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September 30, 2005

No Power In The 'Verse

It's even better.

You remember, I saw Serenity back in May when the first set of fan sneaks happened. Since then, I've been waiting for a chance to see it with the right music, proper color correction, final SFX and all that other stuff.

And now, I have.

And, as I said, it's even better than it was first time out.

It's still a hard movie to watch, because characters I know and care about are put through the wringer. None come out the same. But if it wasn't hard, it'd be the lame silliness of this year's Star Wars film. I know, they're both "science fiction action movies", but the difference is night and day. This is a film about normal people doing normal people things, forced to do more and be more because they care. Sith was about bigger-than-life non-people being distracted from their big deeds and eventually destroyed by small, human things like love. Just think about the message there.

Then go see Serenity.

And, because Julia asked for a Firefly quote (and because this is the episode that was on Sci Fi just after I got home from the movie)...

ZOE: This is something the Captain has to do for himself.
MAL: No! No, it's not!

Posted by ghoul at 07:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 24, 2005

Birthday Followup

This was the exceptionally cool cake brought to the ATD game session back on the 10th. Val would, of course, gladly have defended the castle (he does showy, kinda-heroic things like that), but it promised to be too yummy to only look at, so we shooed him away and had at it.

I've been pretty quiet since just before then, I know... Lots of reading, a bit of online gaming, but too much typing at work (we're catching up on several months of documentation) to really want to sit down and type out comments on new games during my off hours. I'm hoping the mood will strike this weekend and I'll get through the board games and on to the RPGs (since so many more people seem interested in those).

Posted by ghoul at 11:01 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 09, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 4)

All right, as promised, the theme this time is Historical (or nearly so) games.

And the games are The Prince, Alexander the Great, Conquest of the Empire, Roma, Camelot Legends, 7 Ages, En Garde!, Kung Fu Fighting, and Heroscape Expansion Series Two - Utgar's Rage.

Okay, some of those are only distantly related to the Historic grouping, but it's my Staircase... I make the rules!

The Prince (subtitled The Struggle of House Borgia) manages to be the first real clunker in the Phalanx Games line, or at least the first I've encountered. The game claims to be about the political struggles within the high ranks of the Catholic Church of powerful and corrupt Italian families during the renaissance, but it's actually more about who can get a little lucky early and then run away with things while everyone else sits around wasting time. Also, for a game named for Machiavelli's famed book about cold-blooded, anything-to-win politics, this game is painfully polite and open. Nominally, you can make deals over each turn's Papal election, but since there are very few things you're allowed to trade, little can come of this. Add to this some really ill-thought game pieces (the VP track run from 0 to 96, then wrap around to 97-193 on ONE family's card, but to go from 0-108 and 109-217 on the other 4, for example; was 0-100 too outrageous to even attempt?) and you've got a game well worth avoiding.

Alexander the Great, however, serves to remind me how good Phalanx titles can be. This one is quite a surprise, since most of the games Phalanx has put out in the larger box size have been military, but this is a game of resource allocation and area control only vaguely modeled after Alexander's campaigns, here presented as 6 campaigns, in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, Parthia and Bactria, then India and the failed return toward Persia. The game is played in several rounds, and in each of these players set up a secret allocation of their resources among four categories (turn order, armies, city building, and temple construction). These are revealed and compared, at which time the winner for turn order can pick where they go in the turn (usually, they will want to go last); other players move in order by their current score. When it is your turn, you place your armies on the starting point for the campaign, then move them one, two, or three areas (perhaps leaving some behind, perhaps paying some extra cost due to rough terrain; costs come from either your city or temple building resources), then announce any temples or cities you'll try to build. Other players do the same. When all have acted, the player with the most armies in each area gets 2 points and someone builds any temple or city attempted. By "someone", I mean the player with the most resources allocated to that sort of building who moves to the area and announces an attempt. Completing a build costs that player 1 more than the 2nd highest number of resources (which might be 1 more than 0 if no one else tries). Success is worth 3 points for a temple and 5 for a city. If no one moved to the area marked as the campaign's end this turn, any unspent city and temple resources can be re-allocated (resources spent on turn order, used to pay for buildings, or still on the board as armies cannot be re-allocated) and another round is played. Eventually, someone will move to the last area and this round will end, especially since the longest campaign only has 7 areas in it. At the end of the game, bonus points are awarded for whoever built the most cities and temples in total and in each region. Each campaign is different, with more or fewer choices in movement, differently-placed city and temple locations, etc. Play for every point is quite competitive, and numerous options are offered. You can try for points from armies, from cities, from temples, from a mix. You can even (in the first 5 campaigns, but not the last 2) attempt to cut off some development by doing a rapid move to the campaign-ending space, leaving the other players positioned for future rounds that don't happen. All in all, a very nice game, and well presented with reasonably quality playing pieces (including nice little stand-up screens to hide allocation at the start of each round).

