Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Nürnburg Roundup, plus Railroad Tycoon

Blue Moon City: I've played this about a half-a-dozen times now, and think that it's a really interesting game. Like Beowulf, it was good for an immediate second, then third play. For my wargaming readers, when explaining the rules to Blue Moon City, any Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage fans in the audience will get a chuckle: the game is driven by a deck of cards, valued 1-3, most of which present a choice between using its value for influence (well, technically assisting in the construction of a building) and using its special power. The management of these cards is the heart of the game.

Like most of Knizia's recent games, Blue Moon City eludes easy classification into a familiar genre (auction, area-control, tile-laying, etc). But for the sake of the argument, we'll call it an area-control game, not unlike the Blue Moon card game. Each building has 1-4 bricks that need to be built in a color matching one of the 7 suits in the game, and rewards. Once all the bricks in an area are built, it pays off for eveyone who built something there, with the player who built the most bricks getting an added bonus as well. The clever thing is that once a building is built, it flips over, and then adds a bonus to the baseline payouts for all adjacent buildings. This makes for the first unusual thing about Blue Moon City, that as rewards escalate, the bonus for being in "first place" in an area become minor (although not trivial) compared to just having contributed.

As interesting as that is, though, the real game here is in card management. With 7 different colored buildings, 8 suits (including one wild suit), 7 different types of special powers, and a wide range of payouts for building buildings, no two hands of cards or tactical situations are the same. And when I say this, this is not just a garden-variety "every game is unique blah blah blah", this is a huge range of very different possibilities that presents a wide variety of problems and solutions. You have to look at your hand, figure out your options, and come up with a plan, not just for this turn, but probably for the next couple as well, and maybe even going forward after that. The mix of suits and powers on the cards feel richly enabling, rather than being restrictive (like the dice in War of the Ring can often seem). I think fans of We the People or Hannibal will find a warm place in their hearts for Blue Moon City, if they can live with the comparative lightness and lack of violence.

Knizia may not be doing as many true "gamer's games" as he has in the past, with seriously heavy stuff like Amun-Re and Taj Mahal becoming somewhat less common (although in fairness, he never made a huge number of them). But still, I think Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf represent some of the best work he's ever done, simple and playable yet with depth, shorter but challenging, systems that are wonderfully clean with no pointy bits and yet remain thematic, well-balanced and perfectly-executed, beautifully produced, with a blend of strategic and tactical skills, and with excellent fun factors. They are perfect blends, providing something for everyone, and to me absolutely represent what good, serious but social games should be.

As an aside, I actually find Blue Moon City to be thematically quite similar to Blue Moon. Both games present you with a hand of cards, most of which have special powers. Both combine work-a-day problems (how do I accomplish some simple task?) with the sometimes extraordinary possibilities of sometimes-complicated card combinations. Both are highly tactical. Both involve guessing your opponent's intents at some level. Both heavily emphasize good timing. In Blue Moon City, many of the card suits have special powers that mimic the flavor of their decks in Blue Moon (the Mimix are good in pairs, the Khind – wilds in Blue Moon City – are weak individually but very valuable in bunches, the Flit allow you to fly around rapidly, the Hoax are highly flexible). No question that Blue Moon and Blue Moon City are rather different games when you get down to brass tacks, but I find the flavor of the two comfortingly familiar.

Great Wall of China: This is a new small-box Knizia game from Kosmos and, sometime maybe, Fantasy Flight Games. Players are likely to notice immediate similarities between Great Wall of China and the classic Samurai: each player has their own, identical deck cards of values 1-3 with a few specials; these cards provide influence in one of a few (2-4) active competitions to win victory points; and there is even a Cavalry card that works the same as the Cavalry in Samurai (a free play in addition to your regular play). Great Wall of China's cards can be played as matched sets if desired, but that doesn't seem like a huge difference superficially.

But the games play totally differently. Samurai is all about being oblique, about setting yourself up while not setting up your opponents, trying to not over-commit early while still being there the lastest with the mostest. Great Wall of China is about direct, head-on, brutal competition and in some ways is a game of chicken. You score before you play, and there are no limits on how many cards can ultimately be played in an individual competition, so there are no sudden swoops to lock up points – you have to play your cards and hope they are strong enough to hold up until your next turn. If you're going for a high-point competition, you need to get enough strength down to deter anyone else from competing with you, otherwise you can get into a spiral of tit-for-tat which will bleed both players dry. This is not a game for anyone who doesn't understand the sunk costs fallacy. Unfortunately, playing strength (usually by playing more than one card in a turn) fatally undermines your ability to compete later in the game, as the card replenishment rate is only 1 per turn regardless of how many cards you played, so your hand size shrinks and your options become limited.

Another detail here is that the competitions have a For Sale like pain to them, as the rewards for first and second place in each are picked randomly from a pile of chits valued 1-8. So sometimes you get an 8-7 competition, which isn't too painful – both first and second come out quite well. Then you sometimes get an 8-1 split, which is brutal and likely to see severe pain for someone.

I've played Great Wall of China a number of times now, and I really like it. It's a simple, short, clever game with all the usual Knizia features – tough decisions, interesting trade-offs, judging the tendancies of your fellow-players, and tensions that are sometimes painful. But it achieves all this without being gratuitously complicated, analytical, or tactical, and so offers little deterrent to the less hard-core or casual gamer.

