Editor's Note: We asked you for them, and you've been sending them--and today, we're glad to feature another Member Submitted article. It's a great send-up of The Boardgaming Year that Was in 2007. Enjoy!
I know I promised this sooner, but we've had a lot of great user content over the past few weeks and I wanted to make sure that the good stuff got its due.
Join me for some ruminations on the gaming year that was, as well as my selection for 2008's Game of the Year.
SPOILER: This about sums it up
It was over quickly, and I enjoyed it... sort of.
Every year, gaming websites have a ritual. I like to call it the Masturbatory We Wish We Had An Awards Ceremony ritual, though most places just call it the Game of the Year. It's like the Emmies or the Daytime Grammies or the Uncle Bob's Zippies or the Downers or Uppers or Ludes or some damned thing, except that instead of having a bunch of people show up in tuxedos and walk down red carpets, a handful of game nerds wearing Star Wars t-shirts with Cheeto stains tell the rest of us what games we should have been playing all year. Then everyone argues about it.
I like Goblins Inc., but not as much as I want to. As a result it’s difficult to review. On one hand, the rules, the advertising, and the game itself seem are aiming for a specific experience that goes undelivered. On the other, I find myself enjoying what’s there anyway. It’s 75% of the way to amazing, which is pretty good. But man, that last 25%…
Back when Iinterviewed Martin Wallace for this website, I had the pleasure of asking him about his background in wargaming. His latest game,A Few Acres of Snow has an interesting pedigree: he’s quite upfront in the rules that the design was inspired by the totally themeless EuroDominionand yetA Few Acres of Snow strives to be possibly his strongest simulation to date. It even has several pages of historical notes, written by a military historian! I was lucky enough to get a review copy of this title direct from Warfrog, so I’ve had a chance to judge first hand how successful it is as both a simulation and a game.The game purports to be about the long conflict between France and Britain for control of North America. The deckbuilding mechanic is worked into theme with the clever and accurate observation that in the early days of colonial warfare, the supply lines across the Atlantic were so stretched that governors and military commanders couldn’t simply request stuff and utilise it: they had to ask, wait, see what turned up, and make the best of it. There’s no doubt thatA Few Acres Of Snow has quite an astonishing learning curve. Not because it’s complex - the rules are actually very straightforward and revolve around simple turn sequence of checking to see if you’ve won a siege, then playing cards to take two actions, then drawing your hand up to five cards and shuffling your discards to create a new draw deck if necessary. No, it's because of the staggering variety of options at the fingertips of a new player. Those two actions are chosen from a wide variety of possibilities and most actions are playable with a variety of cards. That complexity is compounded by all the cards that start in a players draft pile which they can then use to alter their deck and hone a strategy, resulting in a dizzying decision tree. An already terrifying array of choices is further complicated by the fact that in this game, there’s a board, and spatial considerations need to be taken into account. The first time I started a game ofA Few Acres Of Snow, with five cards in my hand, a player aid listing all the actions and the map spread out before me, it felt a bit like staring into the abyss, but an abyss in which, twinkling faintly at the bottom, was a light that could either be vast re-playability or the fires of hell itself.So lets descend into the crevasse, bit by bit, so you can get a sense of how this enormous, intimidating decision tree is built up. The best place to start is probably the map. Each side starts in control of certain locations, while the bulk of them begin uncontrolled. Location control is one component of the victory condition, with some locations being worth victory points at the end of the game. Each location has a card which you pick up and add to your deck when you gain control of it. What these cards do vary enormously: some have symbols on them that you can use to undertake certain actions such as trading for gold, or starting a siege (more on this later), some have lists of other locations to which that one is connected, some have both and a very few have nothing at all on them and are just chaff that clutter up your hand, although the location itself may have value as an outpost for raiding or victory points. To perform an action that would involve significant logistical co-ordination such as settling a new location or laying siege to any enemy one, you need to play a connected location card from your hand, and another card with an appropriate movement symbol: boats for rivers, ships for the sea or carts for roads. Confusingly, locations only connect to other locations that are listed on their cards, even though the map sometimes