Conquest of the Empire is a huge game, from the 46"x36" map (covering the full geographical range of the Roman Empire, plus a bit they never got around to conquering) and some 350 player pieces, 50 neutral pieces, and 75 delightfully oversized coins (especially since most games are given to miniaturizing such pieces), not even including the cardboard counters (of which there are numerous) and a deck of cards. And, as if this wasn't enough, there are actually two games here, one the "classic" form, only slightly changed from its original 1984 Milton Bradley release, the other an all new game. The Classic form is just that, a classic. It's not a terribly realistic game, and it suffers from the fact that players must be eliminated to get to the endgame, which means some players will be sitting out the latter half of the game. Elimination is necessary, too, because without it you can have at most 5 active armies (4 under generals, one directly under your Caesar). Once you eliminate another player, you take over their 4 generals and thus expand your ability to act dramatically! Other than that, this is a fairly good game of conquest, development, and expansion. The new game, Conquest of the Empire II, is about as different as two games sharing the same pieces can be. This game is much more political, with armies used to defend or assault influence, but money and influence being what decides the game. Here, influence markers are purchased for each important region of the empire, with several available in each location. Majority means you get more points each scoring, so you want to keep up your influence. Also critical is an interesting alliance system whereby you can bid to form alliances among the players, forcing someone else to not attack you until the next round! Numerous action cards add lots of flavor to the game, and there's a nice little "Chaos" mechanic that costs you VP if you get too far outside acceptable Roman propriety. These are both really nice games, though I'd give a significant edge to the newer rules if only because they avoid elimination and have a certain time limit to victory. But they also emphasize politics over military, which is more to my taste. Someone who likes simple crunch and grind military games (ala the classic Risk) will likely find the Classic form of CotE more to their liking. Anyone who likes big, sweeping conquest games will like one or the other, if not both.

Sticking to Rome for a bit, we have Roma, a fairly straightforward little card game of two factions head-to-head in a political power struggle. Cards represent resources, either people of influence (merchants, senators, legates, or Emperor Nero, for example) or valuable structures (temples or the Forum, plus military hardware such as onager). The playing area is made up of 8 spots, each marked with a disk from "take cards" on one end, through spaces for die faces 1 thru 6, to "take money" on the other. Players will play their cards aligned with the die faces. Each turn, the player rolls three dice and then takes 4 actions, which can be 1) to play a card from their hand onto one die spot (either filling an empty one or replacing the current contents), at a cost in money; 2) taking money equal to the amount rolled on the die used; 3) taking cards equal to the number rolled on the die used, though only one is actually kept and the rest are discard; or 4) activating a card at a location the die roll matches (that is, a roll of 4 lets you activate the card played on your side of the "4" space). Each card has a different effect, some score victory points, some attack opposing cards, some allow additional card draws, or various other effects. When all victory point tokens are given to one player or the other (or if one player is drained dry of points), the game ends in victory for the player with the most. It's fairly simple, fairly quick, and a nice mix of random and strategic (a bit biased toward the random side). I'd be happier if it played about 10 minutes faster, or was a bit less random, but it's still a very nice game. One caveat... in an attempt to be as multi-national as possible, the cards are named in (roughly) Latin and are marked with fairly meaningful icons to indicate their power, but you'll still be checking to rulebook to identify effects more often than you may like. Still, a very nice, light game, bearing almost no resemblance to the big, heavy Conquest of the Empire despite the similar setting.

