Monday, April 24, 2017

What Did I Play This Week - April 17-23

Things have been busy around my place this past week - we are moving on the first of May, so a lot of this past weekend (week) have been around getting things done around the house. Despite that, I got a couple games played.

7 Wonders Duel
I introduced this little 2-player game to my daughter, who was slightly confused at first (I don't think I explained it well), but she understood it quickly enough once we got going. In fact, she was kicking my butt in the military track and I was a bit worried that I was going to lose because of it. Then in the third age, I managed to get up to 5 different science types. There wasn't a 6th type out, BUT, I snagged a dupe and got the reward (scales of justice) that acts as a 6th type and won the game just before my daughter would have been able to get a military card that would have given her the win. She was a little distraught (she comes so close to beating me in games, but always is just short and it frustrates her to no end). I think this is a game that will become more and more brutal the more familiar you become with it. Also of note - I 3D printed a set of racks to hold the card layout and I have to say that it is a must have addition to the game. It keeps the cards in place - something I hate about the layout otherwise. Keep an eye out here - I plan to do a giveaway for this soon!

After writing about this game recently I was inspired to play this. I invited some of my online buddies and then Alyson asked me to play a head-to-head match. I think that electronically, I prefer head-to-head over multiplayer (the games are just too long waiting for 3 other players to go). At any rate, we played with most of the expansions - Traders & Builders, Princess & Dragon, Inns & Cathedrals, and the Phantom. Alyson tends to dislike the Princess & Dragon because she says I'm a jerk with them. Fair point, but that is kind of the point. She also let me have the fairy for about 30 uncontested turns, which probably didn't help her any. She did win every single goods majority (and in fact, I think I only managed a weak 3 total goods), but I had nailed down the crazy large field (with my pig) and scored something like 80 points on that at the end of the game. I think we don't play this too often because the high jerk factor isn't good for our relationship, but I do enjoy the game from time to time.

My daughter also asked to play this game, but rather than getting it off the shelf, I pulled out my iPad and we played a pass-and-play game. It is just faster and less fiddly in electronic form. I ended up picking up way too many big pieces and had lots of areas that were hard to fill in, but ended the game with a not horrible quilt and a ton of buttons from passing so much. Normally not a great way to win, but my daughter had made some odd choices and was just behind me in score at the end of the game.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cult of the NOT So New April 2007

BGG user JonMichael Rasmus (jmsr525) has been doing analysis of the games and their trends each month for, well what seems like forever. I thought it might be interesting to look back at what was so hot 10 years ago, so sit back and enjoy this blast from the past. Based on information in the geeklist - BGG Top 100 Analysis April 2007.

Prime Mover - Blood Bowl: Living Rule Book
In April 2007, this moved up 12 spots to #64. Not bad for a "game" published in 2004. This stuck around the Top 100 for a while (I recall seeing it in many a March Madness bracket over the years). I myself never played, though it did sound like fun, right up to the point where there was a big rulebook and it was a Games Workshop thing where you had to paint a team (little did I know that I'd be consumed with painting years later).

Still a thing? Ten years later, this has fallen to #154 on the charts. In 2016 a new revision was released, but it hasn't even come close to the reception of the previous. I'm not sure if that is because the new version hasn't been well received, or its just one of those things where the earlier version happened in the right time and place, and the new one has a lot more competition for gamer's attention. Sometimes a classic is a classic for a reason.

Falling Star - Leonardo da Vinci 
Leonardo da Vinci fell 16 places to #83. Knowing not much about it, I read that Leonardo da Vinci is a worker placement game with an interesting bidding mechanism (well, maybe 10 years ago it was, who knows...). I scanned the reviews and it seems to have been your basic worker placement with a thin theme and average art. I suspect it got a little buzz on release and then began its drop.

Still a thing? Leonardo da Vinci continued to fall, and today sits at #848

Hot Lava Birth for April 2007 - Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization #97
Crap. That's what I think about this game - it is crap. It isn't what I originally thought, oh no. Through the Ages is really the boardgame version of Civ (the computer game we all loved back in the day) - even though they came out with an actual licensed version of Civ as a boardgame, Through the Ages was the one that was just like playing the electronic game on the table. I remember when this game came out. Despite how "great" it was, the original printing had issues - the original board was really bad - scoring track all screwed up or some such, warped cards, etc. And yet this was still very popular because, well, CIV!  Frankly (and I appear to be in the minority about this), the game feels pretty flawed. I'm sorry, but Military is too important, you can get hosed by the order of the cards coming out - woe to the player that can't get any military without just hosing themselves up. People have said that they have never seen it. I've seen it a number of times. The game also promotes bashing the loser (which is horribly unfun for them). I get it - it isn't very thematic to bash the leader, you naturally bash the little guy and steal his ice cream - you avoid the big bad bully. But in terms of game balance, it doesn't work. I refuse to try the newest incarnation as nobody has convinced me this has been fixed. I loved my first couple playings, but a lot of plays revealed these nasty warts and it was just too long a game to play with those flaws.

Still a thing? Yeah! Just recently it was redone - despite this version sitting at #16! If you only play this once or twice a year, I could understand why you'd rate it really highly, but a long civilization game that requires you to pursue a heavy amount of on strategy feels broken to me.

Top Ten Trends for April 2007
Nothing earth shaking. Twilight Struggle and Princes of Florence swapped places with TS moving up to #7 and Princes of Florence moving down to #8.

Still a thing? Twilight Struggle has continued its climb and today sits at #3. Princes of Florence  not so much. Princes of Florence fell all the way back to #93. My best guess is that Princes of Florence (like a lot of stuff around this time) quickly outgrew its freshness. It is also an auction game, and that mechanism seemed to haven fallen out of favor with gamers.

