Friday, March 25

Reviewing for The Hogs of War

So, something cool happened this last week.  I was asked to join as a contibuting author on a blog in my local gaming area of Northwest Arkansas.  It's The Hogs of War, a really good group of guys primarily interested in Miniature War-Gaming like Warhammer and such.  They are true nerds (like myself), however, and they also play board games, RPGs, and the likes.

I've been asked to post two reviews a week, so I'm trying to keep busy with that.  I'll be reusing the ones on this blog first, so as not to waste any work!  I'll still be posting a few personal notes on here, along with my Board Game Design work, but you'll be able to keep up with my reviews over at the Hogs now if you're interested. :)

Wednesday, March 16

Cigars and Rum...No, Seriously. - Cuba

The game board - the market is the central collection of stuff.
Sometimes, you just have the urge to build an efficient and effective economic engine in a board game. Sometimes you wanna play politics and influence votes and policies. Sometimes you wanna ship stuff. In Cuba, you can do all three. That's right - a three for one special packed up in a nicely written, designed, and published game. Published by Rio Grande, I think Cuba does a nice job working in familiar mechanics with some slighty different options to give a fun experience. 

I don't own this game - my folks do - but I've managed to get 4 plays of it in thus far. (I never review a game before I've been able to play it at least 3 times, unless I tag it "First Impressions." It's like reading the syllabus to a college course and then immediately taking the final exam - you just don't know enough about the material to start commenting on it.) Nothing about Cuba is going to scream utter originality - worker placement, bidding, role selection, resource acquisition, producing goods, shipping goods, victory points - but the mix of the various mechanics feels pretty fresh.  The point of the game, of course, is to net yourself the most victory points. One mechanic - which is the worker role - was new to me. You place your worker in a specific square on your player board, which has 12 squares. You then collect either resources or products from the entire row and column that your worker is in.

The game is medium-weight, so it's going to take some time to learn. Once you master the basics, though, it's the strategy that will burn in your mind. Cuba runs for 6 rounds, each round consisting of each player getting the option of using 4 out of 5 possible roles. The roles are - worker, tradeswoman, architect, foreman, and mayor. Workers produce resources (stone, wood, water) and/or products (tobacco, citrus, sugar) from your fields. The tradeswoman allows you to purchase or sell products or goods in the market, or alternatively to select one resource or one product of your choice. The architect allows you to erect buildings, which replace your fields, or alternatively grants you 1 or 2 victory points, depending on what's available. The foreman allows you to activate all the buildings in range of your worker, or alternatively one single building of your choice. And the mayor allows you to ship products or goods for victory points, or alternatively gain some pesos. Yeah, that's a mouthful!
The various buildings, all with costs and abilities.
The game play is a mix between your typical euro, with one neat little twist: at the end of each round everyone bids for influence in parliament.  This is done with the use of your leftover role card (all of them have vote values) and money, which you chose secretly.  Then, based on the winner of the vote, 2 out of a possible 4 "acts" are enacted.  These acts come across a little alien during a player's first read through of the rules or play, but they become absolutely pivotal to winning the game as a person becomes more experienced.  The first two acts always relate to paying either money or goods to gain VPs, which is optional - you can choose to ignore taxes if you want.  No repercussions!  However, meeting one of the two gets you 2 VPs; meeting both gets your 4 VPs.  In a game where most are decided by 4 or less VPs, you can see how important this becomes. 

The last two acts affect game play, such as markets and production and ships and such.  So, the player with the winning bid gets his crack at passing two acts of his choice.  You can see how quickly that can sway the way the game goes, if you're the one controlling the most beneficial acts or the most hurtful ones.  You can really lay your foot down and keep the direction of the game flowing in your favor, if you're willing to keep some influence and pesos in reserve for that round.

Overall, this is a pretty neat game.  The art and component quality is very high - the art is well drawn, the peices are all good quality, and the styling really puts you in the mood to hang out in the tropics.  All we need is some banana cocktails with those little umbrellas.  I honestly don't have any major gripes with the game, save the fact that it doesn't do anything super original.  That makes it just a tad...bland.  Like I said before, all of the mechanics in the game are ones I'm very familiar with, so I tend to lull a little bit into the "same old - same old" routine as I play it.  That being said, the game does what it does pretty well and provides one of my favorite things about any game - the chance to put together a well-oiled economic machine.

The player board, with some buildings erected.

