Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Too Much Stuff

This post is probably both exactly what you think it is and not what you think it is.

If you think I meant that I have too many games, well... it is true (and I have committed to trying to reduce the collection size this year) that's not quite what I was shooting for here today. No, this is about expansions. I get why they are popular with the game companies - they have a dedicated consumer base already, are cheaper to produce (and they almost have to have a higher ROI or we wouldn't see so many), have artwork already in place (yes, new cards and such need new artwork, but things like card backs are already done) and maybe require a lot less development work to get out the door.

For us gamers, they are great too - they can expand existing game worlds (Arkham/Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness, Descent, Combat Commander, Memoir 44), add needed diversity (Smash Up!, PitchCar, Ticket To Ride, Power Grid, Kingdom Builder), new mechanics (Aquaretto, Eldritch Horror (again), Viticulture, Fresco, Carcassonne, Alhambra), additional player counts (sometimes reduced player counts if the game didn't support 2-player or solo when it was released), expanded libraries to keep the game fresh (every CCG and LCG), etc etc.

But I'm not here to talk about a Power Grid or Age of Steam maps. Nor the next NetRunner or Game of Thrones LCG set (though those may fall in this realm of discussion I guess). No, I'm going to talk about - when is enough, enough? How many Smash Up decks do I really need? If Epic taught me anything, its that a well designed game can offer a huge amount of enjoyment without needing a bazillion expansions. But that isn't necessarily a good enough argument against the expansion craze. I think Eldritch Horror is a wonderfully designed game (better in every way than Arkham Horror), but if you only ever got the base game, I think your enjoyment of the game would go down after not so many plays. Why? Because at its heart, Eldritch Horror is something of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book and if you remember those, you could only read one a few times before you landed on the same stories over and over again - that's why there were a bazillion of those written. The same basic problem exists for EH as well. Once you mix in a couple of expansions, the card mix is high enough that the repeat stories will still happen, just not anywhere near as frequently as without the expansions.

And here is where we start to have problems. Storage. You knew that was where I was going with this right? Currently there are three big box (same box size as the original) expansions and four small box expansions for Eldritch Horror. That is somewhere in the realm of 200-250 full sized cards per large expansion (plus 100-150 small cards) and 100-150 full (plus 50-100 small) sized cards per small expansion. Now, I don't have the last big nor small box expansions, and this is what my collection of this game looks like:

That right there is a wooden artists case with a Broken Token card organizer. That is not all the cards. I have one of the small expansion boxes with a 3d printed rack that has a subset of the small cards. I suspect that if I got the two expansions I don't have, I'd pretty much fill this box and have to move the non-card things to another box. So what do you do if you are normal Joe Consumer and don't want to also buy a box and organizer? Spread out your collection over all the expansion boxes? That sucks and makes setup/pickup painful. It is doable, but this game is mostly cards, so that works ok I guess. What if you are a fan of other FFG games? (and FFG is not the only perpetrator here, but there are in my collection) - like say Descent 2nd edition? Aside from the base game, I own:

  • 12 Lieutenant Packs
  • 2 Big Box expansions
  • 4 Small Box expansions
  • 2 Co-op expansions
  • 4 Hero and Monster sets
That doesn't even come close to fitting well in the boxes the game came in. Here is what it looks like for me so far:

Map pieces sorted by number to make building maps faster
More map stuff from an expansion 
Quest books and a lot of cards from expansions
Under the lid of my tackle box - lots of card boxes and rules
The Plano trays and a foam tray for all the monsters and heroes
Did I mention there are still like 5 Hero and Monster sets, another small box expansion and numerous lieutenant expansions I don't have? Where the heck are you supposed to put all this stuff? Would it fit in all the original boxes? Probably, but it'd be a huge pain to try and sort through every box to try and play the game. Come on already FFG, give us some way to store all of this. I'm sure Imperial Assault players feel exactly the same way. Having to keep all the boxes is a pain - having to use them all even worse. I'm not sure where having to come up with a custom solution fits. 

