Monday, April 24, 2006

Australia, Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion, McMulti, Big City

Australia: Despite what you may have heard from some quarters, I generally like games. Even weak games like Conquest of the Empire II, or games that don't personally appeal to me like Caylus, can provide some entertainment value for one game at least as I try to win, work out the systems, and try to figure out where it went wrong or what it's missing for me. Granted, I absolutely wouldn't play Conquest again, but once through, the process of playing it wasn't too bad.

Playing Australia, though, had me – for the first time in recent memory – absolutely bored me out of my mind. Not only did I not care about playing the game itself, I couldn't even be bothered to care why it was crashing and burning. I just wanted it to be over.

Part of this may just be that I've been taking a harder line against lower-quality games of late, so it was easier to think of what I could have been playing instead. But the main part is probably the dysfunctional theme. I rip on games from Colovini and Schacht for having tenuous or incidental themes – which they do, generally – but Australia goes way past this into having a theme which is positively tortured and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Lessons learned: a) add Australia to the list of "veto" games; b) the Ravensburger label is not targeted at people like me; c) it's time to reinforce that line again.

Doom: The Boardgame: The Expansion: I've had harsh things to say about Doom, in the main due to frustration with what might have been, given the fundamental underlying cleverness of the game. In light of this, I wanted to try the game with the new expansion.

All I have to say is: now we're talking. Finally! Most of the new stuff – the new monsters, equipment, map tiles, etc. – don't matter. The new "Deathmatch" and "Capture the Flag" methods of play hold no interest to me. What matters is that it looks like somebody actually spent some time thinking about the scenarios this time. No more 4-5 hour railroad jobs in which the marines are screwed and there is no ammo. We played an interesting scenario in about 2 hours which was closely run, with the marines pulling it out with only one "frag" left.

After playing through the new scenario, I went back to the book included in the original to review the scenarios there. Did anyone spend more than five minutes on those? It almost seems impossible that they had even been played before they were shipped, never mind playtested. Anyone with any experience with the game at all should have been able to look at them and tell you that they're going to take forever to play, there is way too little ammo, and as a result the marines are going to get slaughtered. Something went badly awry here in Fantasy Flight's process, and I'd be curious to know what it was.

Anyway, I still have some minor complaints about the game. The primary one is that the monster graphics on the reference cards and in the scenario book are too blurry and indistinct, especially once you're playing with the expansion. If you haven't played the computer game, or aren't that familiar with the boardgame, you're going to need to puzzle things out sometimes. The marine skill cards are much too variable, which as a result can screw up game balance, which is not good given the game's length. The "respawn" rules are hokey and can produce weird situations. And there is nothing in the system to prevent the invader from repeatedly pounding on a single marine, if there is someone with a particularly weak or strong skill card mix. But I still quite enjoyed playing Doom with the expansion, and look forward to playing again sometime. It actually got me curious about Descent: Journeys in the Dark. We'll see if that little bit of insanity passes.

McMulti: This is an old game which I play about once a year. It's rather clever and an obvious precursor to The Settlers of Catan, with dice rolls activating your production facilities to drill for oil, turn it into gasoline, and sell it to consumers and their gas-guzzling SUVs. It's a game I've always enjoyed, albeit in moderation. It is, after all, not very interactive – there is no trading, and very little competition. And it can run long. The fun comes in building your little oil-producing island empire and coping with the turns in the economy (which are very well-done) and random events, rather than competing directly with your fellow-players.

I think McMulti has been hurt for me personally by the fact that Settlers has now been out of primary circulation for a while amongst my friends. When Settlers was current, McMulti was a nice change of pace. With Settlers now being played rather infrequently, I just found myself thinking "you know, I'd rather be playing Settlers". Settlers is shorter, more elegant, faster-moving, and more fun, while retaining a lot of the same production management elements. The two aren't directly comparable games, but for me the elegance, pace, theme, and chaos of Settlers trumps the planning, math, theme, and chaos of McMulti. For the things that McMulti does better than Settlers, I think I'd rather play Schoko & Co.

None of which is to say that McMulti is a bad game. Far from it. Especially for its time. Even though I lowered my rating a touch, I still think it's a nice second-tier, "good in the right spot"-type game. It's just that the competition these days is so much tougher than it was 7-10 years ago.

Big City: This has been sitting on my shelf for ages, and it had been hovering in the back of my mind of late. I think it's been at least 5 years since I played, but I have fond memories of the game. So when Matt suggested it as a good three-player game, I jumped.

A sometimes-complaint back when the game was new was that the City Hall presented a problem. Playing it earned you no money, but substantially increased the values of surrounding plots of land, some of which probably belonged to other people. But, playing the City Hall was required in order to open up the game with more neighborhoods, streetcars, and special buildings.

So I decided that I was going to test this theory (even though I never quite believed it myself). I gathered up a few plots in one neighborhood, plopped down the city hall, followed by a business and a shopping mall, then cruised to victory. Now, I still think you could, in theory, see situations where nobody is going to want to play the City Hall, which might lead to a very truncated and unsatisfying game. But I think that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the game works quite well. Certainly with smaller numbers of players (2 or 3), there is nothing to worry about.

Big City is mainly a light, fun, thematic game in which you get to build a cool-looking city. There is a fair amount of luck, and any plans you might have are routinely thwarted by the Parks, Factories, and your opponents re-routing the streetcar. That said, however, you can plan, and the right mixture of looking ahead and opportunism is the route to success. You want to put yourself in a position to take advantage of opportunities. But you also want to be lucky. And for me, Big City finds a good mix of all these factors combined with a sensibly short playing time.

Theme can make or breaks a game like this, and Big City has very good theme. Certain plots of land are desirable for certain uses, and while it's not a simulation, you still find yourselves developing business districts, looking for ways to route the streetcar nearer to your properties, and looking out for undervalued real estate. And the wonderful plastic buildings certainly don't hurt.

I really enjoyed playing Big City again, and it'll easily keep its spot in my collection, even if I don't manage to play it again for another 5 years.

Final notes on Big City: definitely play with the original German rules, which are the "no branching streetcar lines" variant in the Rio Grande edition. I'd also suggest that 3 is probably the optimal number, and I don't think I'd play with 5. It would probably also be quite nice with 2.

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