What Cuba does nicely:
  • Great looking game, sturdy components
  • A nice mix up of familiar mechanics
  • Lots of tough decisions and points of strategy make a solid medium-weight experience
Where Cuba is a bit stinky:
  • Lack of originality - mechanics are in essence re-washed from other games
Overall Rating: 3-Stars - A fun, challenging game that a player can play many times and have equally different experiences.

Tuesday, March 15

Railways of the World - A Train Game That's Actually About Trains!

I admit that, at first, I wasn't even remotely interested in a game about trains. Why, you might be idly pondering, would I want to avoid a genre that I think is ripe for grand board gaming fun? Because, quite frankly, every train or series of connected "things" game that I've played relies either solely or heavily on a set collecting mechanic, which is one of the very few mechanics I truly despise. Resource collecting, money collecting, card collecting - which could all be reasoned to be some form of set collecting, I suppose - are fine with me. It's just that when I start collecting sets just to "lay them down" and form a line, I get supremely bored. Two specific examples that come to mind are Ticket to Ride and Thurn & Taxis. It's not that I hate these games, per se (I own copies of both of them), it's just that I tend to get bored quickly.

Then, along comes a game with trains that's actually about building a railway! Railways of the World, which is published by Eagle Games of Fred Distribution, is big game with simple mechanics that delivers a really strong dose of the feeling of being a true railroad baron. It is apparently a reboot of Railroad Tycoon, which I've never played. Players take on the role of a penniless entrepreneur out to make a fortune by establishing links between cities, upgrading their engines, urbanizing underdeveloped cities, and delivering good cubes to make income. With the addition of railroad operations cards and railroad baron role cards technically as an "expansion" to add spice to a solid base game, RotW delivers a great experience.

Like I mentioned above, the rules are really simple. The game board is a hexed map of the Northeastern United States (with an alternate board for Railways of Mexico included in this box) depicting various cities with various colors - red, blue, black, yellow, or purple, with a good deal of them grey - representing cities that are not urbanized. Each turn consists of three rounds, in which each player will take one of five possible actions each round. The beginning of each turn is a round of bidding, where players will pay for the right to go first. At the end of the third round, income is awarded and then dividends must be paid on each bond a player possesses. The actions are: lay track, upgrade your engine, urbanize, deliver a goods cube, or select a railroad operations card. To lay track, you pay for it (hexes with water or mountains or ridges cost a lot more than open ground) and can lay a maximum of 4 each round - but any unfinished link (one that doesn't connect from city to city) is discarded at the end of the third round, and you don't get any money back. You always want to finish your links.

Urbanizing a city costs a ton of money - $10,000! - but it allows you to place a new city tile of your choice and add two goods to the board on that city, which really helps you. Delivering a goods cube is simple: take any color cube from a city you have a link to and deliver it to a city of the same color (red, black, blue, yellow, or purple). For each link you traverse, the owner of that link gains an income point. So, you could conceivably deliver across three links, all owned by separate players, and gain an income point for each. You are limited in how far you can travel by the rating (number) of your engines. You start at 1, so you could deliver from one city to another. The interesting thing is, a link is defined as "City A to City B." The actual number of tracks laid doesn't make a difference - whether it's 1 or 20.

The real question is, how do you pay for everything? As you gain income points for delivering goods, you move up on the income track, which represents how much money you will be paid during each income phase. But how do you get started? The answer is simple: debt! At any time, you can take bonds to fund the purchase of track, urbanization, engine upgrades, or even bidding. But bonds are scary - you have to pay $1000 per bond you have during the final phase of each turn, and at the end of the game you lose on VP per bond you have taken out. And... *gasp* you can never pay them back! This is debt that you can't get out of! I first thought that this was a crazy hard rule, seeing as when my wife and I finished our first game, she ended with 19 bonds and I had 4. She was automatically at a 15 point deficit for end scoring. However I began to see the cleverness to it. It adds a level of stress on the player that I came to value the more plays we got it. When do I expand, how much, how worthy of a bond is this makes decisions a lot harder, in a good way.

So what do I have to gripe about? Not too much. The plastic and cardboard components are fantastic and well made, but the bonds and the paper money will likely not survive lots of plays. I may replace the money with poker chips and possibly laminate the bonds (which are a smooth-plastic finish on very, very light cardstock). Also, the components contain these really neat "empty city markers" that you place on a city tile when it's resources have been exhausted. These pieces are super cool - water towers, and mining towers, and a theatre, etc. And yet...they do nothing. They're just place holders! I thought it'd be great if you could actually invest in the various cities and erect these structures for some kind of bonus.