For the record, the only thing on my radar for Descent is the newest small box expansion. Maybe the lieutenants (eventually, if I work through the campaigns that far). If you didn't notice, I like to paint the figures, so I have about three years of work left to do in those pictures - I don't need any more (also, if you want to check out the pictures of the painted work, there is a link on the right of the page to my Geeklist of the paint work I've done already). Currently, I still have to paint 22 monster sets and about 15 more heroes. Oh and half dozen lieutenants. PLENTY.

Seriously, it'd be nice if FFG (or someone) would make a nice coffin box with custom dividers that could hold this monster. Queen games is the king (or queen) of making a coffin box for their games and packing everything into them. Kingdom Builder, Alhambra, Carcassonne, Fresco, Escape!, Shogun, etc - more companies should look into this sort of thing.

So how much is enough? For me it is starting to look like: when I've run out of space. I have a HUGE variety of stuff for Descent. If I only played The Delve (random dungeons in the Road to Legend app), I'd have more than enough variety. Same thing for Eldritch Horror. While I love the expanding story, I'd really have to play the hell out of the game to start knowing all the cards at this point. So maybe I've reached the point of enough. Maybe I just need to play this stuff some more so I can justify buying more and finding yet another solution to my storage nightmare (speaking of - have I told you about all the tote bins and Plano boxes I have in my garage with my Heroscape collection...)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Catan (The Artist Formerly Known as Settlers)

In Catan (formerly The Settlers of Catan), players try to be the dominant force on the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. On each turn dice are rolled to determine what resources the island produces. Players collect these resources—wood, grain, brick, sheep, or stone—to build up their civilizations to get to 10 victory points and win the game.

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound all that interesting, but I guess the intro writeup paragraph on BGG doesn’t have to try and sell you on the game - most people have probably heard of (if not actually played) Settlers of Catan (now called Catan, which is super odd given that everyone I know calls the game “Settlers”). Catan came out over 20 years ago and is still popular and selling well (along with 10 kazillion expansions). This game is often considered THE Gateway game, and for some longtime gamers, it probably was their intro into the world of Euro style games (though the randomness of the dice and cards makes it very Ameritrashy). 

The basic play of the game is simple. The board is setup with random placement of land (each land type generates on of the five basic goods, except for a single “dead” tile) and random placement of a number on each space (again, except for the dead tile). Players take turn setting up their initial settlements and roads and then begin. Each turn players roll the dice and whatever location(s) that match that number generate a good for each settlement touching that location. The player whose turn it is can then spend their goods and/or attempt to trade with other players. Then they pass the dice to other players. If a SEVEN is rolled, the player moves the Robber token to a location and then steals from a player whose settlement is touching that location. 

Players get points for building other settlements, upgrading their settlements, getting development cards (which have armies, structures worth VPs, or one time abilities), and for having the single longest road or army. First person to reach 10 points wins. 

The key proposition / mechanic of the game is bartering with your opponents for the goods you need to build out your network of settlements so that you don’t have to depend on your enemies for the goods you need to win the game. Of course, you are essentially gambling here - do I give up two wood for one sheep, since my wood has a 6 on it and 6 is likely to be rolled, giving me the replacement goods I’ll need shortly? So bargaining is about risk taking between the players.

So why am I writing about Catan at all? Again, the game has been around for over 20 years and most of anyone that reads this will have played it once or twice already. Well, because it was my most played game in February. You see, I have children (currently ages 13 and 11) and they love the game (though I always seem to beat them). My daughter especially likes the game. I took her along to a game day at a friend’s place a while back and he owns the 3D Collectors edition which she fell in love with. Now I wasn’t about to spend $700+ for Catan, but…

My employer bought a 3D printer a while back for his employees to play with. I spent a load of time downloading and printing out a complete 6-player (the 3D Collectors set is only 4 players) set for the game and then hand painting all the pieces. The pieces all have magnets in the bases so that the whole things holds together and frankly, it looks really cool. I gave this to my daughter for her birthday and we recently have been on a bender (4 whole games in the last month) of playing with this set. 