suggests otherwise. The map also fails to offer any clues as to what symbols are on a location card, it’s something you have to learn from experience even though it can often be an important strategic consideration. To further bamboozle the player, each side generally has its own card for each location, but these are not always the same: sometimes the symbols and connected locations are different, and there are actually a few locations that one side or the other cannot reach although, again, the map offers no clue to this. In short the map board is basically pretty useless as it is: a traditional point-to-point setup would have been much clearer, and although player aids are available to help with all the missing information, the "usability" of the game as currently published could, on the whole, have been a lot better.So at the start of the game each player has a small deck of location cards corresponding to the locations he controls at setup. However there are also Empire cards, which can have symbols on them but more generally do stuff. For example the “ship” card has - you guessed it - a ship symbol for transport, while the “home support” card has no symbols but simply allows the player to draw three new cards from his deck when played. Each player has his own deck, and each is different, representing the strengths and weaknesses of each countries operations in the New World. There is also a very small deck of shared Empire cards that either side can pick from. Whilst you add location cards to your deck by taking control of the location on the board, you get new Empire cards by using a “draft” action to add one to your discard pile, for later shuffling into your hand. Many are free, others have to be paid for.So already you can begin to see how the layers of mechanics stack up, like the layers of an onion, to create a dizzying array of strategy and choice. You need to control victory point locations, and to improve them into cities (effectively a double settle action, which doubles the VP) in order to win. But as you spread yourself across the map in an attempt to reach them or, at the very least, to connect with enemy locations in order to besiege or raid them, your deck becomes stuffed with location cards that may, or may not be useful. So careful consideration is required as to where, and by how much, you choose to grow your empire. You need to co-ordinate the effects and connected locations in your location cards with appropriate drafting of empire cards in order to achieve the effects you require while keeping a careful eye on what the enemy is doing and trying to ensure you can thwart his plans against you. You’ll probably need to change tack at least once during the game, and if locations are taken off you then you have to keep the card but can no longer use it so one way or another you’ll find yourself with cards you don’t need. And of course you won’t always get the combinations you need in the draw. To help with these issues each side has a “Governor” Empire card to draft that allows you to make permanent removals from your deck, a discard action which means you can discard one (or pay to discard more) card from hand and a reserve, a cunning idea that allows you to “set aside” up to five cards (only one at once) for later pick up, although you have to pay and you have to pick them all up at once. Given the strategic considerations of the board, that’s a wealth of options right there.But it doesn’t stop. See there’s another way to get victory points and that’s by winning battles. Combat in the game is massively abstracted and comes in two flavours. The first is raiding - you pick a target and then play one raid card for each connection step between the target and your nearest outpost. This is nasty - a successful raid removes the enemy settlement marker from the target that that’s worth VP to the raiding player. A raid can be blocked with a raid block card or by playing the location card of the targeted location, both of which reduce the cards available for the targeted player on his turn, but that’s better than loosing the settlement. Fortunately you can defend yourself with yet another action - building a fortress in a location, which costs money but means enemy raids can’t pass through the fort. The other kind of military action is the seige, which begins just like a settlement action by playing a connected location card and a transport but then also requires a card with a military symbol. Sieges work like a see-saw: the initial number of military symbols tilt a siege track in favour of the attacker, and the defender can the re-enforce the siege with military cards of his own to tip the track back the other way, then the attacker can do the same and so on. Siege cards are not discarded and recycled into the hand but placed in a special pile, ensuring that you can’t rack up endless sieges and that overall military strength in the deck is usually the determining factor in winning. If you can swing the siege track by at least two (for the attacker) or one (for the defender) in your favour and your opponent doesn’t have the cards to re-enforce you win. If the