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Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
June 23, 2005
I know both James Ernest and Mike Selinker. I've played games with both. And it's fair to say that they like the odd game of poker. In their new book, Dealer's Choice: The Complete Handbook of Saturday Night Poker Ernest and Selinker (with illustrations by Phil Foglio) offer up plenty of odd games. With a breezy writing style the authors make some good suggestions for hosting your own poker night, and then present a couple hundred poker variants for you to try. Most are crazy games that serious players will scorn, and some you'd have to be insane to actually stake money on. But everyone's likely find a new
April 15, 2005
I've completely lost track of what I've played. The week's almost a blur to me at this point, my body succumbing to days of fatigue, questionable eating habits, and unexpected emotional stresses. I barely know what day it is. I can tell you that I won the Acquire tournament and the team Catch Phrase tournament, crapped out early in both poker tournaments, finished second in Tigris and Euphrates and Tichu, the latter after getting set on a grand tichu call that should have been unstoppable (although I immediately called grand tichu again and made it), and lost in the semis of partnership cribbage.
On Wednesday night I ran this year's game show, and was heartbroken when the scoring system freaked out in round two. I made some changes to the code to accommodate ten more teams than last year (which, ironically, turned out to be unnecessary), and although the scoring code path in all three rounds is identical, somehow keystrokes started getting interpreted as the wrong letters/numbers. So mid-game we had to bail on automated scoring and have each team score themselves manually. Self-scoring is much faster than using the computer, though, so at least there was a silver lining. And the game itself went fine, exactly as I hoped it would go. Round one was the easiest round, round two saw teams start to differentiate themselves, and round three was the hardest. In fact, one team had a perfect score in rounds one and two, but tanked in round three allowing the Kraptastix to come from behind and win.
Last night I recorded a GeekSpeak with Derk and Aldie, who have been capitalizing on the ready availability of gaming personalities by bringing their audio recording equipment along. Oddly, the experience wasn't as much fun as I expected it to be-- it felt self-indulgent to spend two hours talking about myself. Perhaps that's inherent in the "this is your gaming life" format. I think I might have had more fun talking about topics other than myself. I was flattered to be asked, of course, but will anyone really care about anything we talked about? I dunno.
I have managed to play a couple of new games...
China: A revision of Web of Power with a new map and essentially the same gameplay. If you already have Web of Power, there's no need to upgrade. The key new rules are that each region's cloisters are scored immediately upon the region being filled (and unfilled regions get scored at the end of the game instead), and that a player can use a card to play a fortification on an empty cloister spot. Whoever builds a cloister there-- which could be (and usually is) the same player on the same turn-- scores double for that region when it scores and also scores double for any road scoring that cloister becomes involved in.
Kreta: Unlike Amazonas, this is a Stefan Dorra game I like. Players have identical set of action cards, each of which lets them do something different involving adding or moving pieces around the board. Once used, they can't be played again until someone plays a scoring card, at which point everyone retrieves their used cards. The big catch in the game is that there are about 25 different scoring focal points, and everyone can see the next two that will become active. The player who triggers a scoring reveals a new scoring nexus, and has the option to veto it and replace it with a new one drawn at random. So not all regions will score, and you won't have much notice about which ones are next. Some people felt this represented too random an element, but I found it perfectly fine. Not an A game, but probably somewhere in the B- to B range.
April 13, 2005
While I wait to play in the semis of the Tichu tournament (postponed so we can also play in partnership Crokinole), I thought I'd catch up on some more games played last night...
Manila: The first thiing you'll say upon seeing Manila is "Ooooooh, nice coins!" The overproduced plastic coins are a little too big for the room, so to speak, but are darn spiffy and typical of Zoch productions. This is a family game with strategic bidding, placement, and then a big element of luck as everything comes down to the roll of the dice. And we had a lot of fun with it. The uncertainty of the dice produces great moments full of anguished cries and happy cheers as unlikely circumstances come to pass. We acted on the buzz and started all the black market counters on the "0" space ABOVE the line on the chart, rather than on the bottom row below the line. This shortened the game, and admittedly I'd have liked another round or two, but time-wise it made the game clock in at what felt like exactly the right length. Not sure it has long-term staying power, but it'll get some mileage.
Tower of Babel: Reiner Knizia. Hans im Gluck. What could go wrong? But the early buzz on this game was mixed at best, generally downbeat at worst. I tried it with three players and found it dry, but interesting-- enough so that I plan to try again with five players (three was definitely sub-par-- the game involves structured deals/partnerships, and more players would certainly make that process more dynamic and varied). It's unlikely to knock anyone's socks off, however.
April 13, 2005
Sorry for the gap in reports, but I woke up on Monday with a mysterious pain in the knuckle of my left index finger, making it rather difficult to type. It seems to be lessening, and hopefully will be gone by Thursday. In the meantime, I wiped out in the $20 buy-in no-limit Hold 'Em tournament (I played horribly-- all that World Poker Tour is apparently no substitute for actual table experience), won the Acquire tournament, and finished second in the Euphrat & Tigris tournament. Michael and I wisely opted not to defend our partnership Spades title this year, neatly avoiding a nine+ hour committment. Yeesh.
Heckmeck im Bratwurmeck (aka Pickomino): A great little dice game from Zoch and that clever Knizia fellow, elevated from "nice" to "will buy" by the production value. A set of white domino-like tiles numbered from 21 to... 36? are laid on the table. On turn a player rolls a bunch of special dice (with worms instead of sixes), and must keep all of any one value and reroll the rest. This process continues as long as the player wishes, but he cannot keep a value he kept on a previous roll. A player can stop at any time and take any available tile of an equal or lesser value than his accumulated total, or he can steal the most recently-collected tile from any other player if his total matches it exactly. If a player's can't keep any dice because they all match dice he's already kept, he craps out and loses a tile. A fun, quick-moving (though not necessarily fast-ending) game in a small box.
Diamant: From Alan Moon and Bruno Faidutti comes this terrific crowd-pleaser, already online at Brettspielwelt. What guarantees this game a spot in the collection is that it plays equally well-- and equally quickly-- with any number from three to eight. A terrific press-your-luck game. There are lots of grumbles about the price-- Funagain lists it at $40, which is a lot for such a light game. But it wouldn't surprise me to see an American version before too long, which is bound to be cheaper.
Amazonas: If I hadn't known this was a Stefan Dorra game, it would have been easy to guess. The board and pieces are very colorful and attractive-- lovely plumage-- but the game is typical Dorra-- dry, mechanical, and containing few surprises. It's not a bad game, but it's not to my taste and it doesn't pass the Would I Ever Say, "Hey, let's play Amazonas!" Test.
April 10, 2005
Since the hotel has wireless access in the ballroom and I have a laptop this year, I'll be blogging live from the Gathering of Friends.
Australia: A new Kramer/Kiesling collaboration from Ravensburger. After one play, I'd rate this as being at the top of their collaborative efforts. There's been some concern expressed about a last-player advantage, but the jury's still out. This is a placement game that doesn't use an action point system, so there shouldn't be any talk about it being in the Tikal / Java / Mexica family. The game plays quickly, and packs quite a bit of goodness into such a reasonable package. There are enough options on your turn to make decisions meaningful, but not so many that analysis paralysis sets in. Very much looking forward to playing this again, and it's on my "buy" list.
Ubongo: A big-box (some might say too big) from Kosmos. Did you hate Bongo and Ricochet Robot? Then run, don't walk, away from this. Each player takes a board showing a unique pattern and six possible sets of Tetris-like pieces. A die roll determines which set each player must use, and then everyone races to fit those pieces into their pattern. Then everyone draws new pattern boards, and you repeat until the deck of boards is gone. The scoring system is tacked on and, in my opinion, quite poor but easily fixable. I liked the activity a lot, but it's not something I could see playing often. And if you're really good at spatial relations, nobody will play it with you.
Louis XIV: The first in a new mid-box line from Alea, this looks like a winner to me. Experienced players will easily get this down in under an hour and will not leave the table hungry.
March 05, 2005
Last night I played two games in which my self-calculated expected odds of winning are greater than 50%. Both games contain subtleties that new players often miss, and which experienced players can leverage to their benefit. History has shown I'm extremely good at doing so in these games. In Stephensons Rocket all three opponents were first-time players. I came in fourth. And not even a close fourth, but dead last. It'd be convenient to blame my finish on the unexpected plays of opponents. I shouldn't call them bad plays, because all those opponents finished ahead of me so how bad could they have been? But in some cases, they were certainly bad. A player could have merged a train and effectively forced an opponent to give up enough shares to give the moving player a majority at the merge, but he didn't. Any experienced player would have. I expected him to do so, based my turn on that expectation. When it didn't happen, I was left in an unexpected position. I should have adapted to the style of play that was in evidence, but instead I clung to my dogma and got squished like a little bug.
Santa Fe Rails, in contrast, was played against two experienced players. We play with a house rule that you may not redraw a 2x card following a turn in which you play one, a rule that improves the game dramatically. Don't play without it. There's a big luck factor in Santa Fe, especially in the later turns when it's far better to be lucky than good. That luck factor can decide the winner. Even so, I'd handicap myself as being the runaway favorite to win any game of Santa Fe I'm in. This isn't boasting. Historical data-- from Gathering tournaments and pick-up games to local games in multiple groups-- bears me out. I see and plan many turns ahead. I manage my hand effectively. I grok Santa Fe. Consequently, I win a disproportionate percentage of the time. Last night was no exception. I had good cards, but in the late game while my opponents pulled lucky draws I got garbage. My good cards came earlier, which meant I played fewer special cards and got more cities onto the table-- far more I usually do. We were all roughly even on cash by the end, so being more focused in the early game and having more cities in play swung things in my favor. Santa Fe Rails is a terrific game that deserves greater esteem than it seems to enjoy today.
February 16, 2005
Last night we finally got around to bringing Victory and Honor to the table. The designer of the game had kindly sent me a prototype a couple of years ago which we'd played a few times, and we'd all liked the game quite a bit. But it hadn't been pulled out in a while, so I was a bit rusty on the rules. No big deal-- I remembered the gist, so it would be a breeze to skim the published rules and teach the game.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
I like everyone involved with this product-- Jim Dietz, Frank Branham, Ty Douds-- all great people. But the rules for Victory and Honor are a nightmare. They read like someone squandered a DeLorean on a trip back to 1980 just to hire someone from Avalon Hill to convolute their rules.
The rules go to great lengths to define meaningless but thematic terms. The cards you collect are Spoils of War. Playing cards face-down is Sacrificing. Cavalry performs a "flanking maneuver." And so on. It's a freakin' trick-taking card game. The rules work far too hard to dress it up in military clothing. The liberal use of special terms winds up obfuscating rather than clarifying. Sacrifices, you see, always lose-- unless they're trump, in which case they win. Not much of a sacrifice, then, is it? Terms are defined before we know how to apply them. The rules tell us what to do with our won cards (Spoils of War) long, long before they tell us how to actually win them. I thought I'd missed something or skipped a section. The rules describe exceptions to the normal rules of play (such as for turn order) before they tell you the normal rules of play. Here's a great example. Rules for "End of Phase" include the line, "The general rules of play are still observed," before the general rules of play are described. This higgledy-piggledy order makes the rules a maze of twisty little passages, all alike-- impossible to navigate or learn from.
I practically threw the rule book across the room three times while explaining the rules. It took us MUCH longer than it should have to get going. The rule book actually stood in the way of us having a good time. Our initial enthusiasm was much dampened by the time we actually began play. Writing good, clear rules is not easy. Rule books are often one of the last things completed in the production of a game, sometimes going to print without being tested. Bad Idea. Publishers, please take the time to blind playtest your rules with multiple groups who have not played your game. Your players will thank you.
January 26, 2005
Last night's sessions were noteworthy enough to report on.
For Ticket to Ride: Mystery Train we had five players. I went first and kept two tickets: Duluth-Houston and Sault St. Marie-Oklahoma City, which overlap. I then decided to try something I hadn't tried before, and immediately drew more tickets. I got the Station Manager, an expansion card that offers a 10 point bonus for connecting to the most cities by the end of the game with no penalty for failure, so I kept that. I also drew Seattle-New York, one of the game's biggest tickets. Since a number of juicy 6-routes can be used to complete this route, I kept it.
Before long everything went fubar. Michael adopted his frequent approach of grabbing 6-routes, claiming Seattle-Helena and Helena-Duluth. Meanwhile, a party broke out in the Great Lakes as all three other players began snapping up routes in that region like hotcakes. The unexpected crowding of that section of the board created a bit of a panic. Through all of this I'd been collecting cards, trying to put together some kind of viable route across the north. Then Mark poached the Sault St. Marie-Duluth connection I'd been counting on, but which I'd foolishly left vacant. That oversight ultimately cost me the Duluth-Houston ticket. A frenzied westward rush ensued, as two of us tried to connect to the Pacific Northwest while another built north from L.A. and angled for a route east.
I've never seen a Ticket to Ride game with as much unintentional hosage as we had here. I spent the entire game tensed up, trying to keep my route options as open as possible while securing what legs I could in my desperate bid to claim my big ticket. I finally managed a tortuous route: NY-Montreal-Toronto-Sault St. Marie-Winnipeg-Helena-Denver-Salt Lake City-Portland-Seattle, with a Seattle-Calgary leg thrown in for good measure (meant to connect back to Winnipeg, but thwarted immediately upon claiming it-- rendering that leg utterly useless to me except insomuch as it also hosed two opponents). Against all expectations, instead of connecting Sault St. Marie to Oklahoma City via the double-wide wild N-S run, I took the long way around and connected from Denver. I managed to snag the longest route by one train, offsetting my missed ticket, and nabbed the Station Agent bonus with my last singleton play to win by a slim margin over Michael.
There was much more ticket-drawing in this game, partly due to curiosity about the expansion tickets and partly because people got so hosed early on that they were desperate for salvation. I loved the tension in this game, and wonder if future plays would be enhanced by forcing everyone's first turn to be a ticket draw. The game experience is dramatically different when you've got difficult goals to attain. The dismay everyone felt as the board snarled up was fantastic, forcing us to improvise and find alternate solutions. Great stuff, and if the game was always like this I'd be playing it much more.
We gained a sixth player for Big Boss and saw something new: when the deck ran out, Mark was down to only three cards and had to pass. He had thirteen shares of stock (average is ~9) and a flag, and his shares were in pretty good companies-- so if nothing became a cash cow at 50 and his passing was therefore not as big a handicap, he looked to be a contender. As it turned out, a couple of us held most of the confining cards as long as possible, so in the end only two companies merged and the most valuable was worth 40. Despite his five or six passed turns Mark seemed in the running. Unusually for Big Boss, nobody was the obvious runaway leader. Sensing that scores would be close, we decided to count off our cash instead of simply announcing. Everyone took their cash in hand and counted off 100. Then another 100. Then another. Then 50. Then 10, etc. until the player's cash ran out and they declared their total. Mark was the 2nd player out at ~350. At 390 Damon dropped out with 389, leaving just me and Nate. I slapped down a 5, Nate did the same. I added a 1, and Nate matched. Then I grimaced and held up my empty hands-- I was out. Nate laughed and opened his hand, showing me... air. He was out, too-- we tied at 396! An amazing finish, with incredibly tight scores. In fact, as my last play I merged Panthera and Solitude and decided to assign the merging block to Panthera, since I had only one share of the Solitude. I almost went the other way anyway, to make the accounting easier and have Solitude pay out at 10 instead of 9. But Nate had four Solitude, and had I gone for the lazy accounting Nate would have won by three bucks! As with Ticket to Ride, this was a tense game. The drama of the slow reveal of the final tally was terrific.
January 20, 2005
Eric Hautemont of Days of Wonder swung through town yesterday, giving me a chance to play a prototype of their upcoming Ticket to Ride: Europe. I liked what I saw. While the original game will be more appealing to families and casual players, the Europe map offers tenser, more strategic gameplay. The single biggest improvement is in the structure of the map itself, which offers very few long routes. This puts more focus on the tickets and route planning, rather than the unsatisfying but often successful "grab as many 6-routes as possible" approach. The tickets are also distributed differently: everyone gets 1 long and 3 short tickets at the start of the game (from which 2-4 are kept), and the rest of the deck contains only short tickets. This makes drawing tickets less of a gamble and therefore more viable. Players can now play stations on cities to let them share an opponent's route leading out of that city, but doing so costs you four points, 1-3 cards, and an entire turn. It's an option of last resort, but it's great to have the safety net to fall back on. Some routes require a wild card, so people will be taking them from the display more often.
The least successful new element are tunnels. When claiming a tunnel, three cards are flipped up from the top of the deck. For each one that matches the color used to claim the route (wilds always match), the claiming player must pay an addition card of that type. If they can't or won't pay, they don't get the route. They take back the cards they used, but their turn ends. This random element seems out of place in this version of the game, but would be more welcome in the standard game for some of those long routes in the north and south.
Ticket to Ride: Europe will use full-size cards instead of the original half-size ones. I suppose people think these are easier to shuffle, but I like the smaller cards which take up less table space.
Alan Moon is the Microsoft of game designers. His first versions of products sometimes have problems, but he's very good at working them out over time and evolving them into better incarnations. After one play, Ticket to Ride: Europe appears to address the problems I had with the original game, and I'm now eager to get a copy so I can get it back on the table.
December 10, 2004
From the Shameless Plug Department: A new publisher has burst onto the game scene with a whole new way of selling games. SimplyFun games will be sold solely through in-home parties ala The Pampered Chef or Tupperware-- they will not be available online or through retail stores.
The first wave of five games from SimplyFun includes TGR editor Peter Sarrett's second published game, Tunebaya, in which players score points for singing songs with the group. Tunebaya was codesigned with Michael Adams, designer of such Cranium games as Cadoo, Cariboo, Hullabaloo, and Hoopla.
Tunebaya retails for $35.00.