(yes I know there is a bad placement in there, I was just taking a picture)

So back to my kids and I playing. My kids have played a lot of games from my collection and so they didn’t need a gateway game like this, but the capriciousness of the dice really seems to tickle them. Last night, my son couldn’t stop laughing at how many 3s were getting rolled (which benefitted my daughter with sheep, but since that was the ONLY good type she was getting, made it really funny to my son). I used to feel that playing a bad game was just bad, but I’ve come to treasure the kids wanting to play any game with their old Dad, so I tolerate this game. It is certainly easy to see why this is a gateway game that appealed so well to Americans that grew up on Monopoly. There are dice (and the general non-gaming public seems to be confused about boardgames without dice so thumbs up here) and negotiations. There is certainly more depth to it than that, but this is not going to be mistaken for being in the same class Agricola, Power Grid or even Ticket to Ride to the hobbyist crowd. There is also nothing horrible about this game. If you have never played, give it a go with some non-gamers or your kids and you might find out why this has been around so long.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Should It Stay or Should It Go - Mystery Rummy

Game Thoughts

Like Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy, but not. Yeah, it has been a while since I last used this blog. I tend to go for a bit and then don't feel like I need to say anything (or I'm just lazy). At any rate, a buddy mentioned that maybe I should start this up again, so here we are again...

For a variety of reasons, I've been re-examining my collection and decided that maybe it was time to start thinning the heard. While I think my massive game collection looks super cool on the shelves and all, there are some problems. Namely - I'm running out of room. Also, I really don't need all these games. I play a small fraction of them and while I enjoy them, there are plenty I don't really need. So this year, I'm going to try and put some effort into seriously playing some titles and see if I can figure out what I really think about some of these games.

Mystery Rummy Series

The Mystery Rummy Family is a set of card games  by Mike Fitzgerald (occasionally with other contributors/designers) based on the classic Rummy game. The "standard" for play is along the lines of: 
  • Each player has a hand of cards and tries to play melds and layoffs (cards that match other players melds) to score points.
  • Typically there are two kinds of cards: the generic "set" cards and special cards. The special cards typically are limited to only a single card play by each player each turn. Specials might add to the value of specific sets, or let a player draw extra cards (or hunt through the discard pile). They might adversely affect an opponent. In some sense, these are the ones that make this more than standard Rummy games. 
That's it (in a nutshell). Draw, play and discard. Each game has its own twists and quirks which I'll explore in a second. First let me say - I have not played every one of the games in the "series" - there are a couple more out there. That being said, what I'm doing is exploring the games I own, so that is all I'll be speaking on in this post. 

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp was an early entry in the Alea Small Box series of games and is really a fun little game. When players play a meld (the set cards are famous old west outlaws), you increase the reward/bounty on the outlaw. At the end of the hand, if there are enough points played for an outlaw, then the collected reward is distributed for that outlaw. Depending on who contributed points (played cards), the reward may be split between players. Sometimes, the reward goes up, but the outlaw wasn't "captured" (because not enough points played for that outlaw), so the reward carries over to the next hand. The reward money is essentially your points for the game and the first player to a set amount wins. The special cards can increase payouts for an outlaw, block an outlaw from being eligible for capture, help you dig for cards, etc. 

I really like this game best with three players. Players are really fighting to split bounties and block players from a big cash payout. When played two-player, it is pretty easy for one player or the other to make out like a bandit and win the game quickly from one lucky run of cards. With four players, it drags on a little long.

Jack The Ripper

This is the first in the true Mystery Rummy series and one of my favorite in the family of games. It plays well with 2-4 players, though we like it the best of all the series for two players. It also feels like one of the more balanced games in the series. Their are good counters to playing certain cards and it leads to a little bit of holding cards and bluffing once players understand the game.

In this game, the set cards are suspects in your Jack the Ripper case. At the end of the hand, if a suspect has more evidence against them than any other suspect, they are declared the ripper and those cards played are doubled in value. There are special cards that make a suspect ineligible for the doubling of points and other special cards for victims. If all the victim cards are in play, then there is a special "Ripper Escapes" card that can be played immediately, which scores that player a whopping 35 points (1/3 of what is needed to win the game) and then only that card and the couple of points from the played victim cards count for the round. Of course, the victim cards are how the players draw additional cards, so there is a fair incentive to play them, but once you get closer to having them all in play, you want to be careful about the last one. My only complaint with this game? The cards might be the stiffest cards I have ever played with. They are really really hard to shuffle well.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

The second entry in the Mystery Rummy series is based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe. The set cards are clues or scenes from the story and are paired up for scoring purposes. Each time a set is played, a player chooses to bury a card from the draw pile or the top card of the discard pile. These buried cards will go to the player who manages to go out during the first pass through the deck of cards, thus encouraging players to try and play fast. What discourages a player from going out quickly is that the big point scores come from holding both set of the paired sets (having both is a bonus). There is also a card that scores decently if both sets are in play (regardless of who holds the sets). The buried card mechanic also makes it so that you can flush a card from a set that you know your opponent(s) are trying to get, thus stymie-ing them. 