Camelot Legends isn't exactly a historical game, as the Knights of the Round Table are far more fiction than fact, but it's my blog, so I make the groupings. This is a nice little game, with lots of research behind it as nearly every significant character and storyline associated with Camelot makes an appearance, which is very impressive given the simplicity of the base game system. In effect, it's just this... There are 3 game locations (Camelot, Cornwall, and the Perilous Forest). Each player's turn, an Event is drawn, which might be placed on one of those locations or might be resolved immediately via a special rule, mostly commonly a bid. Then you check to see if you can complete any of the location events currently in play (usually achieved by summing up attributes from your knights and beating an objective printed on the event). Then you take two Actions, such as draw a character, play a character from your hand to any location, or move 1 or 2 characters from one location to another. Continue until the game is over (either all events are resolved in the simplified beginners game or a single difficult "final event" placed at the bottom of the event deck is resolved in the standard game). Whoever has the most victory points (won by completing events) at the end is the winner. Simple, yes. But wait, there's a complication... You see, almost every knight and almost every event has special rules, some simple, some quite complicated, that modify the standard play format. It's not a new idea (and hasn't been since Cosmic Encounters), but here it's taken to rather an extreme. Almost no two characters have even similar abilities, and by game's end there may be two dozen characters and events in play. Keeping track of everything is a challenge. But, I think, a challenge worth considering. This is an attractively produced (card are ranges from good to great) and well designed game, marred only by its potential for excessive complexity in practice. Maybe I'd play Shadows over Camelot before I'd play this, but it wouldn't be by a long margin!

7 Ages is an odd mix. It's an ambitious game, trying to do all of recorded history within one mechanic without getting silly, overly complex, or boring. It does a surprisingly good job at this, but it has one of the steepest learning curves I've ever seen, particularly for a game with so few rules. Opening the box is a decidedly old-school feel, as there are nearly 900 cardboard counters to be punched out and sorted. The map is huge, but just paper not a mounted board. And the big split that cuts right across the Fertile Crescent (i.e., the region where early play is very likely to focus) is just a wee bit annoying. In fact, graphic design is a major mixed back for this game. Play aid charts are astonishingly detailed without seeming cluttered, various terrains are reasonably distinct, and most spaces are large enough to allow play, but at the same time some spaces are amazingly tiny despite their possible importance (a problem caused by the real world not always making important places large, for certain, but no attempt is made to ease the problem via distortion or special play areas to expand on the undersized base location) and the cards are just astonishingly busy, to the point that many are tricky to read. This game is an interestingly lesson in elegance, which is that even that gold standard of game design can be taken too far. This game is often elegant to the point of confusion. Players control Empires, bringing them into play via cards then slowly expanding and developing them until they peak out and are taken out of play, to be replaced by a new Empire. Actual available actions at each turn are few (in fact, 7, plus a "wild card" that lets you defer choosing until you activate, but at a cost), and you select one action for each Empire you have in play each turn. Most of these actions are fairly easy to describe, and fairly easy to do. But the subtleties of their interactions... Wow! And add to this some very odd design choices, such as making each color of playing pieces slightly different (in number of each type of combat unit, or in the abilities each unit has), or the way some Empires naturally cannibalize others if they come into play in the right order, or the way some spaces on the board are specially valuable to some empires while almost worthless to others... In effect, if you don't spend a long time studying them game before trying to play, you'll miss out on just what many of the decisions you're presented with actually mean. This is a very complicated game presented in a form that is almost too simple to contain all its complexity. I'd love to really get into it, but I have a feeling it would take a half-dozen plays to get good enough to really enjoy its richness, and I can't imagine playing it that often at the frustratingly confused level it defaults new players to. Still, big points for taking an aggressive goal and doing an amazingly good job of it. Compare this to games it is similar to (say, History of the World or Vinci) and there's no contest; this is by far the richer and more worthy game. But I'd still probably pull down Vinci first. (Also, you have to take points away for one huge oddity of this game... if the first player has one of the right cards in their initial hand and chooses to play it, the game could start in Age 4 (the Renaissance), 5 (the age of Exploration) or even 6 (the age of Colonialization), ignoring the vast majority of history, which is to say ignoring just what the game is all about! There is an optional rule forcing the first empire to be Age 1. Why this should be an optional rule is beyond my understanding, as I'm sure several other things about this game are. I really, really want to like it... but I can't tell without spending hours of playtime with it I just don't expect to ever manage.

