Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Carson City - A Duel in Eagle Valley...

Game Designer - Xavier Georges
Game Publisher - Eagle Games
Game Type - Euro / Worker Placement

Carson City - A Duel in Eagle Valley...
When I had first heard of this game the only other worker placement game I had played up to that point was Agricola. I had sort of built up the mechanic up as a saving grace to my gaming tastes. There was something I really enjoyed about Agricola, something that seemed fresh, and so it seemed this new freshness was the worker placement mechanic. Now I know I was a little late to the WP party... I had not played Caylus yet, just heard about it's checkered reviews full of bickering over whether the game was even any fun or just an exercise in accounting, and from of the incendiary commenters, that the game was just a contrived, soul-less pissing match.  Agricola certainly wasn't all those bad things to me, so a hunt was on for Caylus. For whatever reason the FLGS in my area never had it in stock and with my curiosity towards this new-to-me mechanic soaring, I started looking towards some alternatives. That's when I first heard about Carson City, read some reviews, bought it, played it 20-30 times and here we stand.

I consider Carson City to be my second favorite worker placement game behind Agricola. I have now played the majority of the notable games that make up this group, so not much mystery is left. I've played Caylus several times and despite the extremely strategic, dense and tight game play, I have found Carson City does a better job of putting those qualities in a fun to play package. Minute-for-minute, decision to decision I feel Carson City provides a very similar experience to Caylus in less time and with more drama. As far as comparing it to Agricola, the game play is so different I hesitate even to do so. This shows that just because games have a shared mechanic it does not necessarily equate to a similar feel as a whole. I think Agricola might be the superior game, but it certainly isn't my favorite worker placement game.

As opposed to doing a detailed review with rules, explanation and strategy, I'd like to point out a few things I really like and expound on them. There are a ton of other great reviews that do a much better and thorough job of explaining the finer points... here are some that jumped up and bit me right in the heart.

  • The Roles - Each player per round will select a person from Carson City to help them out. Role selection is a nice way to give players special "powers" for a given amount of time without working into the rules all the extra fiddliness of acquiring them. The roles are varied and mostly balanced. (there are a couple less-desirable ones) Some help you get more guns, workers, cheaper buildings, VP's, money... The role placards are double-sided, you use only one side per game chosen prior, so there is a fresh set on the other side for a re-match! I personally prefer the red sides of the roles, they seem less powerful but require a little more finesse to take advantage of. These roles also help decide turn order (by rank) and cash limit (explained a lil' more later). There is a promotional role called "The Indian" that's pretty easy to proxy/obtain for some additional variety and a unique twist to the usual role benefits.    

  • The Map - I really enjoy the "interactive" aspect of the map. In a lot of worker placement games all you have is a board that looks like a menu at some sort of hieroglyphic themed diner. What I like here is that there is a spatial element to the strategy, that goes beyond just preferential positioning in a queue. The buildings that you will be constructing won't be worker placement spots in the future, but rather your economic engine for the game. You need to find and claim necessary area on the board to accommodate your economic strategy. So not only do you need the money to buy the buildings but also you may have to do a little "city building" to get your ducks in a row. All players are carving out their place on the same board. I crave this sort of interaction in games. When it's absent I notice. I'm not really stating that it's necessary for a game to have heavy player interaction for me to enjoy it, but it's just one of those things... when I think about boardgames I think about people trying to out maneuver their competition. This isn't always present in games like this, so to me, it comes across as refreshing. One thing to note as well, the board is double-sided. The basic board is one side, mountains scattered about, with a lot of room for players to spread out and find their own niche. The other side is the Carson River Variant. A river runs bold through the center of the play area. It provides for a tighter play area and a couple interesting strategic and tactical nuances. 

  • The Buildings -  There are quite a few different possible buildings that might cross the market path in any given game. The market is preset with 4 buildings (2 mines/2 ranches) to get the game started, but after that you draw replacements for the market from a cloth bag. There are several considerations when buying buildings: some need to go on specific types of plots (tile placement), they have different effects on income, they offer permanent benefits (guns, protection) and some even need a certain amount of existing infrastructure (roads, houses) to be placed. Couple all of these factors with the uncertainty of which buildings will come up for purchase in the game and you see some different building strategies each play. 

  • The Duels/The Guns - A point of direct conflict. In Carson City worker placement is not exclusive. Everyone is entitled their opportunity at any given action spot, the duels occur when two or more players choose to do the same thing. This ranges from buying the same buildings, trying to buy the same parcel of land, choosing the same action etc... When this happens, the involved players duel to see who will be the only player to receive the benefit or action of that spot. To do this players add in the gun tokens they have collected through various means along with their roll of a standard D6 die. All the losing cowboys are returned to their respected owners and the winner is allowed to take the action. There are a couple spots where multiple players can reap rewards, but besides those, there can only be one winner per action spot. The other way a player with a lot of guns can wreak havoc is buy robbing businesses of the other players. If someone is sitting pretty with their cash cow milking it turn after turn you can place a cowboy on their building for half of the money. It's a stickup! Before resolving actions the defending player can attempt to defend his earnings by placing one of his cowboys there, but a duel must be fought and won to protect his cash. One of the more subtle, and dare I say friendly, aspects of the design I started to appreciate in my later plays, was how the loser of the duel got to use his cowboys in the next round, almost always having a numbers advantage next time around. It just seems to balance things really well with almost little to no headaches from a design/mechanics/theme standpoint. It works really well and feels very fair.