Top 5 Winning Movers for April 2007
(These are the highest ranked games that have shown any positive position movement [up the charts] that aren't in the BGG top 10.) 
* Shogun (Fourth Month!)
* Paths of Glory
* Taj Mahal (Second Month!)
* Samurai
* Hammer of the Scots

Shogun had re-done the hard-to-get (at the time) Wallenstein, so no surprise here. The new version was well done and just as fun. Some prefer the original map, but I think this was a minor quibble - I actually like the Shogun map. If you haven't played either, the cube tower is brilliant (the same one that was re-used in Amerigo, but it was used better here). This is still a good game (it and Wally are both pretty similar, just set in different locales) and both are fairly available. I also like the expansion for Shogun.

Paths of Glory is a CDG set in WWI and though I've not played it, I believe it is still highly regarded.

Taj Mahal is a Knizia game that was released as part of Alea's Large Box Series. Not unlike a number of his games from this era, it was a little odd and had tight underlying math. It might have been more popular except the print runs were small - Rio Grand Games had options for the Alea games back then, and didn't exercise them on all of the games in the set - much to a lot of collector's chagrin. I believe they did a small print run here if only because of the Knizia name. This was number three in the series (I believe RGG had skipped #2 - Chinatown), so it was still early enough that I don't think they understood that people were going to collect these. Regardless, the game is abstract in that classic Knizia way, so you really have to be a fan to love this one. I played this a handful of times and just never loved it.

But speaking of loving a Knizia game - Samurai was also a mover. Here was a game released in 1998 moving up the charts almost ten years later! I'm not sure if MaBiWeb's online implementation had anything to do with it, but I love this game so I'm happy to get to mention it. This was recently redone by FFG. As far as I know, nothing about the rules have changed, FFG just gave it a facelift - I still like the original's look myself. The game isn't perfect - in that there doesn't seem to be a way to handicap the game so that a less experienced player doesn't throw the game off, but otherwise, I think it is one of Knizia's best. Currently this sits around #148 on the BGG rankings. Not bad for a 20 year old game. Definitely a classic.

Lastly is Hammer of the Scots. Block wargames seemed like they were more commonplace 10 years ago, and though I hadn't played this, I believe it to be one of the more accessible block wargames. Maybe they've been coming out at the same pace, there are just more non-wargames taking up shelf space at the stores due to their appeal over wargames to the general public. Hammer still sits at a respectable #246, so it must have done something right.

So that's a look back 10 years to April 2007. I still have Shogun (and the expansion), Twilight Struggle (for a little bit - I somewhat prefer the app over the table version), Samurai, and Princes of Florence (only because I can't seem to trade or sell it) on my shelves. I'd don't see myself getting Hammer of the Scots nor Paths of Glory played, so they won't be joining my shelves.

I'm going to try and make this a regular monthly feature going forward - it is interesting to see what was SOOOO interesting that has all but disappeared, but it is also fun talking about games that a lot of folks that are newer to the hobby know nothing about. Cult of the New doesn't have to mean - it came out yesterday. New to you is new. Period.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Games That Are Better With Expansions

I saw a question in a boardgame group about which games NEED expansions. After a little bit of thought, I came up with five that I think really need expansions to fix something that I perceive as a flaw in the base game by itself. But before I begin, let me say this. There are a lot of games that have expansions - anymore, it seems rare that a game doesn't. Sometimes, the game was designed that way and to keep costs down, features were left out on purpose to be sold later as an expansion. Sometimes an expansion is just that - an expansion of existing game stuff. Maps for Power Grid or Age of Steam, cards for Dominion and Thunderstone, different house cards for A Game of Thrones: The Boardgame, Kingdom Builder, Descent and Eldritch Horror expansions - these kinds of things are truly expansions that add new variations to existing play, with only minor alterations to the game. What I'm about to talk about isn't that. Rather, this is a few games that I think are just ok out of the box, but shine when you add an expansion (or three) that alter the game significantly.

This is a pretty simple game. Layout some track, place your disk on the track, and take turns flicking your disks around the track in a race to complete the course the fastest. Out of the box, the base game has a lot of track pieces and you can create a lot of different courses. So why is this on the list at all? An argument (a good argument) can be made that the game is fine out of the box. What do you get out of the expansions? The biggest thing that you get from the expansions are ramps and jumps. Secondly, the expansions also give you some different angles and the ability to create cross-overs. A couple minor obstacles like this really take Pitchcar from a fun race game to one where skill and shot selection REALLY matter. I don't think all the expansions are equally good and depending on your enthusiasm for the game, you can skip some that really amp up the game, but having lots of sets lets you create some really interesting tracks and features.

Lords of Waterdeep
First let me say that I think LoW is a fine worker placement game and I personally think the theme works ok. In fact, out of the box, this game is fine - it doesn't feel broken (except for maybe the guy that gets points for making buildings at the end of the game). It does feel a bit repetitive and limited in choices after a few plays though. Add in the expansion and suddenly this goes from a "not bad" game to a really good one. Why? The additional options that you now have. And not just new actions, but really powerful actions that are balanced by taking corruption counters. The more you have, the worse it will be for you at the end of the game. The more corrupt everyone is, the worse it is for everyone. It really feels like the expansion open up the game while adding only a slight bit of complexity. The additional quests and intrigue cards are nice too, but it is the other boards that really make this game shine.

This is a nice little game. I don't enjoy it with more than three players, because it feels really random - everything changes A LOT between your turns when there are more than a couple other players (I'd never play this with 5 or 6 players). Now lets jump to the Big Box version of Alhambra, which gives you all the expansions packed up in one set. Each expansion is really just a set of tiny expansions (so like 15-ish). A while back I ended up getting the Big Box in a math trade and we started playing through the expansions. Basically, we'd add two or three and then keep the ones we really liked for the next game. After a while, we found that there were a set that we really liked and always had to have. Some were less important when combined with other expansions, but some were "won't play without" kind of things. In the end, I think what I've found is that I like Alhambra more than I thought, but only with certain additions to the game. I'd certainly be willing to play with 4 or 5 players now as I think some of the expansions fix the flaws of the game at higher player counts. For those familiar with the game, I like: Vizier, Currency Exchange, City Gates, Change, and Thieves. I can take it or leave it on a few others - Diamonds, Characters, and Traveling Merchant. I've only played through 3 of the sets, so there might be more or those combos might change things. At any rate, if you have just played the base Alhambra and found it lacking, you might want to play again out of the Big Box. It doesn't make this a top ten game, but it does move it up a fair bit.