En Garde! and Kung Fu Fighting are going to suffer from being reviewed together... they're from the same publisher and share the same basic structure (draw cards, play attack to damage opponent, move to next player), but they really aren't the same game at all. KFF is martial arts combat the way the movies tell us it was (that is, nothing at all like it was). Players play cards to attack one another, or to enhance an attack, or to shift into various stances, or to draw weapons, or to block attacks, or to recover Chi (life points). Many combinations feed one another, such as Crane Stance giving a bonus to Fast or Kick attacks (and thus a really big bonus to fast kick attacks). Players play cards until there's only one standing. That's all. That's all you need! this is a fast, fun game and not to be ignored. It's only weak spot is that you discard unwanted cards and fill your hand at the beginning of your turn. This means you can't spend other player's turn planning your move and thus slows the game down (though it also means you're far less likely to have a Block card handy). En Garde! takes the same essential structure in a whole different direction. Here, instead of Chi you have Poise, and Poise is used both to record damage and to make attacks. A clever rule makes this slightly less dangerous than it might be... As long as you have at least 1 Poise when damaged, the worst an attack can do is drop you to "No Poise". You're only eliminated if damaged when already at "No Poise". And if you are at "No Poise", you can play any card you want for free! A cornered man is very deadly... Also, En Garde! expands dramatically on the simple attack/block pattern, allowing complex exchanges where the block leads to a riposte which itself needs to be blocked, back and forth until one player can respond no more, and only then is everything resolved. It's quite pretty, and offers a very decent simulation of cinematic swashbuckling fencing. What's that, you say? Kung Fu movies and Swashbuckling movies aren't history? Bah! If history can't make room for things this fun and interesting, who needs it?

Heroscape Expansion Series Two - Utgar's Rage... Well, I really like Heroscape, and more variety is a good thing. For the historically minded, this set adds a quartet of armored Knights and their commander, Sir Denrick, plus 4 members of the 4th Massachusetts Line. Yes, knights in shining armor and Revolutionary War soldiers. Heroscape is an odd history-and-fantasy-in-a-blender sort of game. The knights are reasonably tough and unyielding (and especially nasty to anyone who tries to disengage once in combat with them), their leader is especially good at smacking down Huge figures (you know, like Giants or Dragons), and the 4th Massachusetts lay down withering fire if they don't move. But those are the historical bits, and serve under the relatively "good guy" Jandar. The set is called Utgar's Rage, so most of the figures are on his side. Marro Drones offer us ultra-cheap, barely effective figures whose strength comes if you swarm the battlefield with them (which would require buying several sets), while the Minions of Utgar are bat-winged demons ready to swoop down and do some serious harm (especially since they deal double damage, 2 wounds per hit rather than the usual one). The Anubian Wolves and their leader Khosumet the Darklord are unpredictable werewolves, perhaps the deadliest things imaginable but perhaps accidentally killing one of their own each time they activate (you have to roll a die and find out!). Me-Buro-Sa is a mounted skeletal Marro-type with a 25% chance of paralyzing a nearby enemy at the start of each turn. Krug is a big bruiser who, just to be fearsome, actually has a tougher attack the more damaged he is! And, lastly, there's the Swog Rider, an Orc on a sabertooth tiger who gives a nice bonus to nearby orc archers but isn't actually a leader, so is fairly easy to take down. At GenCon, they were giving out a ranked-up repaint (same figure, different paint job) of this figure, Nerak the Glacian Swog Rider, who actually is a leader (3 life points), and who grants extra defense to nearby orcs, plus having a bonus while standing on a snow space (though, so far as I know, they haven't released any snow terrain pieces yet). All of these figures are attractive and well made, with special points to the bestial Krug and the shining armored knights. Heroscape is getting better all the time, and from the amount of space Hasbro gave it at GenCon (and the future products they displayed), it has no sign of dying off soon. In fact, I've already seen rumors that the next series has started appearing in stores, and it promises Highlanders and Shaolin monks!