  • The VP system - I couldn't really think of any term to adequately describe this, but the way the VP's are dished out in this game is tricky! All VP's you earn, besides those awarded for your buildings in end-game scoring, are purchased with your income. There is a sort of countdown on the bottom of the serpentine action track which allows you to place a worker for the exchange of money for VP's. Just like any of the other exclusive reward spots, only one worker will be allowed to convert cash to VP's at a reasonable rate. This means that you will need a worker on this spot and be able to withstand the dueling attempts from other players. Each turn the best value exchange spot is taken away, so not only are the exchange places becoming fewer but the rates at the remaining places are more expensive. On the last turn just one of these exchanges still remains at a whopping $5/VP whereas the first turn exchange can be had for as little as $2/VP. This makes pushing for the guns a very reasonable pursuit. As the head gunner you can very easily command that top exchange spot, and given a big enough advantage, force some of the other players to worse exchange rates for fear of dueling you. Another facet to this system is the cash limit built-in to the different roles. If you decide not buy VP's for whatever reason this turn you can only carry so much money to the next round. This is indicated by the character card you chose at the beginning of the round. So if you want to save some loot over to the next round, you had better have deep pockets. All money that falls over this line is exchanged at a rate of $10/VP and that's crazy expensive. So generally you want to do one of these on your turn with your loot: spend most/all on a bunch of productive buildings, spend most/all on VP's or choose a character with a high cash limit so you can achieve "baller status" for the next round as MC MoneyBagz with all that carry-over coin.

  • 2P - A lot of the games that I get to play to repetitive death are with my friend Nicole. So therefore, I try and find games to purchase that are good two player. They don't have to be best with 2, but as long as they work they'll get a nod where from me where they succeed in this task. I must say, Carson City plays almost as well with two as it does 3-5.  The board definitely get's tighter and play more interesting with more players but the 2P games have left me feeling very satisfied. The river variant side of the board is great for ratcheting up the land grabs and even succeeds in tightening up the market a little bit. 

  • A New Beginning - This was a little expansion/giveaway that was put out at Essen 2010. We haven't played all that much with this little expansion/variant yet but the premise is to allow for players to choose their own starting supplies. You can basically start with more or less of any given resource, work force, money and VP's. There are also a few other nifty things like being able to choose either side of the role cards, choosing two roles or even rolling two dice in the duels instead of one (keeping your favorite).  It seems like a ton more variety... but with so many moving parts and a little time between games (can't play this everyday!) we haven't really had the opportunity to mess around with the different possibilities. I think we've tried this twice, each time deciding just to stick to varied amounts of starting materials and no new "abilities", but I'm confident as we continue to have fun with this one through the years that this "advanced setup" may soon become our "normal setup". 

I think Carson City does a great job of marrying some of my favorite aspects of euro-typical games with a little bit of "take that" for a really unique experience. The role luck plays in the game keeps the strategy heavy player on their toes and lends itself well to more creative play. I think the variety found in the double-sided roles and map and various playmates will keep this hitting the table for quite sometime to come. It's a game I researched quite a bit before I jumped on, there are a lot of threads out there that will try to convince you that this game is broken/unbalanced, rude/mean, but I think it's a delight and one of the most interesting pieces of cardboard I've laid eyes on. It's game play perfectly matches it's theme... Carson City is a tense and exciting game with a lot of variety, leading to unexpected outcomes. Fits the old west theme mighty fine! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Met some new people. Played some new games.

Today I finally got to meet up with one of the few other casual gaming groups in the area. I had met these folks another time before, but just haven't had the time to get together with them again. John, the fella I first corresponded with got back in touch with me and graciously offered to have me over to meet some more of their friends and play some games. Played one title I had previously played and a couple new ones. Here's what we played and then some general impressions of the games.

This was the only title I had played previously. My opinion of this game hasn't changed much. I think it plays really nicely with a wide compliment of players. I actually managed to win it somehow. I'm not sure if I like or don't like that about it. I imagine as you get to better know the cards the game can take on a more strategic flavor, because with my knowledge of the decks my decisions are almost purely tactical besides the "chained" improvements at least. Still a very fun game, one that I may even consider owning at one point because of seating so many. I'm also kind of curious how it plays with fewer people. The game I played today had 5 players, which was an improvement over the 7 that were involved during my previous play. I think I might like seeing how the game flows when the chances of receiving your own cards back increases, say maybe with 3-4 players. The group also owned a copy of the Leaders expansion, but they thought it better to teach me the rules to the base game first and give that a go. After we had finished another player joined us and attention got shifted to another game. No worries here, I'm curious if the expansion might push it over the "mediocre line" for me, as of right now it seems a little light for my taste and really hasn't shown me a propensity for tough decisions, but I gather this is because I have no idea what potential hands I may receive, what cards are clearly better than others and obviously a lot of the strategic pacing is missing for me. I might need to play this one a few more times before I'd buy it. It definitely is the best game out of the three I played tonight however.    