Ok, there are something like ten million expansions and variations on this game. Does that mean that it is somehow broken as just the original base game? Not really. It is a good little game and decent gateway game. Plus people like seeing the map they've created at the end of the game. So what is wrong with Carcassonne out of the box? Well, with just the base game, games not only get stale fairly quickly, with good players, the game gets mean. There is a whole lot of playing pieces just to screw someone. When you are only playing with two players, that's not horrible. When you are playing a four-player game and all your guys have been stranded, it becomes really un-fun. Here is where some of the expansions can help out. Your guys are stuck? The Dragon (from the Princess and the Dragon) can help you get your meeples back. If you think this is just another "jerk move" expanion, you aren't using it to its full potential. Traders (from Traders and Builders) incentivizes you to complete cities (whether you are there or not) in order to get the goods and score points in the end of the game (it also kind of helps keep MEGACASTLES from being too much of a thing). Inns and Cathedrals makes roads a better scoring option and the double meeple changes the ownership dynamic. The Phantom may seem like a gimmick (a cool looking little gimmick), but having the abilty to play two meeples makes your placement choices different. Bridges help you play tiles in places you couldn't before. And while it is true that adding all that in makes for a LOT of tiles, I think that's ok, because they fix the things that I don't like about the game. Plus, if you are playing with the Builder, players are likely going to try to get two tiles played each turn.

I have mentioned Viticulture a number of times in my other posts, I really like this game and it is a Top 10 for me - but only with the inclusion of things from the Tuscany expansion. Of course, I have a different perspective from that of a lot of folks that have tried this game because I was one of the original backers of the game on its first kickstarter and on the Collectors Edition Kickstarter. I suspect a lot of people that have played this game have only been exposed to the Essential Edition. So I'm going to start at the begining.

I first heard about Viticulture and backed it on Kickstarter, because I enjoy wine and wanted a game to fit the theme. It sounded decent enough, even though I knew nothing about the designers. Right before the game was actually shipped out, I got a chance to play it for the first time at the Geekway game convention and was actually taught by the designer - Jamey Stegmaier. What I found was a really fun and thematic game - exactly what I wanted! I was delighted. Then I played it 3-4 times more and was a little disenchanted. There were flaws. The games all felt the same out the gate: everyone rushed to get vineyard cards (and man could you get hosed by bad draws) and everyone rushed to get an extra worker. There was also a rush to build structures, so that you could plant your vineyard cards that required structures. In the original game, there was no big worker (and even in the first iteration of the big worker, it worked differently than it does now) and so you had to sacrifice to get early in the turn order so that you could get the actions you wanted early. Also, everyone was really building the same engine, which meant that getting lucky in the visitor cards draws made a lot of difference in how your engine performed and how you scored points.

Fast forward to the release of the Complete Collector's Edition. Here, they cleaned up some of the rules and Grande Workers were now part of the base game (and now the Grande Worker was a guy that could take an action on a place that was already full). In the CCE, they introduced the Tuscany expansion box, which was PACKED full of goodness. Like Alhambra or Carcassone Big Boxes, there are a ton of little things that can be added that take the game to a whole different level.

First off, they introduced variable setups. Players get a Momma and a Poppa card and each indicates what workers, cards, and money a player starts with in the game. One card offers the player a choice of a free structure or money. The structure is nice, because not only are you saving money, but the action required to build it, but it may be something that doesn't really impact your game for a while (or does it?). At any rate, the variable setup and a worker that could go anywhere helps to alleviate a lot of the problems I mentioned - the start of each game is no longer the same.

The other expansions in Tuscany really helped opened up the game in terms of what players can do to score points. No longer is everyone building the same engine and taking all the same actions. The added visitor cards seemed to actually help level out the cards in terms of usefulness. The only drawback to all the various ways to score points that I've found is that I often can play the game without even making wine, since that is only one of a handful of ways to score points. Like Alhambra, not all the expansions matter, but I wouldn't play the original game without some of them. Apparently the designers felt the same, because they released their "Essential Edition" of Viticulture that had a handful of expansions from Tuscany.

Monday, April 17, 2017

What Did I Play This Week - April 10-16

Happy Monday! No "Case of the Mondays" here (so far). Just a quick look at WDIPTW

Last week Alyson and I got in a couple of games of Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper. This is easily our favorite of the series (though we don't play with the vote, as I've always found it cumbersome). I did some counting and we are pretty much dead even in our playings, splitting the wins. We played two games of this with my winning the first 117-110 and Alyson winning the second game 110-104. She went first in both games (which I only just started to track out of random curiosity to see if it makes a darn bit of difference). The first game, she started out with a Ripper Escapes! and had a big lead (39-2), but I kept getting big doubled melds and pulled off the upset. In the second game, she came from behind and in the last hand scored a ridiculous number of points to leap past me for the win (oddly with the same score both games).

