At this point in playing through the Essen games I had actually become rather demoralized. Not for lack of good games; in fact, I think 2005 has been an excellent year, and we've had quite a few really outstanding medium-weight games (Beowulf especially, but also Tower of Babel, Elasund, Hacienda, Palazzo, and Louis XIV). For the first time in a while, I am enthused about enough new games that I am no longer feeling obliged to say "since 2000".
No, what had demoralized me was the predictability. This blog has always been written with the knowledgeable gamer in mind. And what knowledgeable gamer worth his or her BoardGameGeek avatar really needs me to tell them that games from Kramer, Knizia, and Teuber, published by Hans im Gluck, Kosmos, and alea, are probably worth checking out? This combined with the grinding mediocrity (at best) of all the efforts from smaller-label companies that I played was disheartening.
OK, so Caylus is an exception; in the old days of print media, maybe I could have proudly come out with my scoop, pointing you to this small-press title that, along with a few warts, had at its core an interesting game; something that the hard-core gamer might be interested in checking out. But these days the poor thing was so relentlessly over-hyped before I even got my hands on a copy (and I played for the first time the same day it was released), I found myself in the position of having to actually say that it really wasn't as good as all that, even though by the relaxed standards of micro-press labels it was, on balance, a fairly nice game (if too long). Maybe Hans im Glück can pick it up and work the same magic they did on Keydom, a game to which Caylus seems quite similar in a number of ways, not the least of which is that it really could have used a good developer.
Still, setting aside Caylus, nothing – nothing – I had played from a non-major label or designer to this point called out for a second play, and all were utterly predictable in their often major and obvious deficiencies. Because I'm a generous guy I'll try Third World Debt and Siena again perhaps – if I can talk anyone into it, and I don't think I'll find any takers from amongst the people who played the first time – but more as the triumph of hope over experience. Some of the new games didn't even merit a single play after reading through the rules.
All of which is a long way of saying that I'm glad that I saved Havoc for last.
Havoc is a small-box card game from Sunriver Games, a new startup involving a few folks from the Gathering of Engineers. It is a game of drafting and poker hands.
The basic idea is that you get points from various battles from the Hundred Years War, which are played out in order. The battles usually have points for placing first, second, and third place, although there tend to be high-stakes battles with steep fall-offs and lower-stakes battles with a more even distribution. Between battles, everyone drafts cards for their hands in tried and true Alan R. Moon style, either from a few available openly on offer or blind from the deck. When a player has had enough, he calls "Havoc!" on his turn instead of drafting, and a battle is fought.
This is done by playing cards one at a time from your hand into a bid, much as you would in Taj Mahal or Beowulf (or exactly like Mermaid Rain, for those who have played that slightly obscure game). The bid is then evaluated as a poker hand, going up to 6 cards. The card deck is 6 suits, so you can have some additional combinations (5 of a kind, big houses, etc.). You then distribute the points to the people with the strongest hands.
There is a little bit more chrome; there are some Dogs (of War) cards, which are very limited wilds, and a timing mechanism to prevent things from getting out of hand with too much drafting. The chrome is actually slightly awkward without adding a huge amount gameplay-wise, but it's not too bad, and it adds a bit of flavor.
If I had to pick out some minor issues here, I'd pick on a couple things. First is the rules, which are not always very clear, and we had a lot of trouble picking up the game cold, when nobody had played before or read the rules (in retrospect, the example of play is helpful). Second is the play length, which is similar to Beowulf but with a fraction of the depth of that game. Sure, we can't all be Knizia, but I think Havoc probably goes on a bit past its expiration date – but again, it's really not too bad. Lastly is the confusing proliferation of poker hands. With 6 cards, there are tons of different hands, and the ranking is not always intuitive. Not everyone has a working familiarity with poker rankings, and given that you are drafting rather than drawing blind, some hands (particularly straights) are losers. Some pruning here might have been helpful, or keeping the number of cards played to the traditional 5.
Still, these issues are comparatively minor. The bottom line was that I liked Havoc. Once you nail down the rules, it plays quickly and pretty cleanly. I like the bidding; there is a certain amount of bluffing you can do, although it's in the margins generally; Havoc is not really a bluffing or probabilities game the way poker is. It's what I think of as an "efficiency" game, a game where you are trying to get the most mileage out of your cards; you ideally want to spend them all by the end of the game, winning a lot of auctions by a little and losing a few auctions by a lot, and as such is a stripped-down cousin to Beowulf or Taj Mahal (or Blue Moon). I like this class of games quite a bit because you're always thinking, making a lot of judgement calls and evaluations, but not a lot of direct calculation. This I think leads to a fairly engaging game.
Unfortunately, I can't talk about Havoc without mentioning its cost. Havoc is only available as an "exclusive" through FunAgain games. Since FunAgain has long since stopped being competitive with other online vendors on price, this means if you want to get Havoc, you're going to pay about $26 (shipping on a game this small is a killer; but shifting an order from Fairplay, Boards & Bits, or Boulder to FunAgain in order to buy Havoc will be even more painful). I was pleased enough to think about buying a copy for myself after I had played, but I balked at the price. If Havoc were $15 I think it would be an easy sell; at that price this is the sort of game I'd be happy to pick up at my local retailer or throw in to another order online. Maybe I'd give them another $5 to support a startup. But at $25-ish, it's really tough (for reference Beowulf is $26 from Boards & Bits). It was a close call in the end, but given the competition this year, I didn't end up buying Havoc. But I did enjoy playing it.
Moving along ... Ark is the new Doris & Frank small-box game. It's basically a tile-laying game disguised as a card game. You're trying to get animals onto Noah's Ark, but you need to arrange them so they all are going to be in the proper climate-controlled rooms, won't eat each other, won't unbalance the Ark (as the Brontosaurus is wont to do), etc. The nice thing is that the animals you acquire are a mixed bag of blind draws and drafting, so you can exercise some control there. You get the usual charming artwork from Doris, always a plus. And the playing time is quite reasonable.
The downside is the minor horde of fiddly rules that you have to track: placement rules like the fact that carnivores can't share space with herbivores unless the herbivores are larger, or that shy animals can't be next to carnivores; and the half-dozen special power associated with a few cards. These are not terribly burdensome, and they all do make sense, and they are much more of a pain to explain than to play.
I didn't love Ark, but I definitely did like it, and would play again. It's short, and although the list price of $20 might be steep, if you get it online it's under $15, which seems about right.
When I first wrote about the Tigris & Euphrates Card Game, I said I liked it but had some nagging doubts. At that time I had played it mostly with 3. Having now played half-a-dozen more times, mostly with 4, my doubts have been largely settled. For me, anyway, the 4-player game feels right. It's got more competition, the game seems to move along better, and the pacing feels more natural to me. All a little wishy-washy, perhaps, but there you go. 10 games in, I like it, and my opinion has stabilized at the "definite keeper" level. Not quite on the same level as the boardgame, but that's a high bar, and this version is shorter.
So, there you go. This will, I think, wrap up the intensive coverage of the Essen games. There are still a few more to play (Celtic Quest and Wings of War: Burning Drachens, just to pick two), and there will be updates on some of the meatier games as I come to terms with them. There was significant frustration, and of course there are many games I didn't, and most likely won't, play (Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame), but on the whole I have to say it was a good year.