When I first saw this guy floating around the geek I was rather interested in it. I'm a sucker for all the pretty dice just like... well... everyone else. For those not familiar with the game, it goes something like this... it's a dice collecting game or a dicebuilder if you will. There is a pool of dice available to every player in the middle of the table and a bag in each players hand. The players all start with some basic dice which are weak creatures and some dice which have "money" values on them. I believe you start with 12 dice total. Then you put those in your sack and shake em up! You draw six dice out of the bag per turn, roll them,  and then use the results to either put monsters in play or use your money to buy dice with more impacting actions. Upgrade! I only got to play this once, after a few turns I was already aware of some mistakes I had made... or rather different directions I would have went atleast. It was better than I had thought it would be, I just wonder how long the fun would last. I've never really been taken too far back by card games or their offspring but this may seem like one of the more tolerable. One thing I can say for sure, is that after I was done playing it I had the desire to play it again to see if I could improve. That's a good sign. I don't know if it'll make to my collection, but it's very enjoyable.

This one had actually been on my wishlist sometime back. I can't remember what it was that made me reconsider but I remember actually having it lined up in a trade at one point and bailed on it. This game is a deduction game similar to the old classic Scotland Yard, but set in a nunnery for young woman. You will be playing these young women as they attempt to sneak around the premises looking for their desired vice. the humor and art style of this game is one that I identify with. The artist's drawings of the characters remind me of Archie comics for some reason. It was a little tricky for the host to explain this to all the new players because of the way the movements are recorded. (they are written coordinates that you keep on your own personal sheet out of view of all other players) After we got things rolling it played pretty well, there were some moments of tension and what seemed like a game that would go on for a bit ended before I saw it coming. I guess some of the other players had a better handle on it than me. Some things to note about this one that I didn't like: the board was kind of confusing. There was a little chart included in the rule book that went over some of the point-to-point line of sight match-ups, some of which were made very confusing by the busy board. Several of the players actually made mistakes that almost warranted starting the game over. This is sort of different from other games where rule breaking is apparent and almost always correctable, because information regarding where your character was on the map isn't really revealed unless you've been caught. Sure there's the paper trail, where you've recorded your current location and past locations, but that's no fun. Given how simple the game really is, I think given a less rushed presentation of the rules or even another go at it would have resolved any confusion. I thought this game was a lot of fun, although I can't think of many instances where I'd prefer to play this kind of game over some of my other favorites... as of right now I'm fine playing John's copy when I get a chance. 

Good gaming everyone!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Macao - wind rose, is a wind rose, is a wind rose, is a wind rose.

Game Designer
- Stefan Feld
Game Publisher - alea/Rio Grande Games
Game Type - Euro

    Macao - wind rose, is a wind rose, is a wind rose, is a wind rose...

    On the surface, I shouldn't like this game. Elegant isn't quite the hotword to throw at this title. The production quality of the game is functional but bland. As Tom Vassal would say, "Wahoo! Another game about the exotic world of shipping goods!" That being said, Stefan Feld is one of my favorite designers and it all started with this game. In fact, I still have several titles by him that I've yet to play. To date I've played only three of his designs: Macao, Luna and The Speicherstadt. Within these three excellent games Macao is by far the stand-out. Here's why...

    • The Windrose- Stefan, you clever little bugger you. This mechanism is amazing. For those that haven't had the chance to play this game, I'll offer a brief explanation. Every turn prior to the card draft and player actions, one player rolls the 6 dice (all of different colors) for that round. Players take a look at the results. The players will draft these different values in their specific color for actions on future rounds. So if you take a black six, you put 6 black cubes by your "6" on the windrose. Every turn the windrose arrow turns to the group of cubes you get for that turn. So in my example with the black six, in six turns from the point of choosing it, that windrose will work itself around eventually to the place on the table where the number six once stood and the 6 black cubes still do. It's hard to explain in words but once you see how it works you'll be taken back at how interesting it makes planning for your actions. The even trickier part is that several of the actions require cubes of different colors to activate, so if you have a card that requires a 2 black cubes and a green cube to play, you need to line up some green cubes with those black ones as well. You'll have six turns for the dice to work out, where you can put those green cubes on the spot where the black ones are... or be forced to adjust your intentions. 

    • The cards - This game comes with a massive deck. If I showed you a picture of it you wouldn't be all that impressed. Sorry ladies, you've seen bigger. What makes it so lengthy is the result of only seeing a relative handful of the cards each game. I don't want really want to concern myself with percentages, but out of the variable cards, you only see around *half of the deck a game. Some of the cards have overlapping similarities but no two are exactly the same. This gives the game a lot of variety play to play. I've actually seen some people players comment on how the deck is too big. They argue that not enough is consistent game to game to count on, I don't think they're entirely wrong, but I don't see this as a shortcoming to the game at all. There are quite a few different niches to specialize within Macao and most will be accommodated no matter which cards come out. It's mostly a matter of what combo's or lack there of, become available throughout the game. This leads some to think there is a bit too much luck of the draw, when cards come up that easily aid in what you're already trying to accomplish without them. Really I think some cards are deceptively difficult to work into your efficiency machine but every card has it's place. If someone keeps snatching up your cards before you get a chance to pick, this game has a nifty turn-order mechanic as well.