Over the weekend, I decided that I should break out Quarriors! for my "Play It!" monthly challenge (the idea being I play something in my collection at least five times to decide whether or not it should stay or go). Quarriors! (of which I have the base game and three of the expansions) is a deck-builder (but with dice not cards). Players buy from a common pool of available dice and use the result to summon a die, or buy a new die. If summoned, the die or dice are creatures that attack the other players. Then the other players take their turns and try and do the same to you. If your dice survive, they are sent back to the main market to become available for everyone and they score for you. The first player to reach a set number of points wins. Now, the game isn't special per-se, but there are a lot of special dice and it plays pretty quickly. Each game gets seven different creature dice and three spell dice available. In head-to-head play (like my son and I do), the reality is that we usually only buy 2-3 of the creature types and maybe one spell. Not a lot of thought has to go into it - the costly dice are typically much much better than the cheaper ones. And there is usually one medium priced one that is obviously better. At any rate, I won our first best of three match 2-1 and my son swept me in the second 2-0. I'm not making any decisions on this yet (even though I hit five games). I want to revisit WizKids s Avengers vs X-Men, which I felt had a similar flavor, but I kind of liked better. Quarriors! is simpler in that setup is just random, but I don't think I need to keep both.

Lastly, Alyson and I finished the weekend with a playing of Viticulture. I have the Complete Collectors Edition, which is one of my Top 10 games. I won* (there was slight confusion in the early part of the game from Alyson's setup we both thought she started with a medium cellar, but it was supposed to be a cottage, so she missed out on a few extra cards before we realized the mistake and thus the asterisk). We played with a lot of expansions - Mammas and Poppas (a must for variable setup), Properties (I like it because it gives you a way to get early money and I think evens the early game out a bit and speeds things up), Advanced Visitors and New Visitors (we always have all the visitor cards mixed in thus they are always in play. The extra visitor cards help to make more powerful cards more available to all players and feels more balanced to me), Extended Board (I can see why people might think this overwhelming, but I really think all the extra options open up the game and keep everyone from doing the same thing every game - lots of options and lots of ways to score points), Special Workers (I don't think these change the game dramatically, but they keep it interesting by giving players an extra option or two), and Structures (I can go either way on these. My biggest complaint of the original base game by itself was card draw luck for vineyards - you could get really lucky or hosed. Same thing now happens with Structures, some are really good and others are just ok).

We had the mafia special worker (he lets you take a non-bonus action twice), so I was able to use him on the yoke to harvest two different fields to get 3 grapes each round without any interference. I got pretty lucky with a structure that let me get three points for two grapes whenever I played a blue or yellow card (once a round) - I only had to make a couple of wines and fulfill two orders coupled with turning in a bunch of grapes to hit 25 points. While I like this game a lot, it is a little funny - I've found with all the expansions, I rarely actually make wine. For me, it feels like it takes too much time to build up my cellars, harvest grapes, make a bunch of wine, and find the right orders to score enough points. I've played this a lot two-players, so my view might be skewed slightly, but I know that once we throw in Arboriculture and/or Frommagio, my wine making days might be over. It doesn't make the game bad, it is just ironic.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lesser Known Gems

Inspired by a post on The Cardboard Hoard, I'd like to present my "hidden gems" - 9 games I think are pretty dang good, even if the BGG group-think has at least 1000 games ranked ahead of them (i.e. these are not in BGG's top 1000). But first, honorable mentions to a couple of games I'm leaving out because in my head, they are top 1000 games. Cthulhu Realms, Keltis, Priests of Ra. Cthulhu Realms is basically a re-theme of Star Realms. It is and it isn't, but it is close enough. Keltis was redone as Lost Cities: The Boardgame, which is really the same game but better themed, and LC:TB sits in the top 1000. Priests of Ra was a re-working of Ra. If you have read my earlier posts, I mention that I think PoR is the better version, but it never really had the print run that the earlier game did. Both are great and very similar. I'm pretty sure PoR is just not well enough known.

I feel like a fair number of these choices ARE known, just not liked as much as I care for them, but nonetheless, here we go. I'm listing them not in the order I rank them, but rather their "BGG natural ranking order".

America Rails
This should not be a surprise if you read my blog. I think this is an outstanding stock game that surpassed its inspiration (Chicago Express) in every way. It sits just outside my top 25. It isn't an easy to find game - very limited print runs make it an obscure title. That being said, if you liked Chicago Express in anyway, you owe it to yourself to go find a copy and play this. Understanding the rules and teaching the game is a simple and straightforward affair, but as with a lot of stock/train games, understanding the systems and how to manipulate them and your opponents is where this game shines.

Edel, Stein & Reich
This is/was part of the Alea Small Box line (#4) and I don't believe I ever saw an English printing (unless you count Basari, which is a remake that is slightly different). There are a couple of events that have foreign text, but a cheat sheet will get you through the handful of them. This is a game that is best with exactly 4-players and here's why - each round, you select one of the three actions you can take. Each player selects an action and all players reveal them at the same time. If you are the only player who took a particular action, you get to carry it out. Otherwise, you have to bargain with the other players who selected the same as you, because at most, one player gets to take each of the actions in a round. With 4-players, at least two players are bargaining. Can you figure out what the best action to take is? Is it worth taking an action that isn't desirable to the other players so you get something without having to negotiate? Do you take the obvious choice because other players figure everyone will pick it?

Frank's Zoo
How is this not in the top 1000? This is a great family card game - it is a ladder game (like trick taking, but it goes around and around until everyone passes). The goals are to go out as early as possible and to take tricks with certain cards. This card game uses cards with animals on them and the cards show which other animals they are afraid of. It really is a clever game and I was surprised to see it ranked so poorly. I've found this plays well with any number. It plays from 3-7 players, though 5 might be the sweet spot. Go get this game.

Don't take my word for this one. Have you played Tiny Epic Something? This is from the same guy. If this had been marketed as Tiny Epic Eurogame, this would have been in the top 100 at BGG. This is a fairly recent game, but I think gets overlooked because of the package size and generic name. The next time you hear people bitching about large boxes / wasted shelf space, point at this game and see if they have heard of it or played it. When they say no, you can say this is why publishers use big boxes of air to market their games. This is a worker placement / engine game with a dynamic market mechanism. Each time a player purchases a building, the value of the resources they used drops, while the value of the other resources rise. There is a lot of clever game in this small box and the setup ensures a varied experience.