attacker wins he gets to take off the enemy settlement, gains some VP, and has the opportunity to settle the space himself. Either way the looser has to permanently discard an empire card, so sieges are not to be started lightly.So let’s recap those layers again, remember that these layers interconnect and build on one another so that at each step you get a semi-exponential expansion of the options and choices available to you. You get stuff done by playing cards from your deck. Where you expand to affects what’s in your deck. You need to watch the map to ensure you’re taking over the right locations to get the cards you need, to get victory points, and to give yourself opportunities to raid or besiege the enemy. You can draft cards to further expand what’s available to you. If you don’t like what you’ve got you can recycle or thin your deck, either permanently or by use of the reserve and you can also use the latter to gradually store linked cards to support a strategy. You can get victory points either by settling VP locations or by successful military actions. Does that give you some idea of how gargantuan the decision tree is for the game? I can’t recall anything else quite like it. Thankfully, on a turn to turn basis your decisions are limited by what you’ve got in your hand, and the sense that many possible actions are fairly futile in any given situations. But strategically, game-wide, it’s just mind-boggling. At times, in the middle of the game when neither side has an advantage and is still flexible about where it could possibly go in terms of overall strategy the weight of that decision tree is almost stifling - how onearth do you go about doing whatever it is you need to get done to advance your way toward the win conditions, you wonder? Even with experience there are times I’ve felt it to be overwhelming, forcing me into passivity with the sheer plethora of options available and an inability to winkle out the tiny differences in quality that divide them. Sometimes that feeling can be strategic nirvana, other times it can be almost oppressively frustrating, especially when you end up stuck with hand after hand of rubbish that you don’t need.As if that were not enough, as is typical of Wallace games he’s managed to slap some history on top of the mechanics and connect the two together in places, although in others it remains fairly abstract. The justification given for using deck-building as a mechanic works for me, and there are some nice touches in the different Empire decks and starting decks for the two nations, such as the British having much easier access to Settler cards, reflecting their much greater population in the new world. The historical notes are interesting, and although you may be hard pressed at first to see how that history is reflected in the game, repeat plays will bear some of it out. But it’s no war game in the traditional sense. Both forms of combat are extremely abstract, and I find the end game condition - that one side or the other runs out of settlement tokens - so arbitrary as to verge on the irritating. But full marks for trying to balance history, theme and mechanical interest in one go, and for the most part, succeeding.BasicallyA Few Acres Of Snow is a very good game, but it’s a very good game game that will only show its quality if you’re prepared to stick at it and, ideally, if you’ve got a single regularly opponent with whom you can explore and learn the game, and against whom you can match your evolving strategies. This is not a game for casual players: it takes several games to get a handle on leveraging that vast decision tree to make your deck do what you want it to, more games to learn the effects and connections on the location cards so you can plan an effective strategy, and it’s also a game in which an experienced player will be able to mercilessly crush a learner without fail, every single time. If you’ve got a gaming spouse, or one solitary regular gaming friend, it may be ideal for the pair of you. If you tend to jump in and out of a lot of different gaming groups, it’s probably less well suited. I’ve seen people claim this game can be played in 30-60 minutes but that sounds dubious to me: I soloed it once and took over an hour, even knowing what strategies I was employing against myself. 90-120 would seem more the mark, longer while you’re getting to grips with it. But if the idea of matching yourself regularly against another opponent for that sort of time slot sounds like the sort of thing that’s a frequent fixture in your gaming world, then this is certainly not a game you should ignore.
One of the most unfortunate tendencies when discussing board games on the internet is the way games are described solely through their mechanics. It’s like someone asking how dinner was, and being given a list of ingredients as a response. Such a description is technically accurate, but falls short of giving any actual information. Any game is greater (or less) than the sum of its parts. It’s not the individual pieces that determine how a game functions, but rather how they synchronize with each other when combined with human opponents.