    • The Wall - I really like this as a turn order mechanic. I like the fact that one needs to sacrifice to gain preference in turn order. If the cards are bugging you, or you really need to get that crucial office card, invest here. It seems more of a compromise to spend points here than some of the more commonly used methods. Passing early to go first next round (e.g. Carson City) never seems like much of an option, most of the time the player is basically forced to pass early in situations or games that use this method. It never seems to hold suspense or drama. The worker placement "spot" for turn order in several of those games also seems to not retain that dramatic flair either. I don't know if it just seems to easy to do, like placing your worker on the turn order spot in Caylus for example, or if it just seems unfair to be able to catapult your way from last to first in one motion. In Macao, cubes that could be accomplishing a wide variety of different actions can be spent on the wall fight for tun order. I really like that it's a gradual and measured approach to the turn order struggle. It takes keeping up with the whole game. You can actually get far enough ahead where one significant play from an opponent will not be enough to get them back to the front of the line. In this way it seems, idk, somewhat more "fair". It's also a nice little subsystem, a race within a race. You can even completely neglect it if you're fine with taking everyone's leftovers. 

    • 2P - The game plays beautifully two-handed. It scales very well. There are more cards with more players in the drafting lot each turn, but besides that no changes need to be made to make this game play well with two. The dice are open availability, so that doesn't change. The only thing that get's a little screwy is some of the competition in the area control aspect of the game. It's not entirely messed up though, just far less competition. The city can feel very tight with 4, almost impossible to get desired results without stepping up in the turn order so you can build first. While that tension remains in the card drafting, it's essentially absent in the city 2P as no locations are removed or sequestered with varying player counts. You can only buy one section of the city per round normally anyways, which sort of tames this a bit. You just see more cohesive groupings of area in smaller player counts, couple that with the area scoring (2 pts/connected region) and it gets a little hairy, but not even close to broken... just different with 2.

    All in all, Macao is one of my favorites. It provides for some very interesting decisions, tight gameplay and a drip of drama that is sometimes missing from Euro games. On the surface it seems like a mish-mash of different mechanics but somehow something great emerges from the chaos, all the loose ends tie into one another. I look forward to trying Feld's other designs, especially In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame, Trajan and Die Burgen von Bergund. It's no wonder to me the BG world seems to Feld-crazy these days, dude's brilliant.

    Endeavor for 2 - A Selective Look at the 2P Variants

    (originally posted on BGG August 2011)

    Game Designer(s) - Carl de Visser & Jarratt Gray
    Game Publisher - Z-MAN Games
    Game Type - Euro efficiency engine/area control/set collection

    This article will discuss the two most popular variants:

    The Official Variant:

    Faster, Friendlier:

    Well let's start with the official variant. This variant introduces a 3rd neutral player whose markers are played by both players. This is sort of a dummy player if you're familiar with that sort of concept. Most of the rules are identical to the full player compliment with a few exceptions. Often, when you choose different options for your action you are going to, in-turn, place down the neutral discs. When occupying, you can place a neutral disc afterwards in any region in which that neutral player is allowed to play a disc. The neutral player placement follows the same rules as the active player, this neutral player must have presence in the region in order to place his disc. Very often you'll be using these neutral discs to interfere with your live opponents progress. Attacking works exactly as it would with normal scaling. When you ship, you place a neutral disc into any shipping lane, just as it would be for any other player. There are no prerequisites for shipping however. Drawing cards works in a similar way to occupation. When you choose your draw action you can "take" a card for the neutral player in any area in which he is eligible according to normal rules. It is important to note that the blue "action chits" when spent do not provoke neutral actions. There are a few other subtleties and options, but that gets to the gist of the official variant.

    As for the Faster, Friendlier variant, it is obvious that it is based on the official variant with a few significant changes. Besides the drawing cards action the neutral discs are assigned or allotted to the different regions during setup. Each region gets a specific amount of discs to be laid out during the occupation of each area, the shipping lanes start with a pre-determined amount discs, placed in the first few spot in the shipping lane. The decisions on behalf of the live players, regarding the neutral player, take place when you choose to draw cards. When you draw cards you may choose to discard the next highest card from the draw pile. The neutral player "gets" this card.

    The only reason I'm writing this article, is because both actually work! Obviously both, in different ways, simulate the tightness in available area that you'd find with more players.

    -Here are some notes of comparison: (OV=official variant, FF=faster,friendlier)

    •  in the OV, your shipping is left inherently alone, the other live player may decide to interfere with you by placing neutral discs into your area, soaking up valuable space. Making you compete against the neutral player for control of the governance for that region.
    • in the FF, there are a certain amount of neutral discs present in each shipping lane during setup. The competition is there regardless.