The rules were clean, but they lacked sufficient examples and explanation - it took some time to reason out how some of the mechanics worked. Also, in a few places on the board, the delineation between "water hex" and "not water hex" was difficult. Mountains all have a white dot in the middle, so there is no confusion - why not put a blue dot in the middle of all water hexes?

My last issue with the game is simply that this is a brtual game on beginners who are too loose with their money. Granted, they shouldn't be - and I guess you learn the hard way! - but with no mechanism on relieving bonds, you get stuck with your choices early on. This doesn't bother me personally, I could see it as an issue with some players. The railroad operations cards that are optional really help to give a catchup mechanic and they can't be ignored.

What RotW does well:

  • The theme is really connected with game play, and it made me feel like a true railroad baron!
  • Simple rules with pretty deep strategy - lots of hard choices that don't weigh the game down mechanically.
  • Most components were nice, the board is attractive, looks pretty good.

What RotW doesn't do well:

  • Some of the components are flimsy and paper money always wears out!
  • I felt that the rule book was lacking in examples and clarity in some respects.
  • Not easy to catch up when you get down - you really have to stay with the pack to compete.

Overall Rating: 3 Stars. A solid game that will make its way back to our table, for sure.

Friday, March 11

Boardgame Design Journal, vol. 1: Concept

So I tried my hand at game design last year for the first time. I created a card based board game called "Verdict," that was designed to capture the feeling of two opposing lawyers in an intense courtroom battle. I submitted it at GameCon Memphis and you can see it listed in the contest here (scroll down and you'll see it). I was given the opportunity to stay in the contest and have my game judged, or to drop out of the contest and submit my game to Jay Tummelson, the CEO of Rio Grande Games, to see if he thought it could go any further. He wasn't interested in the game and thought it sounded original, but not exciting. As a result, I put it on the shelf when I got home and hadn't thought much about it since.

I'm back to the drawing board, as it were, with new inspiration! I am going to attempt to get a prototype done in 4 weeks or less, and then get that on the table before my friends for play-testing and critique. I'm hoping that this time around I can create something a bit more compelling than Verdict.

This game is tentatively called "Slovania," which is my attempt to create a fictional Eastern European sounding name for a country. Tentatively, the game would be described like this:

“The nation of Slovania has always been a grey place, its weary inhabitants ever the more superstitious of the queer sounds lurking in the shadows of the night. Today, their fears become reality! Players take on the role of one of four supernatural factions - vampires, werewolves, necromancers, or zombies - each attempting to conquer Slovania and rule its people.

Players will use raw strength, mind control, or clever subterfuge to gain influence in the various regions of Slovania. They will draw on their wealth to influence the distraught king to their whims. Slowly, they’ll spread enough darkness over the land to name a new tyrant among the dark legions. One question remains – who will it be?”

In a very brief nutshell, the object of the game is to reach 8 Infamy Points. Infamy is awarded by gaining regions (taking over villages or cities), defeating a player commander in battle, defeating one of the non-player hunter groups (groups that will come into play and hunt your monsters down as you gain infamy), or purchasing favor from the king.

The game would be a good mix of "player versus board" and "player versus player" mechanics. Combat will be simple - the mechanics of combat themselves not the focus of the game - and there will be different paths to take to victory. For example, werewolves will be fierce, powerful combatants, but will lack any delicacy in matters of subterfuge; whereas vampires will be stronger in their mental abilities than their physical ones. By design, werewolves would be a natural choice to use brute force for victory, while vampires might infiltrate cities and regions and slowly siphon their resources.

In addition to the four factions, each one will have different commanders (randomly selected) to represent a particular play style. In the example above, it may be that you are playing vampires, but you draw the commander - The Banelord, a vicious general and brutal tactician. You may instead lead your vampires in a military run for victory.

Here's hoping to get this project started on the right foot!

Wednesday, March 9

Avast, Ye! - Merchants and Marauders

I like pirates. I like board games. It’s then no stretch to apply simple logic and assume that I would like a pirate themed board game! History has proven to be a bit rocky (or at least lacking) concerning the reviews and critical reception of a few titles, such as Blackbeard or Pirate's Cove. Z-Man Games with designers Christian Marcussen and Kasper Aagaard have really done the genre some pirate justice with Merchants and Marauders.