Few games show that disparity quite like El Grande, the classic award-winning design from Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich. It uses what most people would call “area control,” a term that is applied to so many different situations that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. Besides that it looks dour and severe in that stereotypical Eurogame fashion. It features piles of cubes on a map with several shades of brown. You could be forgiven for thinking it was a cold distant efficiency game, but thankfully that isn’t the case. It’s actually kind of a dudes-on-a-map game re-imagined for the German market, and it’s pretty darn nasty.
Actually I don’t know for sure if it was meant to be some kind of re-imagining of the dudes-on-a-map genre, the style of game best exemplified by classics like Risk. It does look the part, since it has a map and bunches of “units” all over the place. But in a very German way, there isn’t any actual combat. Players co-exist with each other all over the place. Instead there are simply points scored for the players who have the most in each region during one of the three scoring rounds. Using a kinda-sorta auction, each player selects an action card each turn. That card will let them shuffle things around on the board and to add new cubes. New cubes can only be added to a region that borders the one containing the king, but the king’s region is totally off-limits. The strongest move is often moving the king to an advantageous spot, one that will allow you to put guys where you like but prevent your opponents from messing with your territories. The result is a game where no shots of fired, as it were, but where you can directly mess with the plans of your opponents.
More than most games, it feels like every move counts in El Grande. There’s very little of the throat-clearing that you sometimes get in big conflict games, which sometimes are slow to heat up. But even as each turn is important, they aren’t so important that you cannot recover from a mistake. One El Grande’s key features is its volatility. Since each player is making an important move in every turn, the board state is in constant flux. A player who jumps to an early lead can easily be hit hard in the late game, and someone who hasn’t been a threat for most of the game can suddenly make a push to victory. In my experience it’s usually a matter of staying right in the middle of everything. You wouldn’t want to fall too far behind, but neither do you want a target on your back.
This dynamic style of play is something that sets El Grande apart from many of its area-control descendents, or indeed from other Eurogames in general. It’s not a game about manipulating a system the best. Nor is it a race to the finish line, where you must outperform the other players instead of directly hurting them. The challenge is entirely wrapped up in what everyone else is doing. There are times when the best move isn’t obvious, and you can simply throw the entire board into disarray. For something that looks so stodgy, El Grande has a little chaos in its blood.
It also has that terrific mid-1990s German feel that makes it obvious why Germany became such a force in the world of boardgames. Everything feels very intentional and in its place, never more complicated than it needs to be, and over in a clean 90 minutes. It was so successful that it won the coveted Spiel des Jahres, the most prestigious German gaming award. In hindsight, it’s kind of an unusual pick. It’s a little weightier than that award usually skews, though it’s hardly what could be called heavy. But then it was a time before the SdJ broke so heavily from the hobbyist wing in Eurogame design. It doesn’t really matter why it won anyway, because it certainly deserves all of the accolades its received. It even spawned a couple of expansions, unplayed by me but available in the most recent English edition.
To me the interesting thing about El Grande is how it expresses its theme, that of Spanish nobles fighting for control of Spain. The cliche about Eurogames is that they can be highly abstracted affairs, and that’s not far off the mark here. You’ll notice that I described the player pieces as cubes, and not as “caballeros”, their name within the context of the game. The action cards don’t tie to anything specific beyond broad concepts like “decay of authority” and “intrigue”. But the back-and-forth nature of the game does recall the chaos of a nation in transition, where the balance of power shifts constantly. The way that conflict works in the game is also oddly thematic. You have to coexist, and so you must find other ways to take care of your opponents. Nobility will always make nice, but don’t let the smiles fool you. They’re out for blood.
As with a lot of older games, El Grande doesn’t see as much action as it used to. It’s actually out of print for the moment, a casualty of Hans im Gluck’s change in US distributors. I doubt it’ll stay there for too long, but in the meantime copies are still common enough in the wild that you can find one without much trouble. I definitely recommend you do so, because while it’s the kind of game that may not be played more than once or twice a year, it’s definitely the kind that we’ll still be playing for years to come.