    • in the OV, according to normal placement rules your opponent may place neutral discs into an eligible (for the neutral color) spot in an open region.
    • in the FF, the neutral discs are spread out among the neutral regions and are added when there sufficient room left for placement. So, if there is a disc set aside for the purpose of neutral occupation (counted out and placed beside the region as a reminder) it is placed as soon as there is only 1 space left to occupy in that region. If there are four  neutral discs for that region(europe only), they are played onto the board when there are only 4 spaces left unoccupied. Europe starts the game with 4 neutral discs to the side, whereas each other region has one neutral disc set aside for occupation.

    • in the OV, the active player after drawing his own card may choose to draw for the neutral player by placing an eligible (for the neutral color) card in the box.
    • in the FF, the active player after drawing his own card may remove the next card from the stack of cards he draws his own from, regardless of eligibility for the neutral player.

    This pretty much breaks down the major differences between the two most popular variants. Now, which is better? Why would I want to write an article based on such a specific case of circumstances when there are so many other 2P specific games available?

     The inspiration for this article, is that they both actually work. As in for me, they each have their own unique appeals and turn-offs, they each expand on the game, or at the very least present the system in a different light. There are games published to scale down to 2, that don't work this well!

    The official variant seems to try and simulate a 3 player game. Now I know what you're thinking, this game isn't even close to "best with 3". I think this is because of the size of the board. It leaves too much open space and freedom to expand without worry. If you've played a 3 player game of Endeavor, there still is too much room to expand your domain uninhibited by the other players. I've heard things like, "well, who would actually play the game that way, the conflict is part of the fun"... this is true but just having that idea in mind isn't enough to achieve that tension in a real game. Why? Because there's still too much damn room! If one player makes it their goal to be the fly in your ointment, he is going to lose track of his own goals and effectively only be able to disrupt one of three players. That's where the "dummy player actually makes it interesting. You see, he's soul-less. He doesn't care about his own win, he gets his jollies in creating havoc and disruption. That is because you are in control of him. So where maybe only a certain percentage of [i]your[/i] plays will be in confined spaces, [i]all of his will be[/i]. He is your drone. He thrives on conflict. This makes up for the plays where a live player would be seeking to "carve-out" his own territory.

    The "Faster, Friendlier Variant" seems to try and shorten the board size down. There are spots on the shipping lane already occupied by the neutral player at the games beginning. So besides that neutral player being a legitimate candidate for governor, these spaces might as well not even exist. This is in stark contrast to the OV because the neutral counters are spread equal. You can't elect as the opposing player to push most of the neutral discs into one area. There isn't much to wonder about as far as the occupation strategy of the neutral player. It's pre-determined, in timing and amount.

    Card drawing is significantly different between the two. In the OV the discarded card draws are going to be a little more spread out. Some defensive (blocking your opponents ability to pick up a card by snatching it up for the neutral player) or offensive (removing cards from regions you are in in hopes of getting through the deck a little faster to get to the more powerful). The FF just works on the 2nd premise alone. You can only draw cards out of the decks for the neutral players from the same deck as you just drew your own. There are rare circumstances that arise that may carry some of the tone of the defensive position. This happens when 2 players are competing along with the neutral player in one region. The neutral player will have a fairly decent presence to start and there really isn't much room at all in each. Therefore if all 3 players are present you can sort of snuff out the weakest player (always one of the 2 live players) from the quality cards... or really any cards at all.

    "Are these really dummy players, I've already been told this is a terrible mechanic, I don't know why I hate it so much... I just do!" Well clearly that was the inspiration for the FF variant. Or atleast it presents an alternative for those with a similar attitude as the quoted fella. For the record, the official variant came first, the FF is almost, as I see it atleast, a variation on the variant. Get all that? A whole separate article could probably be written on the pro's and con's of such mechanics, from fun to un-fun, strategic to annoying. One thing that is very clear and I sort of alluded to it earlier, is that for every few moves you make in this game you're going to be getting into someone's business with your own moves. That is with the normal player compliment (3-5). Yes I am aware of the butterfly effect, not everyone likes to think of all remotely abstract games as being as fluid as GO and me thinks for good reason. The neutral player serves just to complicate and interfere. So yes, you might understand that although a normal live player's move might have some interference associated with it there are personal motivations for it. The move helps further their "efficiency engine", if it slows you down in the process, all the better, The neutral player's moves don't share that quality. If taken too emotionally and in context of normal play, they seem mean... because they are. Another reason for the FF as stated by the author is that it is easy to forget the neutral actions after taking your own. I would agree, but that isn't the fault of the variant. It definitely feels less intuitive to play these neutral markers, so I think in combination with residual habits formed by the normal order of procedure, it seems to break the flow of the game up. I think there's something to this, but it's definitely not the fault of the variant.

    Something I found very interesting that I didn't expect was the realization that this is more of an abstract game than I had thought. Sometimes I get caught up in the distraction of theme. Pretty pieces, an interesting layout, these things are very much to the benefit to the game but sometimes these elements overshadow the beauty and simplicity of the abstract quality of the game play. The phrase I keep coming back to, whether it's because of the quicker games, lack of motion between turns, or just more directly seeing the implications of certain positions, "these variants strip away some of the mystery of the game". This phrase over and over in my mind has been ringing. But what are the mysteries? This is a game of open information and zero luck, so the mystery has something to do with the abstract play. Seeing the further implication of your placements and decisions in more brevity and clarity. This is the only thing I can come up with. I'd like to rant along more about this, but again it's a bit off topic and would make this article less appealing or digestible for some folks with a more casual approach to gaming. I also don't want to ruin the game by exposing people to strategy that I haven't fully thought out or they weren't looking for.

