant, ongoing, or scoring benefit. Sounds fine for what should be a 30 minute game. However. You join queues for resources, but if anyone takes their resources early, they take the resources from the front of the queue. There’s constant downtime because each turn you have to work out what you can do with the resources you would get right now. This is complicated by how the game allows you to be adjacent to every island that has an airstrip, so your decision tree is big, and it’s difficult to know who you’re racing (and even if you’re racing). This should be a fun little game of choosing combo effects for points, but the collateral damage and consequent downtime dragged it out of the fun zone rather quickly.

Rating: 5

SPOTLIGHT ON: INDUSTRIAL WASTE (2001): Rank 1839, Rating 6.7

Writing up Lift Off put me in mind of other light-ish Euros that are still in the rotation after a decade or so. The first that came to mind was Industrial Waste.

You’re a manager of a factory where you get money by putting on works. To put on a work you need workers (which you get for free) and resources (which you get by auction). A work also produces waste, which is a bad thing.  At the start of a round, there are (number of players + 1) sets of 3 possible actions (aka cards) laid out. Each player chooses a set in turn. There are about 8 different types of possible actions so getting the exact combination you want, and still having it available when it’s your turn to pick, is unlikely. Once your set of actions is chosen, you execute one by one in player turn. Possible actions in your set include putting on a work, auctioning off resources (‘once round’; this is the last source of money and the last source of interaction), improving your factory (so it needs less workers or resources, or produces less waste), reduce your waste, etc. At the end of each round you have to fork out cash just to keep the factory going (there’s an action to reduce the amount ongoing), so there’s a constant need to put on works or auction off resources to keep the money coming in. And that generates waste. Waste is a bad thing because you have to fork out penalties if your waste is too high when the accident card is revealed (every second round on average).

The scores are always going to be tight because there is little differential in the ways to improve your score. For example, you can improve your factory to limit waste production by max 4 levels, which by the end of the game means you won’t need to pick up ‘reduce waste’ actions. But you’ll have spent 20 million (10 VP’s) to gain 14 VP’s in level improvements – not much return.

On initial plays, the winning strategy seems obvious – get your “waste per work” down as quickly as possible so you can do “works” without having to waste future turns fixing your waste. With a combined urge to do works, auction prices for goods crept higher with each game, so a new strategy developed around doing no works, just selling goods to other suckers (sharing half the money of a work with the buyer, but with no waste ramifications). And that strategy was found to be successful. To counter that, another strategy evolved – get your “goods per work” requirement down as fast as possible to minimise your purchases, or get cheap buys when you put your own stuff up – and that won games as well.

We found games were taking a few more turns than they did initially, so a strategy involving getting taxes as low as possible asap (ie advancing your tech tree and factory requirement in tandem) so as to save ongoing money won games. That was countered by the rush the endgame strategy, usually in tandem with the seller strategy, so as to take the result by surprise.

The only strategy that hasn’t worked so far is the red zone approach – forget about waste, just pump it out. One day I’ll crack it.

Any given game has all these strategic undertones (who’s doing what and what’s the best approach given what they’re all doing) so, when combined with the tactical struggle of managing your cashflow and being able to take advantage of the card sets that come your way, it’s resulted in a game that’s still enjoyable and requested after many plays.

Rating: 8

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:

Larry:  I like Lift Off quite a bit.  The theme is great, it has a different feel from anything else in my collection, and the gameplay is enjoyable.  There does seem to be one major flaw in the design, though, and that’s the end-game cards. They’re not well balanced and even with drafting them, it’s far too likely that one or more players will find themselves without any opportunities to earn significant bonus points.  In my games, that has often been the difference between winning and losing. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any good way of correcting this, so I guess we just accept it, but it does make me less excited about bringing this to the table. On a side note, I’m probably the only person in the Western World who doesn’t find the artwork appropriate and charming–I think it’s too cartoony for a serious subject like the Space Race.  But this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the issue with the end-game cards.

Industrial Waste got a reasonable amount of play back in the day.  That was a time in which the number of games released each year was sufficiently low that a decent game like IW could get multiple plays.  These days, there’s no way a title like this would get more than one play in my group. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing outstanding either.  It’s been a long time since I played it and I don’t miss it a bit.

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