And those are my comments. Do with them as you please.

Posted by ghoul at 05:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 07, 2005

You Mean What Now?

There's a word I use often in reviews that I know some readers understand, but I suspect others might not.

That word is "elegant".

When I say a game is elegantly designed, or that a certain mechanic or playing piece layout is an elegant solution to a problem, I don't mean the standard definitions you find at the top of that link. I mean something much more like the jargon definitions further down, from the mathematical use of the word. "Combining simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design."

An elegant solution is one that does its work as smoothly and just as visibly or invisibly as necessary. A very elegant solution might do several things at once, which is a real goal in games (board, card, and RPG) since "more rules" is almost always a bad choice (harder to learn, easier to get wrong, etc.). Or it might place the information you need commonly in a clear, handy place while less necessary information is hidden or even eliminated. True design elegance combines both, reducing the factors to a minimum and communicating them in a clear, ready fashion.

It has nothing at all to being fancy and everything to do with being functional.

I bring this up because elegance (or its lack) is likely to be a recurring theme in my Gen Con 2005 reviews.

Posted by ghoul at 11:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 05, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 3b)

Whoops, missed one!

Quicksand was lurking behind a stack of other games, and what is quicksand but fine sand and water?

The next set of games will be Historical (mostly) and should be posted by the end of the week, then a grab-bag set to wrap up the lot, hopefully by next Sunday.

Then I'll get into the RPGs.

Quicksand is a quick, easy board game for 2-5 players, likely taking around 15 minutes. Each player randomly and secretly takes on the role of one of six Explorers, nominally a Hunter, a Geologist, a Botanist, a Zoologist, a Jungle Lord, and an Archeologist, though the roles actually have no effect on the game. Each turn, a player may play as many matching cards as they wish, moving the character those cards refer to that many spaces forward toward the Temple. If the character lands on a space matching their color, the player may also discard a card (which is useful because you always draw back to 6 cards each turn). Mask cards and Mask spaces are wild, matching any character. There are also Quicksand spaces and cards. If a character ends their turn on a Quicksand space or if a Quicksand card is played against them, their counter is flipped over and it will take a character card to "rescue" them (flipping them back face-up) before they can move. The object is to get your character to the Temple first, but you'll need to keep your character a secret or everyone else will sink them deep, deep in quicksand. The game is graphically pleasing and smartly designed. Especially smart is that you fill your hand back to 6 at the END of your turn, so you can consider your move while the other players act. This will speed up the game considerably, and this is very much a "play quickly" sort of game. This one's fluff, but it's fairly decent fluff and there's nothing wrong with that!

Posted by ghoul at 06:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Reviews and Comments (Part 3)

I have finished a couple RPGs (okay, three), but I'm going to get most of the board and card games out of the way today so I can give the RPGs a more complete consideration. In the first group, I'm combining all the new games with some sort of watery theme, just because.

So, in the complete entry, you'll find quick reviews of Captain Treasure Boots, Caribbean, Oceania, Niagara, Parthenon, Amazonas, Santiago, and Atlas & Zeus.

Yes, watery themes are popular!