    I must say I enjoy the official variant more than the FF for the following reasons:

    • The neutral discs set aside for occupation present a very stale set of circumstances once they enter the game.
    • I feel less of the original strategy remains viable when playing the FF version.
    • The card drawing aspect of FF feels cheap, for a reason I can't fully describe. I guess it just feels so much different than the normal game.
    • There are certain shipping situations in the FF that feel scripted, broken, or less than inspiring from a design standpoint. Even though the neutral player has a leg-up on the competition in the governor race, it feels as though at some points the strategy becomes far less elegant.
    • The spread out approach of the neutral player is a bit unrealistic. I like the ability to "preempt" my opponents future strategy by playing discs in a diverse and varied way, at a variable rate and concentration.

    That being said, the FF is what it set out to be.

    • Faster,especially at first when compared to the original order of operations.
    • Friendlier, you get no choice where the neutral discs will be placed, well at least as far as concentration.

    I actually very much enjoy both. I remember thinking, would I like this game if it was published as a two player game with either of the variants as the official and only set of rules? I honestly can say I would. This is one of those variants that if more people knew about it, I think sales might have been even better for this game. Endeavor really doesn't have a lot of "screwage" to begin with, and unless you've been coddled by non confrontational Euro's for most of your playing, you'd probably find that even with the intentionally blatant disruptive force that is the dummy player, it really doesn't feel all that nasty. The attack action is already weighted pretty heavily in expense, so if you could handle that and can accept the fact that your opponent taking up space to meet his goals is already hindering your chances to expand, the blatant motivation behind neutral play should be seen as nothing more than a little slap on the ass. Even though the dummy player can't speak up to tell you, his motivation are very much the same as yours would be, just remember that guy is a dummy after all.


    Aton - A Puzzle of Pips.

    (originally posted on BGG August 2011)

    Game Designer - Thorsten Gimmler
    Game Publisher - Queen Games
    Game Type - Abstract Strategy

    Aton - A Puzzle of Pips
    Thinly veiled in theme, Aton is a truly elegant game of equal forces vying to occupy space. I must say that I am generally a fan of abstract games that "disguise" themselves with nice bits and pretty colors - Ohhhh the pretty colors. Anything that gets these abstract games to the table on a lighter, less intimidating note, is welcomed among my pals. Keep in mind we know damn well that underneath that neat little box lid is a nasty game of cutthroat tactics, plotting and scheming... it just helps to break the ice. You'll need the ice later, to cool your noggin of course.

    In Aton, players each get a deck comprised of equal forces. The cards are nothing more than numerical ranks (1-4) that are shuffled and drawn gradually at random. The deck consists of 9 of each rank (9 4's, 9 3's...) for a total of 36 cards apiece. These are shuffled and drawn 4/turn. So you know what's in there, you just don't know what/when you're going to get.

    The game board is divided up into 4 regions with 12 "spots" in each. Your goal is to strategically place your markers in these "temples" in order to either meet one of the instantaneous winning conditions or to score more points than your opponent through superior placement. How you place your markers in the temples will depend on how you'd like to spend the strength of your individual player deck. There are 4 "cartouches"  or as I like to call everything, spots, on each side of the board. You take one of your 4 cards drawn at the beginning of the turn and place it in each cartouche. After a simultaneous reveal, you will spend your cards' pips. The first spot is a little different than the other 3, so we will get back to that guy. The 2nd cartouche is an offensive action which allows you to remove your opponents previously placed markers. The higher the strength of your cards the more markers you can remove. Careful though, if you do not spend enough pips on this location you might end up removing a few markers of your own! The 3rd cartouche dictates the highest numbered temple you may place your markers in that turn. Temples are numbered 1-4 and the equity within these temples increases with the numeric value. The fourth cartouche tells you how many markers you get to put down that turn. Laying a "2" in this cartouche means you get to play 2 markers in your eligible temple. So what you have here is the want (most times) for a "4" in every spot. You want to be able to use your high cards to remove more of your opponents markers, play in the highest valued temples, place the most markers you can... but alas the deck makeup does not allow you such freedom. The very first cartouche is a straight points bid, scoring two points multiplied by the difference between your 1st cartouche card and your opponent's. The player with the high card in this cartouche get's point right away. If none of the instant win conditions are realized, this race comes down to points alone, so although this is the least functional cartouche, it offers a great share of points.