Some of the folks I've played it with have not enjoyed it quite as much as me, though, and I think that's because of the whole sunk costs thing. It's really easy to get into a slugging match in a big competition where neither player is willing to back down, and both put down ten or more cards. Someone is going to eventually walk away with the points here while someone else is frustrated. To me, the sense that every conflict is a potential quagmire is part of the charm of the game (one fellow-player suggested this game should be re-themed as "The Iraq War: The Card Game"), and the game is short. Like the best Knizia games, Great Wall of China can be psychologically challenging. I like it. But some won't.

Um Krone und Kragen: This is Yahtzee with special powers.

Still there?

Each turn you get dice. Start with three of them. Throw them. With each throw, you must reserve one or more dice. Repeat until you can't throw again. Then claim one of the rewards on offer, based on your roll (X of a kind, straights, full houses, large sums, etc). These rewards then allow you to manipulate subsequent rolls in future turns in various ways: roll more dice, change dice, move pips amongst them, etc. Some roles are plentiful (the Farmer, who requires a pair and gives you an extra die), while some are scarce (the Astronomer, who allows you to change a die to anything you want). First person to get a seven of a kind triggers the endgame, with each player using the powers they've accumulated to that point to try to get the best roll.

I would normally try to offer you some bit of analysis here, but I imagine the above description should tell you whether you'll like it or not. I'll just offer a couple tidbits. #1: Yahtzee is underrated (this is not saying a lot, given the contempt it is widely held in by hobby gamers, but there is definitely a somewhat interesting game there, albeit perhaps not a highly replayable one). #2: I know you'll have trouble believing this, but there is a fair amount of luck in Um Krone und Kragen. Second game I played, I played terribly, making poor choices throughout the game and getting a mediocre range of powers. In the endgame, though, my dice all of a sudden got outrageously hot, and I racked up 8 5's to win over my much more competant fellow-players. Don't play this game if that sort of result is going to bug you. If you found the luck of the risks in Beowulf unduly frustrating, for example. But you hardly need me to tell you that.

My only real criticism of Um Krone und Kragen is the downtime. With all the rolling, re-rolling, and parsing out the large numbers of rewards available, it can be a while between turns, especially with larger numbers of players, and there is absolutely nothing to do while you're waiting except to kibbitz (Can't Stop's legendary taunting dynamic isn't really present here, which is a notable loss). Also, there is an odd start-player rotation rule, which has play going clockwise but the start-player rotating counter-clockwise, resulting in double-turns and sligtly greater gaps. I assume this was an attempt to compensate for the first-player advantage, but it's awkward, and given the luck in the game I'm not sure it's worth it. The downtime with 4 was manageable, but just, and it discouraged me from trying the game with 5 (the max). The first couple games will see more downtime as players wrestle with the available rewards, but will also be more amenable to kibbitzing as players help each other work out the options.

At the end of the day, I found the process of playing Um Krone und Kragen to be pretty fun and so the downtime didn't bother me unduly. It's not a game you can take too seriously, but for a dice game, there are a lot of intesting choices, and the dice feed those choices, making the randomess serve a useful game purpose. The tactics of the interacting powers and when to use them are far from trivial – you are likely to make a lot of mistakes and overlook opportunities your first couple games. You have to balance what powers you'd like to try to acquire with what the dice are telling you to go for. And the game is deceptively short, only 45 minutes or so even for early plays. I think there is enough fun factor in playing Um Krone und Kragen, and enough feeling of control, to make the occasional upset due to outrageous bad or good luck palatable.

There is a category of games that I feel are popular in large part due to their comfort level, their underlying familiarity, their similarity in feel to classic games with which we are all familiar, even if that similarity is somewhat remote. This includes games like Ticket to Ride (Rummy) and Carcassonne (Dominoes or puzzles). Um Krone und Kragen certainly has the potential to do something similar for category dice games (admittedly a smaller slice of people). It's somewhat more complicated than Ticket or Carcassonne I think due to the array of powers and roll categories, but it has that same underlying familiarity, with a tactical richness that will appeal to hobbyists. And rolling dice is fun.

Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame: I've played this a couple more times since I last blogged about it, and as a game it's gone over pretty well with my friends – much better than Age of Steam did. It seems to retain most of the interesting bits while getting rid of the gratuitously punishing elements.

It's still a game that is frustratingly lacking in the finishing touches, though, and while there is good stuff in there, the overall feel is still amateurish. The Tycoon cards are a mess, and I've come to strongly agree with the readers who have complained about them. One game I played was three-player, and the three player version seems bizzarely truncated with its much-reduced number of cubes in play at start. The map is so huge, but most of it remains unused as non-viable for development even in large games. And the pace of the Operations cards is odd, with a huge slug of head-spinning options at start that are replenished at a trickle, a trickle that is independant of the number of players, and leaves that element of the game atrophied by the end. Plus, to be honest, most of the Operations cards are boring and could have been deleted. There are many that are either small variations on existing actions you can already take by default (there are two cards that directly parallel Urbanization) or just variations on a cash handout (the Government Land Grants that gives you free track). And don't even get me started on the Railroad Executive card. The number of interesting cards – cards that reward you for developing longer routes or making specific deliveries, cards that allow the game to develop in interesting and different ways – is fairly small.

Close, but at the end of the day, it's a classic modern American-style game: nice idea, spotty and incomplete execution.

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