Captain Treasure Boots is the newest Cheapass Games release. As such, it consists of a 4-page rulebook and 4 board sections (grids of water or numbered islands, printed in color, which seems lush by company norms), with an available bits set that adds dice, pawns, and the necessary small colored chips for play, in a box (also needed to play). The bits set costs more than the game (though you could easily assemble it yourself). Players are pirates cruising the islands for treasure. Each turn, dice are rolled to place treasure on the islands (chips drawn at random from the box). Then you roll to move your ship, likely to collect or safely deliver to port treasure and/or to line up cannon shots at other pirates (which lets you steal their treasures). Treasure comes in colors, each of which enhances some part of your ship (movement, accuracy of attacks, effectiveness of attacks, defense against attacks), plus Pearls (limited-effect "wilds") and Privateers (non-player pirates who move when doubles are rolled and mostly get in the way, though they can be sunk for points). When delivering treasure to port, you get extra points if you have more than one color to unload. The game is played until someone scores enough points to win. Nothing very sophisticated (and more than a little reminiscent of the much fancier, much more expensive, but also somewhat better Pirate's Cove), but certainly not a bad game for its very low price.

Caribbean is another pirate game, though this one is considerably trickier to master. The board is a fairly realistic map of the Caribbean Sea, with major ports and major pirate havens marked. There are three pirate havens of each color, and that is what the players control. Your objective is to lure the six pirates into bringing their booty (taken from the major ports, where it is seeded out randomly, 6 at the start of the game and 2 more each turn until all are placed) to your havens rather than to other players'. This is done by bidding. Each player has bit cards from -1 to 5, and at the start of each round you place six of those in a holder, one for each ship (the seventh is kept as a tie-breaker). Then, in alphabetical order (the ships' names start with each letter from A to F for simplicity), bids are revealed and the winner moves the ship a number of spaces equal to the winning bid, reduced by any "-1" tokens bid for this ship. Having a treasure sitting on a ship is risky, however, as other ships can steal that treasure by simply moving by! There's lots of potential for cleverness here, setting up chains of ships to rapidly move treasures across the sea. Also impressive are the ship pieces, three-dimensional stand-ups that clearly display their name (in 3 places, plus 2 more that just show the first letter) and have a convenient spot for resting the treasure in their hold. It all looks very sharp, and in support of a reasonably challenging and competitive game. Points are scored for being the first to seize a treasure (a flat 2,000) and for delivering that treasure to your harbor (4,000 to 8,000 depending on the source port, clearly printed on the treasure), and the game is played until someone scores 31,000, 41,000 or 62,000 points (based on the number of players). As is common in this sort of game, a two-player game could be highly competitive and strategic while a four-player game is fairly unpredictable and random. But since it looks to take barely over a half-hour to play, I see no problem with that!

Oceania is a rather unique idea, a game designed for 1 or 2 players. It is explicitly a simplification of Entdecker, a well-regarded older (1996) game. The theme is much the same, exploring a new land. Here, you sail into the unknown (an initially empty board, then later from already-explored locations), each turn drawing and attempting to place a tile that may contain water and land. If you can place the tile, you can also land a scouting party (valued 1, 2 or 3 from a fairly limited supply). If an area is completely walled off with land (that is, made so no new ship could get into it due to existing tiles, but not due to the impassible top of the board), "reserve" tiles are used to fill in. When the game ends (by either mapping the whole board or using up all the random tiles), each island created by the tiles scores its size to the player with the most scouts on it, with incomplete islands scoring nothing. This game is pretty, quick-playing (10-15 minutes!), and reasonably well explained in its rules (though the bit about the top of the board being impassible sea and thus not creating "surrounded" areas is more implicit than stated). The solitaire form leaves out the scouts, encouraging the formation of large islands by giving points equal to the square of each completed island's size, but penalizes the player by 20 points for every square left unexplored at game's end (and big islands risk being left incomplete). A nice, light distraction of a game, and small enough to easily carry along for whenever 15 minutes need to be filled.