    There are also instant win conditions to be watchful of. Each temple has a row of green spaces and a row of yellow spaces. If you can manage to fill up the green spaces in each separate temple you win outright. No need to play out the decks any further or wait until the end of the round to score! Same goes for the yellow spaces in each temple. It's important to note, that after each round ends the majority owner of each temple scores for the amount of markers he has in the temple. Often times the instant win strategies and point optimization strategies are contradictory to eachother. Meaning, to go for an instant win is often at the sacrifice of potential points. If you miss out on your opportunity to make this winning condition, you're giving your opponent an opportunity to score a lot of points. Note: another winning condition, 40 points prior to a scoring round... if 40 is met during the scoring the player with the most points wins. The trick is that first cartouche, it allows you to score prior to the scoring round. So if you're too aggressive in going for one of the non-point scoring victories you can let your opponent get dangerously close to hitting that 40 point mark prior to you achieving your instant win. Another instant wins - filling up a single temple completely with your stones only. This one is tricky for sure, as you'll be aiming for the most in each temple already. If MOST becomes ALL, it's over.

    Once a track comprised of removed stones is full the scoring round goes as follows: in each temple the majority owner scores points, there are some bonus point individual spots in the temples, there are also black squares in each that instead of instant win conditions allow you to score a lot of points if you have the majority of them out of all temples.

    To me, this is the core conflict of the game. To go for the instant win, or to pile up the points. But it's not that cut and dry. This isn't so much a "multiple paths to victory" game as it seems on paper. What usually happens is that while someone is going for all the green spaces on the board, you'll be going for all the yellow. They'll get close and you'll throw some stones on the green spaces in order to play defense, they'll commit higher cards to the 2nd cartouche in order to remove those stones... this opens up the other areas of the board for you to exploit. Maybe you'll get closer to victory with being able to capture all the yellow spaces, but chances are you'll have to re-respond to their green effort again... It sort of bogs down at some point, either from the start or when someone gets too close to an instant win and demands attention. What results is a tactical delight, involving card counting, conservation of resources, bluffing... it get's sort of tit-for-tat, little moves here, mini-swing there - until someone, tensely, grabs the reigns and rides the pony in to town.

    Some people have argued on here that the game is good but simply not fun to play. Luck is pretty low. Turn to turn play is very samey. To me it's the tactics and "open" feeling of the strategy that are the appeal. The best move is sometimes very easy to recognize, especially in end game situations, but the mid-game is a beautiful mess. Although Aton is an area majority game, it really doesn't feel that way while playing it. It should, for every reason I described in the little rule synopsis, but it doesn't. This hearkens back to my first paragraph on theme. These thinly themed abstracts seem to fool unsuspecting players. As a friend of mine's girlfriend said, "What, do you get to be that guy on the box or something?", to which I answered, "No, you get to play chess with a pharaoh suit on." It had me thinking for a bit. Maybe the lack of perceived fun has something to do with the expectations that are presumed upon seeing the imagery and theme?

    As for replay-ability, I think Aton holds up fairly well. No two games seem to be the same. Strategies change, the bluff or distraction from experienced players, or the amateur naivete of the noobs... because of the set value of each players' forces, there is nothing that can be squandered. That "4" has to go somewhere, whether it's the optimum placement or not, we may never know. The mechanic of placing the cards and doing the elementary math needed to determine the cards true value in each cartouche is a turn off for some people. I've even heard it called convoluted. I think it's rather simple, and even if it is a little convoluted aren't all game mechanics?

    Aton a very nice game. It's actually impressed a few people that I didn't think it would. The area majority/area control genre is pretty void of good games for 2, I believe it to be one of the better, one of few that actually works. It's not gonna rock your world, but it might consume more of your 2P filler time than you thought. It feels like there is something here to "figure out", "let's do it again" is a common chorus. There are just so many moving parts here.

    Trades and acquisitions I (or my pals) made in the last couple weeks:

    Traded ---> For

    The Speicherstadt  ---> Louis XIV, Innovation
    DS Lite ---> Zertz, Dvonn, Punct, Tzaar, Gipf+potentials
    The Golden City ---> Toledo

    Other acquisitions:

    -Twilight Struggle
    -Kingdom Builder

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    An introduction of sorts...

    Ahhh, after push-pushing, prodding and prodding, I've decided to follow the advice of others and try and find a non-social networking - non-BGG place to start my writing career about my favorite pastime/addiction. I thought a little introduction/disclaimer may be due when starting one of these dealies, so here it goes!

    (Feel free to skip this if you already know me or don't care to know any background about myself. This post will contain some non-gaming content. Eventually I may start more a general, "journal" style blog in the future, but as of right now google+ satisfies my itch.)

    I am a 29 year old caucasian male. I was born in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in March of 1982 to two wonderful parents. I still live in that suburb, although I maintain a somewhat gypsy-like migrant lifestyle. I always have and probably always will. As far as Detroit or even Michigan as a whole are concerned, I love it here. I would feel like a traitor if I left. It seems like the thing to do these days as a relatively youngman in this area that isn't pinned down to employment that you leave. At some point you've had enough of "feeling the seasons" to know that winter blows. ha. I just don't think I could. I have a very close and connected extended family, several friends that I just couldn't see... not seeing, and some sort of irrational love for the city of Detroit proper.

    As a kid I remember playing a few boardgames/cardgames with regularity. Some of those I remember best include many classics I'm sure you'll all remember too - Uno, Sorry, Risk, Stratego, Euchre, Rummy... and then it happened. Magic The Gathering that is. I used to casually read comics and on the way home from school there was a little comic shop that I passed through on my walks home to buy some fresh ink and maybe a little candy or a cold pop. One day I noticed all of these awesome cards with cool comic-book style art in one of the display cases. 3rd edition had just come out and I remember some packs of unlimited still on the shelves. That started this.