In M&M, you get to play the role of one of 16 possible "sea captains" out to gain the most glory (10 glory points are required to win). You'll notice that I have this in quotations - a cool feature of the game is that it doesn't pigeon hole you into playing one certain way. You get to choose between two major strategies: spend your time and energy shipping goods to produce coin and glory points, or raid merchants and other players by committing acts of piracy for glory. That's the defining element that gives this game so much flexibility. Should I go crazy, swashbuckling pirate on any fool unlucky enough to cross my path? Or do I keep my nose clean, stick to the safer waters, and trade goods to make my bank?

In either case, your strategy is supplemented by a few other ways to make glory points. There are two types of cards that make their way to the table - rumors and missions. Rumors require you to reach a certain location and then make a skill check to complete the rumor (which will sometimes include minor battling). Missions are similar, but often are a bit trickier. In either case, you will reap monetary rewards or advantages on the game board and (more importantly) a glory point for completing them! You also get a glory point for defeating an opposing captain (player or non-player) in battle, for raiding a merchant ship worth 12 or more gold, and a one time point for upgrading to one of the larger, more costly ships. Finally, you can - in true pirate style - stash gold in a your cardboard treasure chest (yes, you get a 3-D treasure chest!) for 1 glory point per gold stash, up to a maximum of 5 points. This is kept secret from the other players and only revealed when you declare that you've won.

The game mechanics have enough nuances and depth to make them challenging, and yet they are simple enough to keep game play going without too much "crunching." You essentially have 3 action points each turn, with 3 possible action choices: move, port, and scout. The map is divided into sea zones and ports. With one move action you can traverse a sea zone to an adjacent one, or you can move from a sea zone into a port. Port takes one action point, but allows you to do a multitude of actions, from buying ship upgrades to gaining rumors or missions, to buying and selling goods. Scouting is what you use to look for merchant ships (if interested in raiding them) or other captains. Naval ships and pirate ships controlled by the board show up and pose a threat to players. Naval ships hunt pirates and/or captains with nationalities they are at war with. Pirate ships hunt merchants. In either case, you can have enemies around you fast! The quickest way to avoid being hurt is to stay in the ports as much as you can - it takes longer to "port hop" around like this, but you can stay under the radar relatively easily.

With most abilities, you simply roll an amount of dice and hope for one or more successes, with a success being a 5 or a 6 on a six-sided die (cleverly marked with a skull and cross bones for easy and pirate-y reference!). You do have a hand of glory cards that allow you to "cheat" the rules with special abilities and such - these add a ton of flair to the game and really keep you on your toes wondering what your opponent has when you are battling a player captain.

My only complaint with the game comes in the same vein as I am praising it. I praise it for being a game that lets the player make a choice on how to accomplish his goal (of winning the game) primarily by being a merchant or a pirate. However, in my limited amount of plays thus far, it has been exponentially harder for a pirate to succeed at gaining glory from raiding merchant ships on the board, compared to picking up the right goods and shipping them for a glory point as a merchant. When buying goods, you draw 6 cards (sometimes more, depending upon your captain's abilities and the special abilities of each port) and get to look at a selection before choosing. The more you buy in bulk, the cheaper. You then cart those goods in the safest route you can plot and sell them for money and a glory point - besides the sailing, there is minimal risk involved in this.

A pirate player, however, has to engage in a mini battle when raiding merchants. He draws three cargo cards and notes their special icons, either hits to his ship or the merchant trying to escape him. Through a dice rolling mechanic, he can add, subtract, or replace cards on the table. He has the chance of having his ship injured, which will require making to port for repairs, and at worst can be sunk. The cards are valued from 1 - 5 in gold value, with 3 being the most common. So on an average flip, he will see 9 gold worth shown. If he gets no other adds or replaces, the first flip will rarely yield a successful raid for glory - and he might lose everything in the process! The key here seems to be attacking player-character captains and raiding merchant ships as "option 2" when deciding how to gain points, since defeating a player-captain always nets you glory.

Besides what appears (to me) to be a slight imbalance in the game, the game is really, really fun! I played it three nights in a row and can tell you I want to play it another 10 times. It's definitely worthy of 4 Stars and is, without a doubt, the most pirate-y game I've gotten the chance to enjoy. If I may submit to you: Yarrrrr?