Code 777
This is a deduction game, so I understand why it is outside the top 1000. Deduction/logic games are not everyone's cup of tea. There have been a couple good releases in the last couple years and this is an older one, so I can see why it might have been overlooked. This one is pretty good - on your turn, you read a card that has a question (How many racks have a total greater than 12?). The answer helps you figure out your tiles, which you cannot see, but everyone else can. You in turn can see everyone else's. If you like deduction games, try this. If you hate them, you can skip this as you will want to poke your brain out.

Not Tiny Epic Something, but another pretty recent game that is really good and I don't know why it isn't higher. This came from the same guys that gave us Star Realms. It is a deckbuilder game (either play by drafting, or dealing random decks or build your own) - heck you could almost call it an LCG, except that unlike FFGs model of releasing chapter packs, you are pretty much ready to go with the game as is. Yes, there are expansions, but nothing like a FFG LCG. As far as playing it goes - unlike a lot of CCGs, you can pretty much play any card from your hand right out the gate, so there is no build up, you just start kicking butt. It is really well balanced, interesting and deep. Magic players should really enjoy this game, and those that like the idea of Magic, but don't have the time, money or resources to deck build - this is your game! And it is a mere $15 for a base set of cards, which is all you need to start playing. This is the game you pull out on game night with a group that likes CCGs but doesn't want to spend time deck tuning. My son and I really like this and draft 30 card decks and play. We love that we can try different things and it is still exciting game after game.

Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft
This arrived in 2015 without much fanfare, which is too bad. Its a clever little two player game that isn't too long, yet gives you some interesting choices. I'm guessing it has been fairly unnoticed because it was from a small publisher. I know there are a fair number of people that only play two-player games and are always looking for something. Look no further. Or look, because it isn't well distributed. It was on the BGG store for a bit and I found it on Amazon in limited quantities.

This falls in the same genre as To Court the King - it is a dice game, where you gain abilities that give you access to more dice. Unlike the purer TCtK form, this uses special dice and there are a couple different ways to score points for the victory (TCtK is a "best roll at the end wins" instead of most points wins). Multiple ways to score points makes this a better game in my book, but to each their own. This is also slightly longer than TCtK and takes up about 8x more shelf space :). More Euro-gamey than the "advanced Yahtzee", it is still a dice game at its core.

Neue Heimat
This is an auction game. A wonderfully beauty of a knife fight in a phone booth. It has a closed economy, so is pretty unforgiving. It won't be everyone's kind of game, but I loved it. You really have to like this sort of thing. It is/was a low run import (from Europe). Find a copy and three other players with somewhat thick skins. This one is really different than a lot of games I've tried so it is hard to describe beyond what I said about it in generic terms. If you don't like auction games, or hold a grudge, move along.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Geekway Memories

For the first time in 9 years, I am not going to be going to St. Louis for the Geekway to the West gaming convention. Let me be clear - it is not because of anything the Geekway has done or become - sometimes life is just messy or busy and this is one of those times. As the Geekway 2017 approaches and I watch the Geeklists appear on BGG, and the emails float around from my friends, I started thinking back on what I love about this gaming convention and I thought I'd share why I have come to love this event and what I'll miss the most.

In 2007, while living in Omaha Nebraska, I met Chester Ogborn. Sort of. I met Chester online playing Samurai on MaBiWeb. Chester had grown up in Omaha and after playing some intense games with him online in the Samurai tourney, I added him to my Geekbuddy list and we exchanged messages on occassion. At the end of 2007, I participated in one of the early BGG Secret Santa events. My Secret Santa was none other than Mr. Jay Moore of St. Louis. Jay and Chester knew each other and gamed together in St. Louis and Chester helped Jay to taunt with me riddles as I tried to assertain Jay's identity. All of that backstory is important only because in the Spring of 2008, Jay and Chester both encouraged me to come to St. Louis for the Geekway - a local 3-day convention being held at a community center. I had never been to a convention before, but this sounded pretty cool, so I convinced a couple of my local(ish) friends (Justin and Jason Easley, whom I had met in Omaha) to attend with me. And thus started a string of 8 years of attending the Geekway.

The Geekway was started as a weekend event in Jay Little's basement and has grown from the small handful of attendees to one of the premier gaming conventions, drawing thousands for "Four days of peace, love, and gaming". Though I wasn't one of the original attendees, Chester and Jay Moore were and the welcoming attitude I always have felt has made it feel a lot like I've been there the whole time.

Gaming with Jay Little, Jason Easley and Justin Easley at Geekway 2008
2008 - My First Geekway
Lots of interesting (or not) trivia bits. This was the first Geekway to be held at the Maryland Heights Community Center. I found a hotel about half a mile away and found rides from Geekway strangers to and from the airport.

To the best of my knowledge this was the first time a Play-To-Win table existed (conceptually).

There were only a couple hundred people at this particular event. Jay Little (the founder of the Geekway) ran a cart around the room offering people cookies and mini-muffins (IIRC, there was a fridge of soda you could buy drinks from). In many ways, he still felt like he was hosting an event and went out of his way to try and make all the new faces welcome.

Because this was a community center, I think the doors opened at 8AM and shut at 10PM. This was also only a 3-day event (Fri-Sun). On Saturday, there was a tornado warning and I don't think anyone in the building was told - I only happened to see it on the TV in the lobby because I was in the middle of selling my home and needed to receive and send a fax. The library was built out from (mostly) Jay Moore and Chris Darden's personal libraries. At one point we were going to play Age of Steam, but Jay had misplaced the track tiles. I donated a game (in secret) before I left - I did this for a couple years running, leaving some crap game that someone had to toss out or absorb into their collection.

