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July 02, 2003

Favorite Games XV

Three games that are one today. That is, a game, a reworking of the game, then another reworking from a couple of years later, showing how even Reiner Knizia can get better over time.

Actually, I'll be almost leaving out a step... I don't own the first game in this "family", a game of steeplechase called Grand National Derby. It was published in 1996 in Germany, and was a relatively straightforward game. It is played in rounds to simulate the jumps of the race, with one horse dropping out each round. Players place bets on the horses as the race goes on (in this way, the game is similar to Gold Diggers), but only 3 horses finish the race and the earliest bets win ties, so that requires you to make your bet before its clear your horse will finish. Players determine which horses continue in each round by playing numbered cards (cards are color-coded to match a particular horse, and new cards replace older cards), with the lowest numbered horse at the end of each round (the round ends when all horses have numbers played on them; each new round starts off fresh) dropping out. Straightforward, simple, and just the start of what is to come.

Titan: The Arena was the next generation of this game, published by Avalon Hill in 1997. Steeplechase is re-worked, the horses becoming monsters from the board game Titan (which sits later on this list, so just be patient) fighting it out. Added to the original game are several new ideas... Monsters have special powers, which can be used when you play a number card on a monster you have the most bets for; these powers are very significant and add a lot of strategic depth to the game. "Spectator" cards are wilds, able to be played on any monster, not just the ones they match, and when that is done, they neutralize the creature's power until another card covers them. "Hidden" bets become available, where you can keep other players from knowing exactly where you've placed your bets (but don't count toward activating monster special powers). Referee cards can reveal your secret bets or allow you to pick up a card and put it in your hand to be re-played later. Unfortunately, all this cleverness resulted in a very tricky game to teach/explain, and the rulebook is quite terse, and contains examples that aren't very clear (often because they try to show pictures of the game in play, but lack the space so print them very small... so small that they can't be read, and so don't serve well as an example). Titan: The Arena was fun to play, once you figured out how, and offers a good mix of luck and skill (because even if you draw all the best cards, you still can lose if someone else manipulates their bets and creature powers to negate your cards).

Galaxy: The Dark Ages is the third generation of this game, published in 2000. This time, the game is moved to outer space, with the horses or monsters of prior games replaced by various alien races, and number cards now represent various classes of spaceships. Added this time are additional powers for the lower numbered cards (making them more useful to play even if you don't want that race eliminated at the end of the round), Technology cards that are more interesting than Referees in T:TA, and the ability (with limits) for newly played ships to attack other cards, offering even more strategic options (dice are used to give weaker ships a chance to best stronger ones). Monster special powers become "Governor" abilities for each alien race. "Bets" are now bases on each alien race's world, and can still be played in secret if you wish (only visible bases count toward being governor, as with secret bets before). Best of all, the rulebook (by GMT Games) is given the space it needs, with large type, careful organization, and numerous clear examples. This helps a game that was already good become great. It's still a fairly complicated game for the beer-and-pretzels crowd, but the examples make it comprehensible and teachable. This game is best when played at its full 5 player complement, as the complex interaction to capture governorships reduces to simplicity with only 2 or 3 players, but with that one caveat, G:TDA gets my highest recommendations.

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Galaxy: The Dark Ages

Posted by ghoul at July 2, 2003 05:54 AM

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Galaxy is definitely the best of the three. Not always my cup of tea, but fun when I'm in the mood.

Posted by: Scott at July 2, 2003 07:17 AM

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