While fun, this entry in the series suffers from a lack of special cards. The special cards mostly boil down to "draw" cards or the bonus cards mentioned before. This simplifies the game play a bit and makes it a hair less interesting. This is good with two or three players, but probably is best with three.

Jekyll and Hyde 

The third entry in the series is strictly a two-player affair. In this game the sets are split up with some being Jekyll sets and some being Hyde. One or two of the sets go either way. The trick is, you can only lay down a set matching the current "state". The state is defined by a two sided card (one being Jekyll and the other Hyde of course). The special cards mostly revolve around flipping the state back and forth (potion cards) which also gets you extra draw cards. For scoring, you score double for the sets matching the state when someone went out. If you can manage to only place sets of one type and it is the matching one, you shut out your opponent. 

But that's it. Which has (IMO) made this the least interesting version in the series. It is certainly the easiest for a new player to pick up, but honestly, the other games aren't really that hard to learn. Huge thumbs down on this one.

Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld

Al Capone varies the standard formula by having variable size sets. The sets are various underworld bad guys. The sets range from only 4 cards total to 8 or 9 for Al Capone himself. You get a bonus for collecting the whole set (with the larger sets worth more points). The special cards have a nice variety and some that let you steal cards that your opponent(s) have already laid out. This can lead to a bit of playing "chicken" and holding out your cards for a big layout (of course, if you don't play them, you can't score them, thus the game of chicken). There are also some "go fish" kind of cards to try and find those underworld bosses that your stupid opponent is holding onto. If you can manage to nab all the Capone cards, you shut out your opponent for the hand.

The forth in the series is interesting in that it is a really good partnership game. I've been told to avoid it with three players. With two, it is ok, but the play takes on an extra dimension when you are working with a partner. With two players, the game feels a lot more "standard" as it is hard to dig for all the cards in the set. With a partner, the big layout means giving the other team a chance to do the same AND match up on what you played AND possibly steal from you, but it also means your teammate can end up dropping their hand as well for a quick finish. Lots of good stuff going on that take the series to the next level. You are far more likely to hit the sets when you have another player feeding you (and you feeding them). 

Escape from Alcatraz 

Alcatraz probably varies from the standard formula a bit more than others in the series. The set cards fall into two types - plans and escapees. You can play no more than one escape to the table per turn. Unlike the other games, the deck is only the set cards. You can only play a meld if there are more escapees in play than there are currently melds in play. The special cards only come into play when you play a meld or layoff on an opponent's meld (and you can only get that once a turn). When you get an action card, you simply turn it over and follow the instructions (usually there are options for what you can do). The next big variation is that you do not score points for playing the melds and layoffs. Instead, you score by foiling these plans. Once there are at least 8 cards for a set in play, you can foil a plan by playing an escapee (from your hand or from the yard) with the cards you have in play under your "Foiled" card. Other players may do the same for their cards matching the set. When the round ends, you score only for the cards that you have under your foiled card. 

My problem with the game is that it really is pretty dull with two players. It is also frustrating in that you can only get to the action cards by playing a meld, which is predicated on there being an acceptable number of escapees in the yard already. Therefore, if you never draw an escapee, you can get yourself somewhat locked out of getting to play your melds. Basically, it feels like there is more chance and less control. All these games have chance (they are cards games), but when the control mechanism are minimized and the luck of the draw is higher, it takes away from the enjoyment of the game. Though it probably doesn't sound like it from my description of the gameplay, the game's theme and what you are doing actually do go along fairly well. It just isn't that entertaining to actually play it. I've played it with two and with 4 players, and in both cases, it felt like three was probably the correct number here. I want to give this a couple more tries (something I never feel towards Jekyll and Hyde), but thus far haven't been terribly impressed with this attempt at something new to the series.