This was the Geekway where I met Jay Moore and Chester Ogborn in person after "knowing" them as Geekbuddies on BGG. I also met and or gamed with Jay Little, Chris Darden, Matt Dimmic, Chad Krizen, Timothy Hunt, Katie Philbrick, Justin Heimberger, and a couple of other folks for the first time. This cast of characters became the foundation of folks that I'd look forward to seeing every year. I believe I won one play-to-win game (Manilla, which I hated and gave to Justin in trade for Medici which I love).

After the Geekway, Jay Little moved to Minnesota to go work for Fantasy Flight Games. He had pretty much already turned over the running of the Geekway to Jay Moore and Christopher Darden this year, but with his departure, it was of course officially in their care.

2009 - Return to the Community Center
In 2009, I returned for round 2. This time I brought my buddy Nathan Winchester from Arizona with me (I had moved back to Arizona shortly after the first one I attended). I also wrangled Justin and Jason back (they lived in Illinois now). Our plan that year was to focus on play-to-win games and also on getting in plays of as many games as we could. To that end, we ended up playing a handful of side games during longer games that had some downtime. I don't think we ended up winning any of the play-to-win games.

This was the first year of the Crokinole Tournament (Chester ran it). I recall a story about two guys almost losing to two kids who didn't even bother taking off their backpacks (Jay Moore's son and his buddy), which became the inspiration for my team's future name: Two One-Armed Blind Kids. You see, the guys that almost lost to the two kids were so happy they won, because they didn't want to ever have to admit they lost two two kids with backpacks. We took that too the next level - we wanted people to say they had lost to Two One-Armed Blind Kids. IIRC, My Little Pony (DJ and Joel) knocked us out and won the tournament.

2010 - First Geekway at the Chalet
This was the first year that the Geekway would be at a hotel. Though still only three days long, there would now be the chance for all night gaming (or at least late night gaming). I believe this is the first year that a crew of folks that I used to work with in Omaha rolled into the Geekway, making this the first time I was seeing large groups of friends from all over, not just St. Louis. This was also the first year that I helped out with getting the library setup. In what would become an annual tradition for me, when the load of library games showed up, I'd help unpack them and sort them for the library. That was the time I'd get to spend saying hi to all my St. Louis friends and playing catch up with some of my other friends that had arrived in town the day before the Geekway started.

It also was the first year that I played my annual "first game" with Michael Silbey and Chester Ogborn the evening before the Geekway started. Some years, we got in an early play-to-win game ahead of the crowds (for the record, it never helped - I never won the game in the drawing). A lot of years, it would be whatever game of interest that Chester had discovered. The key takeaway here was that this was the Geekway where the time with my friends was as important as the gaming itself. This was also the first year that the Geekway really started to grow. Having hotel space, all night gaming, and EASY access to food was a HUGE step up from the previous years. Thursday was still sparse, and table space easy to find. In fact, there were a lot of people wandering about looking for games, because there just weren't that many people early on. You could actually walk into the gaming area and scan the tables.

For those that attended last year - the vendor hall was most of the original space. Yes, that was all the space - the library was just off of that in a SMALL room.

My Little Pony trounced us out of the Crokinole tourney again this year.

2011 - Geekway Grows Some More
More firsts. I believe this was the first four day Geekway. This was the first year I played Battling Tops - it went on to become one of my favorite events over the years and I somehow WON in 2016.

This was the first year I played Princes of the Rennaissance with Chester's group (the core of being Chester, DJ, Joel, and Mike Silbey). It would not be the last.

For the third year in a row, neither Nathan nor I won a prize/drawing. Nathan and I made up 75% of the entries for Battles of Westeros from the play-to-win table and still didn't win it.

The Geekway was really growing and really didn't fit the space this year. It was REALLY hard to get a table space on Saturday, despite having a bit more space than the year before.

Justin Heimberger ran the first Combat Commander tournament this year. He cheated and knocked me out of the tourney. Ok, he probably didn't cheat, but it felt like it.

This was also the year that Jay Little died. After the Geekway ended, Jay drove back to Minnesota and suffered a number of health problems. He did recover and was able to return (as a zombie). His story is crazy - read about it here.

2012 - Geekway Moves Across the Yard
In 2012, the Geekway moved across the plaza from the Chalet to the Tower in an effort to get more space. This was the first year the Robert Bolan attended the Geekway with me. I broke my streak of not getting any play-to-win games by winning Legend of Drizzt. Robert, since this was his first year, of course won like 2 different drawings and door prizes including the first day - Heads or Tails. This was also the year we were VERY gung-ho to play A Game of Thrones. We slotted out 6+ hours and got a crew, then I watched everyone ignore Nathan and he won in the fourth round after about 90 minutes of playing.

This was also the year that Game-ception was born. We started playing a game, had to "pause" it to go to the Pitchcar prelims, play a match in our Crokinole tournament, and play in Battling Tops. The layers were crazy.

Speaking of crazy... in Crokinole, the first "Flick" happened (I say first, because I have been "flicked" multiple times over the years). Nathan and I were winning our match against Scott Reed and Chester when we had to pause the game for Battling Tops. When we resumed, we were ready to drop the mike and walk into the next round when on HIS LAST SHOT, Scott Reed hit THE FLICK that (seriously) knocked out all the disks of our color from the center of the board and won them the match. This was the third year in a row where we were beaten in Crokinole on a crazy last shot, but this year was the craziest thing I've ever seen. It was brutal - a 60 point swing of points on one flick.

In Battling Tops, this was the year that Jay Moore somehow managed to send not only his top, but the whole string and pull ring (ALL AS ONE UNIT) into the ring.

In Pitchcar, this was the first year I made the finals, and the first time I got lapped in the finals. It was seriously bad.

2013 - One of My Favorite Years
I think this might have been one of my favorite years. The size was just about right - I love this convention, but it has gotten so big in the past couple years, that it is almost too much.

Justin Heimberger passed on running the Combat Commander tournament this year, but being a huge fan, volunteered to run it. I went undefeated in Swiss play and got to crown myself champion. There were a lot of good stories about the games that were played and we all had a great time.