Niagara is this year's Spiel des Jahres winner, so I expected great things. I wasn't disappointed. This is a unique little game, a combination of fairly simple strategy, fairly complex interaction, and attractive and significant game design. The theme is fairly simple, if just a bit silly. Fearless (and somewhat foolish) folk row canoes down the Niagara river, trying to collect the valuable gems that, for some reason, gather near the falls. (I'm pretty sure there are few gems to be found anywhere near Niagara, but it's a game, accept the fiction.) Each turn, each player selects their paddling speed (a card from 1-6, plus an "adjust weather" card), moves one or both of their canoes, and tries not to go over the falls. Since the rules force you to use all 7 of your cards before you can re-use any, you have to think ahead. You can move both canoes the full point score if you want, but you can only launch one canoe a turn, so unless one is already on the river you won't be able to move both. Rowing with or against the current is the same difficulty, and it costs 2 points to either reach out and take a gem or toss the gem you have to shore next to you. You don't score by doing that, though you can advance the more rare fall's edge gems to an easier-to-reach spot (though, of course, someone else might swipe it before you can). You can also steal gems from other players by landing on them (though only when moving upstream). You win by getting 1 of each of the 5 gems, 4 of any one gem, or 7 gems total back to the docks. Oh, but I left out the fun bit... The board, designed to be set atop the inverted box, is built with a sunken river track, with the water is represented by transparent plastic discs that slide along the path the board creates. Each turn, after everyone moves, discs are pushed down-river (carrying the canoes along with them, and perhaps over the falls, which actually means falling off the edge). The number of discs added is based on the slowest rowing speed played this turn plus a weather adjustment from -1 to +2 (it starts at 0, but can be changed whenever you play the "adjust weather" rowing card). The river splits near the end, and so the current might go either right or left (depending on the mostly-random way the discs physically move), creating unpredictability (and, thus, a small chance of surviving). Canoes pushed over the falls must be bought back with gems, so it isn't something you want to have happen. This is a great little game, with a strong (if slightly artificial) theme, great components, and very interactive play. A very deserving award-winner and well worth seeking out!

Parthenon is the least water-themed of the games in this group, but I feel it qualifies (and it's my blog!). Players are attempting to advance the development of their Aegean island, through production, trade, and development. Each season, the island produces goods which they can trade to other players (risk-free, except you might make a bad deal) or to the larger non-player lands. It is here that much of the game lies, and thus the semi-watery theme. Travel to Athens, Sparta, or Ionia is relatively easy (draw one hazard card); travel to distant Italy, Carthage, or Egypt is trickier (two hazard cards). One of the major decisions of the game is what to ship, where to ship it to, and what defenses to send along. (As an added risk, random cards determine 'harbor status' when you arrive, and just might make your trip a bust even if you do make it safely.) There's a lot of risk (and randomness) to this process, and managing that risk is how you get ahead. Now, sea trade isn't the only mechanism of this game... You also have to build with the goods your develop and receive via trade. Each player island has a unique mix of goods it can produce, and none is self-sufficient. The goal is to move beyond simple subsistence and develop a full culture, even constructing two "wonders". Each step along the way gives you additional options (some fixed, some random). But the game lasts only 12 turns, so you can't dawdle! Random events added each turn add to the unpredictability, potentially either helping or severely hampering development. How you manage risk is more important than how you manage the other players (though only slightly). Drawbacks? Well, there are a lot of cards (some of which probably should have been counters or tiny wooden blocks or tiny wooden buildings to ease the monotony) and the game really only works as designed at 3 or 6 players, with some specified adjustments at 4 or 5 to make up for the unequal resource distribution. And the rules are a bit long and somewhat more imposing than they really need to be. But this looks like a nice variation on the Settlers form (trading and development) that allows for more strategy and risk-management, and with no randomness in production (though far more in trade).