After Matt Drake's Warhammer: Invasion review and Dragonstout's Magic primer, I figured I should pimp my favorite card game: A Game of Thrones, FFG's flagship Living Card Game (or LCG).
Three fun family titles for Fall
"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!"
Does anyone even remember days before deck-building games existed? I remember the first time I played Dominion, back in the fall of 2008. Even though it cribbed generously from both CCGs and efficiency Euro games, it did so in a way that felt completely fresh. I remember that sense of "awakening" that only a few games before have given me. And I wasn't the only one to feel that way either. Dominion has become one of the few genuine crossover hits in the hobby, up there with titles like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride as games that will convince the average Joe to enter the dankest game store.
I’m so over the entire genre of cooperative games. I’ve seen too many of them fall into the same traps to ever have too much faith in them. This is not because of the “quarterback problem,” so called because one person can command everyone else around the table. I’ve always considered that to be an interpersonal problem more than one based on design. My real issue is that it’s tough to build a lot of variety into a game that relies on AI. It’s not that the games get easy, though that can be an issue. It’s that there’s an inherent sameness when dealing with an automated system. Even when it’s a challenge, you’ve seen it all before. This is a bigger problem with lighter co-ops like Pandemic, where the emphasis is more on strategy then on creating a strong narrative experience. The cooperative games that engage me most worry less about mechanical brilliance and more about a good story, where the issue is no longer whether the group wins but whether you had fun getting there. Robinson Crusoe does this more effectively than any cooperative I’ve ever played, and does it without sacrificing all of the strategic richness that thinkers will want. It’s the best cooperative game I’ve ever played.
The first iteration of Duel of Ages came out ten years ago, but it’s follow-up feels like something much older. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way at all, but rather that the game eschews a lot of design trends and so-called advances from the last 15 years or so in favor of something elemental and pure. It’s a little like playing an old-school video game that bypasses all influences in the 3D age and instead steals from every game of the SNES era. I suppose Duel of Ages II will confound a lot of contemporary gamers, but it would be their loss. It’s one of the best games of the year, and it has the feel of something that will stay with me my whole life.
* Cue the whiskey-soaked, gravel-voiced, gunslinger voice-over as tumbleweeds roll across a deserted, sun-bleached dirt street*
Finger Guns At High Noon. Gunslinger's choosing an action from their player sheet: Actions that will either deal damage, heal, or claim a ally. At the end of the shoot-out, you want to be one of the survivors: wounded, bruised, but still standing. Equal parts fast talking and fast fingers, your strategy could be more in what you say than what you do. The winner could be the stoic and silent Man with No Name or an incessant braggart like The Kid. Or a gunslinger's past could come back to haunt them as a collective of dead players exact their revenge from beyond the veil.
When I was a kid, I remember watching a movie called The Ice Pirates. It was about these spacefaring ne'er-do-wells who stole stuff, I think. The only thing that really stuck with me from my childhood was a mechanical torture device, kind of like a bear trap that snapped open and shut, and the bad guys put Robert Urich onto a conveyer belt that would feed him into the metal jaws, which would then bite him in the junk.
At one time, it was suggested that the editorial staff was on the payroll to support/promote "Dragon Dice." If we keep this up, I'm pretty sure that those evil whispers are going to start up again. The fact that I'm wearing a solid gold medallion engraved "All our love, Sincerely, Jason Hill" is of little consequence, please move along.
I find myself approaching the review of Flying Frog Productions’ latest game A TOUCH OF EVIL almost more from the perspective of a life-long fan of classic horror than as a board gamer. Out of the box, I will say that A TOUCH OF EVIL more than earns its place among great horror board games such as FURY OF DRACULA and ARKHAM HORROR despite an awful lot of borrowed mechanics, almost cliched adventure game tropes, and an embarrassingly awful visual style that calls to mind photographs from an amateur DARK SHADOWS costume party.
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