I got to learn how to play Viticulture from Jamey Stegmaier himself. I had not yet received my kickstarter game, but there were copies at the Geekway (Jamey is a St. Louis resident).

This was the first year that I spent time playing games with Justin Heimberger and his daughter (which also became something of an annual tradition for me every year since). Kids are funny and I don't mind playing some stuff with his daughter as she is hilarious (one year we were playing a game with dice and she kept rolling ones. It was driving her crazy and she yelled out, "Oh come on! I'm turning into my dad!" - good stuff).

My favorite story from this year had to do with Robert Bolan. This guy had won game after game every year since he started coming and this was no exception (not victories - he rarely was victorious), but prizes. This year, he won the raffle for the really nice handmade Crokinole board. Right after he won that (we were on the plane home already and heard about this after we landed), the Geekway crew had a surprise drawing for another Crokinole board (a Mayday board, so a consolation prize). They drew his name for that board too. Smartly, they redrew and someone else got a board.

The only low point was that I missed a shot at the PitchCar finals (literally, I missed my shot in a flick off with Justin Heimberger and Robert Bolan). I have since made a concerted effort to kick ass during the prelims. Each year I've gotten better in the early rounds, which has become required. The prelims are HARD - the competition has gotten better and better each year.

2014 - Ten Year Anniversary for the Geekway
This was the last year of the Geekway at the Tower. IIRC we had all of the ballroom space at the hotel and it was still stupid crowded. Previously, the space was taken by prom kids, but not this time.

This was the year that Chris Darden redid the tops for Battling Tops, so the first year that PRINCE CHARLES appeared in the BT arenas. It was great having a top named for me and I've used that same top every year since.

This was also the year that Chester had the brilliant scheme to commit a group of us to a game for the next 15 years. And so it came to be that I started playing Risk at the Geekway. That's right, we agreed to play a single game of Risk Legacy at the Geekway every year until we were done (we only made it three years - four of us are unable to attend this year).

I did manage to make the Pitchcar finals again this year and ended up forth after choking away 2nd place. It was Count Dooku's Junk that did me in. This was also the year I met Brandon Kempf in a game of Dominant Species. Nobody needs to care about that, except that I enjoyed his company enough to keep seeking him out the next couple years. Thanks to him, I've returned to writing all this dreck - if you don't like it, blame him. This was also the first year that I hardly even bothered with the play to win games. I'd still play them over the years, but I stopped trying to win them. I was more about doing gaming with my friends, and less about trying to add something I didn't care about to my collection. I pretty much stopped worrying about collecting more games from trades or whatever because it was a pain hauling them back home to Arizona.

2015 - Geekway Returns to the Chalet
The Geekway moved back across the plaza to the Chalet in order to get more space. Nearly all the hotel space was in use the whole time by the Geekway (I think everything except the downstairs area that was the play-to-win room in 2016. This year was memorable (or not) due to my ridiculous plan to make and bring a large amount of Orangecello. You see, I have an orange tree in my backyard and some friends from Phoenix had made some in previous years. I liked the idea and made my own by soaking orange zest in filtered vodka and everclear. It was really really good and very strong. I got a lot of people drunk on Friday night (myself and Robert included) during Battling Tops. After Battling Tops, was Chester's annual Princes game, which (much to his and all the other player's chagrin) I won. Drunk. I'm not proud. The gang took it out on me in our Risk Legacy Game and wiped me off the map in the third round. The next day was bad. Robert and I were very hungover and didn't play Crokinole particularly well. To add insult to injury, we got FLICK'd out. We didn't actually play too much of anything on Saturday now that I think about it.

I had made the Pitchcar finals again, but Joel and the Chads made the finals track a little too hard. The year before they had created a Geeklist right after the Geekway and were bouncing Pitchcar ideas around. There were some really cool features on the track, but it was one hard feature after another. It took nearly an hour for the field to complete the first lap. Seriously. I think I finished 7th out of 8. I still had a great time.

2016 - Last Year's Geekway
In 2016, Chester introduced the mysterious Geekway Platinum Club and printed up shirts for the Princes of the Renaissance Group. As per his plan, there were a lot of questions about how to get into the Platinum Club and other random silliness. The moral of the story is - not everything you see matters or is important. Speaking of Princes, after my drunken win the previous year, we were joined in our Princes game this year by drunken Chad, who almost won. I was 100% sober and didn't win.

What IS important is that I won the Battling Tops tournament. And I wasn't drunk.

I also brought my love Alyson to the Geekway for her first time.

I managed to make the Pitchcar finals again, and this year was doing a great job in the finals - until the very end. Joel came out of nowhere and overtook Andrew Tulleson and I (who kept trading the lead). I managed a weak third place after being first or second the entire race. Losing to Joel and Andrew is nothing to be ashamed of so I didn't feel too badly about that. Did I mention that I won Battling Tops?

So from the small beginings of the Geekway (when I first started attending) in 2008 through last year, what I've found I look forward to the most is seeing my friends and a specific couple of the events. Battling Tops, Princes of the Rennaissance, Risk Legacy, setting up the library, hanging out, and re-connecting with friends is what The Geekway is about for me. The Geekway has grown to about 10x bigger than it was when I first attended. Think about that. From the point where I recognized people at almost every table and game being played, to where I hardly know anyone at any of the tables. It is still an amazing event, but I realized I now go because of the people I've previously met, not the new games or play-to-win table or the other 2000 people I don't know. I'll miss it this year and hope to make it back next year. To all my friends that I won't get to see this year - I'm not sure who you are going to pick on in-game this year. I know you always target me! Probably you'll target Robert - he deserves it.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Should It Stay or Should It Go - Twilight Struggle

One of my goals for 2017 is to get a game played at least 5 times in a given month so I can re-evaluate its place in my collection. For March, that distinction falls to Twilight Struggle. Interestingly enough, I did not play this on the tabletop once, but I did play it 5 times on my iPad (and Mac via Steam). This evaluation is still based on the game itself, though I will include my thoughts on the electronic implementation as well.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, I grew up in a world where The Cold War was a fact of life. Now that doesn't mean when you ask about a game theme, my first inclination would have been - let's relive the Cold War! But, when Twilight Struggle first hit the gaming scene and I started hearing how great it was, the theme didn't dissuade me. In fact, after my first playing, I was enamored by it. It brought back the feelings I remember from growing up and watching the news - a lot of tenseness and uncertainty. This is one game where the theme is not tacked on, it is integral to the game.