Where it succeeds:
  • Excellent components, good art
  • The theme permeates this entire game
  • Enough player v. player to keep it interesting, but is not necessary and does not dominate (reassurance for more timid types)
  • Simple, elegant mechanics that capture the thrill without being too thick

Where it struggles:
  • Slight imbalance between being a pirate and being a merchant
  • "Port hopping" has been a staple of merchants so far and can be annoying, but is solved by the designers own "cuthroat variant."

Rating: 4 Stars - This game is an absolute blast and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. Yo-ho!

Thursday, November 11

Le Havre - Ship It, Ship It Good!

I'm a big fan of Uwe Rosenberg games (minus Bohnanza, which I really, really dislike!) and I tend to gravitate towards medium - heavy European style board games. I like gathering resources and having to make tough decisions when doing so; I enjoy constructing buildings that earn me either points or in-game cash to expand further; I find satisfaction from building economic engines that string multiple components (resources, buildings, etc.) together to create larger gains. It's like Uwe stole the keys to my little board gamer heart, unlocked all of its secrets, and constructed a game that he knew - KNEW - would steal me away. That game is Le Havre!

Le Havre is all about running a shipping company (abstractly) in the French city of "Le Havre" (which I found out means 'The Port') in which you will manipulate the resources offered to you in various ways to make lots and lots o' money (francs). One of the most interesting parts of the game to me is the fact that money translates directly into victory points. It makes every financial decision that much more tense and important when I am literally investing my victory points in the hopes of better returns. Each franc matters! There are three major ways to make cash in Le Havre: construct buildings, use buildings, and ship goods. I want to touch on these individually.

Constructing buildings is one of the cornerstones of kicking some serious butt in Le Havre. Buildings have about five major attributes to consider: Construction Cost: What resources will it cost me to build this; Value: How many francs is this building worth to me (remember: francs are victory points!); Entry Fee: What will other players have to pay me to enter this building; Action: What ability does this building grant the person who enters it; Type of Building: What kind of building is this and how does it interact with other building options. Without going over each one of these attributes in great detail, you can see that these factors all tie in together to create a wide variety of choices and strategy!

Using the various buildings is essential to making your finely tuned economic machine really sparkle. The actions that buildings let your perform end up being the meat and potatoes of your strategy. Buildings allow you to convert basic goods (how all goods start) into "worked" goods, such as iron to steel or clay to brick. Worked goods are much more valuable and required for building some of the more valuable buildings and ships in the game.

I want to give you a very basic idea of how using various goods and buildings could look over the course of several turns. Let's say that you use a building you own called The Fishery which allows you to gain three fish. On your next turn, you enter a building called The Smokehouse that your friend John owns. You pay John the entry fee of "1 food," and you convert the three fish you gained last turn into 'smoked fish,' the worked good for fish. On your next turn, you go to a special building you also own called The Fish Restaurant. There, you are able to sell each smoked fish you have for 3 francs. So, over the course of three rounds of effort, you just made yourself 9 francs! Not too bad!

The last major way to make some serious francs is through the use of shipping. During the course of the game, one objective is to build ships to help feed your workers and allow you to ship goods. One of the buildings - the Shipping Line, if I remember correctly - allows you to fill up your owned ships with goods and send them on their way to be purchased, which earns you some mullah. Worked goods typically earn better than standard, so it's good to have planned out your shipping ahead of time. In the example I gave you above, the player ended up hauling in 9 francs. A single steel ships for 8 francs!! It's not hard to see the value in a good shipping strategy from the get-go. The Shipping Line comes into play a bit later in the game, so this is one you have to prepare for.

Le Havre is a fantastic game. The things that I have highlighted here are just fractions of what makes this such a fun one to break out. With so many buildings and strategies to explore, it's impossible for me to feel as though I've conquered the game in the 12 or so plays I've given it. On top of that, there are 6 "Special Buildings" used in each game and drawn randomly from a deck of 40 (if memory serves - possibly 30), so having the exact same experience from one game to another is extremely rare. It is my highest rated game over at Ye Olde Geek, coming in for me at a 9.5 rating. I'd definitely hand out my first official 5-star rating to it as well!

Go forth and GAME!


Thursday, August 26

And Another Featured Link

Some friends and I have thrown together a group to keep an ongoing, interactive calendar of local gaming events (specifically RPG and Board Games) in the Northwest Arkansas (NWA) area so that we can all stay informed. It's the NWA RPG and Board Game Meetup and anyone is welcome to join. It's very informal and simply a medium to keep local gamers in the "loop" on what games are going on where and when in the area.

Check it out if you live in the NWA radius!