    I began playing in tournaments in the area, at friends houses and FLGS's whenever I could get the chance. All those who have played in a competitive environment know that this game gets expensive fast. I really enjoyed the sense of community at the stores, the competition and seeminlgy endless tweaks and refinements one could make to their deck. I think one of the most amazing and brilliant aspects of MTG that I didn't notice until way after was just how though provoking the game was. I remember trying to fall asleep running through all the combo's, proportions and game histories I could find in my current decks, past decks, and even matches I had played months ago in crucial times during the competitions. Gradually the fever died down with the increase of music's role in my life. As well as I imagined hormones kept me out of the stores and clubs for awhile.

    After high school my life shifted, putting music in the spotlight. I had always been in bands growing up, messing around with friends and acquaintances in what seemed like never ending good times. After highschool I began playing in bands that were a little more serious. After playing in a few of them, playing several shows a month, it just started wearing on me. It's a tough balancing act of minds, ego's and expectations. I still very much enjoy listening and playing music. I have several guitars, a very nice array of vintage and modern equipment, hand drums... and even the dream of someday being able to express my musical creativity at some point down the line.

    ...blast forward sometime.

    In recent years I had some struggles. I've dealt with what I feel is crippling depression, alcoholism and a general frustration with people that I am not already close with. This last part is in stark contrast to my usual social ways. I quit drinking. Checked myself voluntarily into rehab and started looking for ways to remain social without becoming bitter and frustrated with my situation. As of late I've written and thought about this period in my life in great and exhaustive details elsewhere. Just know that it was incredibly difficult, is incredibly difficult. For the year or two prior to rehab we began playing Settler's of Catan, Ticket to Ride and Powergrid. How exactly? I'm not quite sure. How exactly I played these games with any sort of focus being smashed on whiskey all day, is incredible. I just knew I loved it. It was reminiscent and new all at the same time. It brought back memories of playing Stratego and Risk in my basement as a youngin and it just seemed to fit in. By this time I had setup a BGG account, probably to start looking up our various questions concerning PowerGrid... After I got out of rehab and began to get my health back it was clear that this was my way to "reactivate" socially and mentally. It was my chance to control something from the beginning to end, it helped my need for competition and helped me re-open my analytic mind.

    I play games mostly with two different people. Sometimes heads up, sometimes all 3 of us get together. I'd like to say something short and sweet about these guys.

    Nicole - Nicole is my best friend. She knows me better than anyone around, been there with me through the best and worst. We usually play games 3-4 times a week. Some of her favorite games include: Macao, Endeavor, Agricola, Navegador and Carcassonne.

    Kris - Kris and I have been pals for a long time. He played trumpet in one of the bands I was in growing up and our friendship has evolved to permanence in recent years. He is one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. We generally play games once a week, sometimes with Nicole. Some of his favorite games include: Caylus, Modern Art, Ra, GO, Tigris and Euphrates and Manoeuvre.

    Here is a list of some of my current favorites:
    -Through the Desert
    -Carson City
    -Twilight Struggle
    -Washington's War

    My writing style is sometimes sloppy. I tend to over use the few literary devices I know. I'm a sucker for flowery language and urban slang. One of my latest passions in the area of gaming is photography. I try and upload/take as many photo's I can from our sessions. Right now quality is kinda low, but I am trying to make improvements in areas I can control, such as framing the photo's better and capturing interesting images where I can. If I thought I could adequately "get out" everything I'd need to in a photo blog, I would. But sadly I have more to say. haha. I actively am trying to show restraint when it comes to emoticons... there still aren't many better ways to express yourself smiling, but I try. :0)

    So what am I gonna try and do with this? Well for starters I am going to keep the format pretty loose. I'd like to have photo posts, reviews, general impressions and just ramblings on gaming culture. I may or may not include links to outside articles... I haven't quite decided. I was going to try and stockpile a collection of posts to start this whole thing rolling, but that never really worked. I'll probably post the couple of blogs I've written on BGG so I'll have everything in the same place. One of the problems I've had with BGG with concern to writing is that it builds in a writer's block for me. It seems that there are far too many well written reviews on there for me to want to clog up the site with more reviews of games where I've missed the "hotness" threshold. User interest on the site is so fluid and for every decent article there are 20 that are terrible, or the very least, don't contain information that I want to see. Another stumbling point I've found is in talking from the perspective of authority. I am still wet behind the ears in this hobby. I have only played 4 years worth of games in 2, not 20 years worth of games in 8 years like most of the respected pundits present on the intrawebz. It always seems like a struggle for perspective when it comes to reviews. For example, up until a few weeks ago I hadn't played a single game in the Wallace "Steam series". This alone cause me not to want to write reviews. I gradually am getting over the realization that I am not going to be able to play every game prior to my evaluations. This is tough for me to deal with, but like it or not, I make my valuations right now anyways, just in private. I think they're still valuable although maybe a little naive... maybe you will too...

    Thanks for your interest!

    Tony Bosca
    BGG = blakstar