So first mechanically - this is a card driven game. There is a large deck of cards that are divided into three smaller decks. There are 10 rounds to the game and the game starts with the Early War deck. After a few rounds, the Mid War deck comes in and finally the Late War deck for the last few rounds. The cards themselves have a couple parts - an Operational value (Ops) from 1-4 points, an event, and an indicator of who the event belongs to (USA or USSR or either). Players are trying to exert their influence to countries across the globe in an effort to control them. There are a few scoring cards in the decks that have the players compare their influence of contries in various parts of the world (Europe, Asia, the Middle East, etc) and gain victory points based on the number of countries and important countries that each has in that region. Some cards also deliver a point or two as their event. Points themselves are tracked by a sliding back-and-forth track. If one player ever gains 20 points more than their opponent, they win. Then there is the DEFCON track, that runs from 5 down to 1. If a player ever causes the DEFCON to drop to 1, they cause nuclear war and lose the game. Certain actions and events can change the DEFCON level and the DEFCON level also limits the actions players can take in various parts of the world.

Each of the game's 10 rounds starts with each player receiving cards from the current deck. If a new era has started, the new era's cards are shuffled in to the current set of cards. Each player is dealt cards so that they have the same number. The first thing players do is "headline" an event. Both secretly reveal a card and the event on the card is executed. Some of the cards are marked with an indicator such that when the event itself happens, the card is taken out of the game, otherwise, after playing, cards are put in a discard pile and shuffled back in when the deck runs out of cards.

During the turns, players alternate playing a card (typically one, though some few cards change that) for the Ops points (which can be used in a couple of different ways) or the event on the card. If the player chooses to play a card for the Ops points AND the event is their opponent's event, the event happens in addition to the operations being conducted. This is one of the key mechanisms in the game. Often, you are saddled with a hand of your opponents event cards and have to figure out how to play them in such a way as to minimize their effect. At the same time, for the cards that go out of the game once the event happens, you sometimes have to suffer the event in order to try and reduce the number of cards that have your opponent's events that will be in the deck when a shuffle occurs. These tense decisions are what make every round and every card played interesting.

Now, if it sounds like I enjoy the game, you are right. I like this game a lot - it is well balanced and the theme is an integral part of the game. If you've been reading this blog, you know it hit my Top 40. However, it isn't perfect. There is a pretty good learning curve to the game. Mechanically, it isn't too bad to pick up, but by learning curve, I mean the cards. Knowing what cards that are in each era, knowing when scoring cards enter the game, knowing where you can avoid wasting precious Ops points are all important and a player that is more familiar with those will easily dominate a player that doesn't. There are some great subtleties to the game that you can only see after a number of plays and if you are constantly beaten quickly, it is hard to learn them. Of course the flip side to that is that there is a lot of hidden beauty and depth here. Every playing is different, even with the same cards and events. Your hand might dictate trying to better your position in a way you never have before.

On the tabletop, there is a lot to keep track of and it isn't easy to glance at the map and understand your position. This last point is remedied by the electronic form, as is the problem of finding an opponent and the length of the game. After a few plays, games can be played (electronically) in fairly short order. On the tabletop, there will be a fair bit of counting to try and understand whether or not you should use a card a certain way. In the electronic form, you are given odds and lots of quick summary information of situations. There is also a little bit of randomness in the game. Not just the shuffle of cards, but a number of the operational outcomes you try to perform in the game are determined by the roll of a die. You can attempt a coup (a radical swing of influence), and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. This can lead to some small frustration in a game where everything feels tense and each move feels like it might be the wrong one. It can feel capricious that a single die roll determines the outcome, but in 15+ games, only once have I felt a string of bad rolls cost me the game.

I can look past the minor flaws because the game is sooo fun. As I said, every play feels important. You never quite know if your opponent is doing something to rid themselves of cards, feint interest in a certain area, or plowing forward with an agenda. This being a two-player only game, the length of playing face-to-face and the need for an opponent of equal skill/exposure to the game does keep it from my top 25.

About the elctronic forms. The game is pretty well done and available for most platforms (Win/Mac via Steam, iOS and Android). The game (as far as I can tell) is identical on each, which leads to one shortcoming - the UI isn't perfect on the iOS platform - the slight rigidity of the screen size means that part of the visible chat window is cut off from view by another part of the UI. This is a minor quibble to be sure, but a little annoying. Otherwise, the game is really well done. You can play live, but async play is available and you are notified by email when your opponent has taken their turn. It is easy to see any bit of information you need from the game - far easier than on the tabletop. It plays well and is easy to see what an opponent did on their turn. When you want to execute and action that has a die roll, you usually get "the odds" so you can decide before actually taking the action. You can see how an entire region will score if a scoring card comes out, so you are informed on whether you should take action in a region.

After all that, I am slightly undecided about whether I need to keep a physical copy of the game in my collection. I'm leaning towards - NO. The electronic form provides a satisfying (and faster) expereience. The table top is a lot of fun as you can try and read your opponent's anguish level, but the pace of play is going to be much much slower. Verdict - I'd highly recommend this game, and would be happy to sit down and play at the table on occassion, but I think I can retire it from the "owned" column of my personal collection.

(pictures from BGG and all credit to the original contributors)