Monday, October 31, 2005

Hacienda, Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel

Back in the halcyon days of the late 90s, Hans im Glück was the go-to brand for meatier games: Euphrat & Tigris, Samurai, El Grande, Aladdin's Dragons, and Die Macher were just a few of the classic games published under their label. alea stole their thunder for a while; but the 00s have seen a bit of down-market pressure, with alea losing some of their early magic, and with Hans im Glück moving more in the direction of Carcassonne than the next El Grande. Still, with alea having limited output and no longer doing much in the way of big-box stuff, Hans im Glück is still one of the more reliable names in gaming for the serious gamer; you just might need to apply a little more discretion than you used to.

So, what have they got for us this time?

Hacienda is a new game from Wolfgang Kramer, this time without a design partner. The theme is of farming and cattle-herding in Argentina. At least, I think it's supposed to be in Argentina. Anyway, players play cards to build farms (which are a strong source of VPs and a modest source of income) and build up cattle herds to try to connect to markets (which are a strong source of income but a weaker source of VPs). Money is required to buy more land and animal cards, as well as to install Haciendas and irrigation, both of which significantly improve VPs. All the cards are acquired Alan R. Moon-style, drafted from 4 face-up cards or drawn blind from a deck.

Hacienda was a modest surprise for me. For a big-box game from a top designer and a strong label, I expected good things, but this was moderated somewhat by recent weaker games from Hans im Glück, like Attika or a lot of the recent Carcassonne milking, combined with the fact that Wolfgang Kramer, even though he is undeniably one of the three giants that dominate modern eurogame design (with Teuber and Knizia), often does stuff that isn't exactly to my taste (like Expedition). But Hacienda exceeded these expectations, and I like it a lot. It's odd in that it feels vaguely reminiscent of a few games (Reibach definitely for the drafting, Through the Desert maybe for the herds trying to reach markets/oasis before being cut off) without actually feeling derivative. This is probably because it adds the whole cash management element; you need to balance the need to acquire actual VPs with earning enough money to fund future purchases of cards. This sounds similar to the idea in Saint Petersburg, a game which had some problems for me; but the trade-offs in Hacienda are much more subtle. Each play has certain income and VP consequences, you have many choices and very few constraints, and Hacienda lacks Saint Petersburg's multiplicative effects. Additionally, Hacienda has a very sensible playing time (an hour-ish), and is very easy to explain. I also like this new trend towards double-sided boards; Hacienda includes two very different setups on the two sides of the board. The sheet of variants is a nice touch too, as the game is clearly highly suited for them.

Hacienda was not quite my top pick for Essen, but it was a very entertaining game that left me thinking about alternate approaches, and after a couple plays I am enthused.

The Euphrat & Tigris Kartenspiel is interesting in that it is a more or less direct port of the boardgame. Most "card game" versions of popular boardgames (Settlers/Starfarers card games, San Juan, El Cabellero, King of the Elves) have changed significantly to adapt to the new format. Not E&T. Almost everything you know about the boardgame applies here: leaders, conflicts, kingdoms, treasures, monuments. The only fundamental change is that now we have an abstract, 1.5-dimensional board instead of the classic grid. The kingdoms line up in 9 consecutive "stacks", and can be joined by placing a card between them. That, and the fact that scores are secret ... even your own. So you need to remember what you've got.

I liked the E&T cardgame, although it didn't have a huge "wow" factor. It's short and very easy to teach to anyone who's familiar with E&T, so it was good for about 5 rapid plays. That's pretty good. But each time I played, I couldn't help feeling a nagging suspicion that something was out of whack. I can't quite identify what it is, and that bugs me further. But something feels vaguely off with the rhythm of the game, or maybe the density of the playing field. Part of it may be that the cardgame is so similar to the boardgame that I have phantom pains for the tactical tile-laying game that is missing.

Regardless of these ephemeral doubts, though, I did enjoy the game and I do still think it's good, especially given the lower price, low complexity, and short playing time. I consider it $15 well-spent. But if you already own Tigris and Euphrates and are a major fan, this version doesn't bring a lot new to the table. On the other hand, if you find you would like something shorter, check it out; it does manage to capture a chunk of the good stuff in a smaller package.

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