As anyone who regularly reads my pieces will know, my opportunity for game playing is now severely limited. The only regular opportunity that I get to play outside occasional games against my usually unwilling partner is that one of the gaming groups that I associate with does monthly all-day gaming sessions at the weekend, and said group meets in the town where said partner hails from: so we can pop over and she can visit her family for a few hours (and get a bit of help with the kids) while I get to play some games. It’s a very Euro-oriented group but beggars can’t be choosers and, anyway, there are some pretty good Euros around if you go digging.
My last visit was noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly I had the good fortune to stay for rather longer than normal and second I twice witnessed a rather surprising aspect of game choice behaviour that I haven’t seen - and wouldn’t expect to see - outside a Euro-oriented group. But more on that later. First of all that longer spell of attendance meant that I got the chance to try out no less than four new games so I thought I’d offer up some quick snapshot reviews.
First up was darling of the moment 7 Wonders. You can infer quite a lot about this game from the fact that I olled up to a group of four experienced players who were already playing, learned the rules and beat them first time. So it looks to me like a pretty shallow game but one which would be brilliantly suited to family gaming since it’s also short and simple. It’s a card drafting game so opportunities for interaction are minimal but nevertheless I did get a lovely warm glow inside each and every time I deliberately selected a card that I knew my next door neighbour would have wanted and passed on a now-useless deck of cards. And it must be said that it’s also engaging and entertaining. Like all good civilization-building games you get a real sense of advancement as you play, not only from watching your own holdings expand but from the increasingly powerful cards that enter circulation as you play and there’s always a sense of anticipation as you wait to find out what collection of gems - or complete crap - you’re going to get passed next. It ends with an annoying score-toting round. Not quite good enough to be worth a purchase in my opinion, but a game I’d gladly play more of in the future.
Next up was the card game Take Stock which aims to simulate stock market investment. It has overtones of a sort of multi-player version of Battle Line in that each turn players play cards onto one of five different stocks, and the value they play must be higher than the existing value and there’s also a separate deck of “event” cards for things like stock crashes and hikes which players can draw from if they choose or if they can’t (or won’t) play a stock card. But a key difference between the two is that while Battle Line is a tight, thrilling game packed with agonizing decisions, Take Stock is a flabby, tedious game packed with mechanical problems. What you’re going to play is usually obvious in advance and what other people do in the meantime is largely irrelevant so there’s no sense of excitement and anticipation. And mechanically you have to question what the hell is going on in a design when some of the event cards literally do nothing at all, and others affect all players so equally that there’s no point in playing them. It also seems to have an end game problem that causes the rounds to last longer than they should do, since the high-value stock cards which trigger a round end are nearly always better played as investments that allow you to score off stock rather than actual stock. It’s possible that it works better with less than the five I tried it with, and also that we all totally misunderstood the tactical nuances of the game, but I think it’s unlikely. Very poor, and to be avoided.
At this point all the other players went for lunch. I didn’t fancy wasting this rare opportunity to play games with something as mundane as food consumption, so one of the other gamers handed me a copy of Ablaze! to look at. Ablaze! is something of an odd bird because it actually contains three quite different games all using the same pieces, all of which are not only multi-player games but come with solo and co-operative variants as well. So I had a flip through the rules. The first game is a zero-interaction, zero-theme puzzle-fest that looks absolutely awful but the next two looked far more promising. The first involves plotting flight paths around an active volcano to try and extinguish brush fires and looks to offer tactical and strategic choice as well as some fun opportunities to steal points off other players at the death. At this point the owner of the game arrived back and we played the third game which concerns trying to save animals from a spreading forest fire. To my surprise this was actually the highlight of the day, a neat, simple game with a snifter of theme, slippery and ever-changing strategy and plenty of chances to toast the oppositions’ darling furry critters. Given that this is already cheap, the fact it contains two quite entertaining games (and I suppose I might be wrong about the third one) both of which cover 1-4 players and can be played cooperatively as well as a bunch of other variants offered in the rules makes it startlingly good value and very flexible for all manner of times, place and people. I think I might get myself a copy and I suggest you check it out too if you get the chance.
I finished up by playing Mesopotamia which is one of those oh-so-common Euros that feel like they’ve been cobbled together out of bit of other, better, more innovative Euros, the inspirations in this case apparently being Tikal and Attika. You use action points move pawns around a map, explore empty space by adding tiles to the board, gather resources, build shrines and huts and have babies (more pawns) all in the aid of collecting enough “mana” from your shrines to be the first to make four “offerings” (generated by huts) at the temple. At first this actually seemed pretty entertaining with plenty to do and lots of avenues to explore for advancement, including stealing resources off other players. At the end of the game we all reached the winning condition sequentially on the same turn with me coming in last. Seemed like an exciting close finish but I kind of got the feeling that the game was almost engineered to create close finishes no matter what you do, and the more I thought about it the more trivial the majority of the choices you make during the game seemed. Almost like there were so many paths to victory that it was hard to choose the wrong one, and the winner was probably determined by one or two choices you made late in the game. Kind of renders the rest of the game a bit pointless. So I did actualy enjoy playing this game, and might even do so again if cajoled, but I suspect it would have a very short overall shelf-life.
So having covered the four games, I come at last to the most surprising feature of the day. At the end of playing Ablaze! when everyone was back from lunch, someone suggested we play Ghost Stories. That’s a reasonably good game and I indicated that I’d played it before and would be up for it and - here’s the weirdness - my familiarity with the game was treated as a good reason not to play it and to pick something that was new to everyone instead. When Mesopotamia was eventually selected someone else piped up that they’d played that before and, again, that was treated as a reason not to play it and it was only the absolute insistence of that lone gamer that he wanted to play it again that made it see the table in front of something else different that no-one had played previously.
I found this totally astonishing. How did the one play of a game become enough to disqualify it from seeing the table again if something new is available instead? Whatever happened to favourite games that you want to play again and again? Whatever did the concept of deep strategy that is so lauded by Eurogamers turn into a shelf life of so few plays that its barely possible to learn a game, let alone explore its strategic nuances? It’s really quite scary when you dwell on it. So I won’t - instead I’m off to make my latest PBEM moves in Twilight Struggle (70-odd plays) and Memoir ‘44 (50-odd plays).
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. Click here for more board game articles by Matt.