Amazonas is also only semi-watery, being a game of exploration and discovery in the Amazon jungle. But as the river dominates the board, I'm going to let it into this group (especially since it makes this group closer to 1/3rd of the remaining games I have on hand). The board, as I said, shows a section of jungle, with numerous villages connected by jungle paths or river routes. The object of the game is to manage a successful expedition, which is judged by finding numerous and varied specimens of fish, iguana, orchids, butterflies, and parrots, and also by dealing successfully with the natives and, as best you can, meeting the secret mission assigned you at the beginning of the game (which will state 4 villages you should try to establish research stations in). Each village allows 1, 2 or 3 stations, at increasing cost, shows what specimen you can gain by building here, and connects to other villages. Each turn, an Event card is flipped (half are bad, preventing jungle or river movement for the turn, halving income due to a fire, or subjecting players to theft of resources; half are good, granting rewards or chances to hire native guides). Each player then selects an income card which sets their base income and determines which specimen pays a bonus this turn (or, if they play their "Native" card, negates the negative effect of the Event for them only). Highest total income (including specimen bonuses) gets to go first, then 2nd highest, etc. Income is spent to place more research stations and thus gather more specimens. Each income card can be used only once until all seven have been used (remember this mechanic from Niagara above?), and the game continues for 18 turns (the size of the Event deck, so every event will occur once each game). At the end, you score one point per specimen provided you have at least 3 of that type (none if you have 1 or 2), plus bonus points depending on how quickly you got to all 5 types, less penalty points for each village on your secret mission you failed to visit. A fairly simple game, but with lots of options each turn. Good play will very much help you (though luck in the Event deck is also critical), and there are significant ways to hamper your opponents as well (mostly by building in the smaller villages to block the short routes to their destinations, if you can guess what those are). It plays in under an hour. A minor drawback is that it plays at 3 or 4 players only, but that isn't always a bad thing.

Santiago is a water game of a different sort, as here water is rare, the most valuable resource of the game. Play starts with a barren desert divided into grids, with a single spring bubbling up at one lonely spot. Each turn, various plantation tiles (crops of bananas, sugar cane, potatoes, beans, or chili peppers with space for one or two planters) are put up for auction. Win the auction, you get first pick. But if you lose the auction, you get something extra (in addition to the last remaining plantation)... You get to be the Canal Overseer for the turn! Once plantations are selected and placed on the board, one or more canals are built, extending from the stream or from previously-placed canal segments. This will irrigate adjacent plantations, allowing them to grow and flourish. Non-irrigated plantations slowly dry up (losing one planter a turn) and return to desert (when no planters remain and more drying is called for). The other players must propose canal options for the turn, and are required to offer a bribe to the Overseer to encourage their preference! The game continues through several rounds (11 for the 3 or 4 player version, 9 with 5 players). At the end of this, everyone scores their plantations, with continuous blocks of the same crop being worth more than smaller, less orderly distributions. Everyone can score the same block, so long as they placed some share of it, but you score size times the number of planters you have working that area, so every turn a plantation goes without water means fewer points for you! This game is fairly simple, fairly quick (plays in around an hour), but has very real strategy and solid, continuous interaction among the players. A solidly designed game, well-produced, and well worth play.

Atlas & Zeus is the last of the water-themed games in my GenCon purchases, and an opposite to Santiago as here the problem is too much water, not too little. It's actually a relatively straightforward game, with two factions of Atlanteans (those worshiping Atlas and those worshiping Zeus, as the name suggests) struggling to be the last ones left as the islands sink. Initially, 16 characters are distributed one each to 16 islands. Each turn, players schedule 6 cards (3 each) to occur. These cards can move characters, cause combat, adjust the order or the islands' sinking, or otherwise modify the board. Eventually, only one player's characters will be left, and they win. There's constant conflict, as the circle of islands contracts at least one each turn (sometimes faster, based on the cards). There's also more than a little strategy and bluffing/guessing, as you have to pick your actions well in advance of knowing what your opponent will do. Clever choices can make or break your side. The game is a reasonably quick play (30-40 minutes) and straightforward to learn, so not a bad little game at all.

Hmmm... seems I liked pretty much everything here, at least a little. Niagara, Parthenon, and Santiago are highest on my list, but anything here is well worth your consideration, and Amazonas very close behind (and gaining an advantage over Parthenon if longer, more complex games are not to your liking).

Posted by ghoul at 03:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chocolate = Death (kinda)

Nazis' Exploding Chocolate Plans

See? It's not just me and my silly allergies!

Okay... it is mostly me and my silly allergies....

(Thanks, Jeanne!)

Posted by ghoul at 12:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack