Sunday, July 24, 2005

Euro update: Friedrich, Caravans of Ahldarahd, King Arthur Kartenspiel, Tower of Babel, Saboteur

Friedrich: To you wargamers out there who are curious about this one, sorry to lump it in with the euros; but this is more an extremely well-themed euro than wargame to my mind. At the end of the day, this is a card management game, especially for the Prussian player: you have a hand of "power" cards, and you have to use them most efficiently to fend off the encroaching powers, juggling the many fronts adroitly.

I wasn't as immediately blown away by Friedrich as I might have been given the strength and reputation of some of the folks recommending it. But I did rather like it, and I liked it more thinking about it in retrospect, which is a good sign (so many games wilt once you start thinking about them). There is excitement, there are tough decisions, and there is great historical flavor. It captures some of the great tensions of Hannibal, in the sense that you need to be able to play through a bad deal and then capitalize on the good ones. The playing time is a little long – plan on 3.5 to 4 hours – and there is some worry that the French position isn't all that interesting (and so the game might be better 3-player than 4). But overall, I quite liked it and will definitely be angling to play again. But I should disclose that I did get to play Prussia, certainly the most interesting player position.

Caravans of Ahldarahd: If a new company turns out a game that sounds interesting and isn't too pricey, I'm usually willing to give it a shot. This is rarely a percentages play, though, and BlindLuck Studios can't quite deliver the goods here. The concepts are neat: a game with personal boards where you can occasionally play on other players' boards, a cash-management/negotiation game with very tight cash, and the always-reliable bidding elements. But the balances are off. Cash is so tight you can't reliably do anything and can get in a nasty hole quickly with no hope of recovery, and there are not enough auctions to keep the game moving. You end up with a game with fairly boring auctions and that just has too much inertia. I think it's fixable (add more income possibilities and auction more stuff), but isn't that the game company's job? As is, I don't think the game works. I have some curiosity to play it again, but it's probably unlikely in practice.

King Arthur Kartenspiel: I bought this game in a moment of frustration, I think; after playing a run of interesting but flawed games, I craved more of Knizia's reliable excellence. Unfortunately, I neglected the 8+ age range on the side of the box (always a bit of a red flag for me personally), and on reading the rules, I didn't think there was enough there to keep me happy. This is Knizia, though, the master of getting lots of mileage out of a few rules; if you use the Profispiel rules, this is a good game. Not a brain burner, not really "meaty", but a pleasant, short, and modestly challenging game, on the order of his solid "Herr der Ringe ... Kartenspiel" games (which I always thought were a bit underrated), maybe a bit better, and the price point (under $20) is appropriate.

Saboteur: This is the "traitor" game that maybe Shadows over Camelot should have been. Players are dwarves trying to dig for the gold, but a few of them are saboteurs trying to make sure the group never gets there. The underlying game is pretty weak (it's basically Mille Bournes), but it's short, and allows the players to concentrate on the fun stuff, i.e., figuring out who the bad guys are. Three hands should take 45 minutes, everyone gets to have a crack at both sides most likely, and it scales well up to about 7 or 8. My only complaint is that it might be a touch tough on the Saboteurs in general, but overall this is quite clever and I like it, although the replayability is probably limited. If you like lighter stuff and routinely come up with larger numbers of players, definitely check it out. This is another game that benefits tremendously from being appropriately priced (only $15 list).

Tower of Babel: I'm up to maybe 6-7 plays on this and I definitely like it a lot; so far, this is the eurogame of 2005 for me. Even Kim, who was initially nonplussed, came around to it on our most recent playing as the strategies have become clearer, and she now enjoys it. For me, this is in the same weight class with games like Attika, Saint Petersburg, Ticket to Ride, and such, but is leaps and bounds ahead of those games in my opinion. It's a classic Knizia middleweight, in that despite being fairly straightforward, more depth and more strategies come into focus the more you play the game. It gets great bang for the complexity and time investment buck. The game could use a small player aid though; one of the obstacles for Kim was remembering the different ways to get points. Even though it doesn't have the weird scoring of some of Knizia's games, it seems like it's just a bit awkward if you haven't personally read the rules.

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